In recent years, I’ve noticed a strange trend in “Christian contemporary”-style Christmas music: they ramp up the emotions up to 1000%. All the originals jump very quickly to our profound gratitude for Christ’s sacrifice, while the classics are belted out with such intensity that one suspects that Harold the Angel personally came down from heaven and cured both the singer’s parents of cancer. Seldom has one observed such a passionate desire that God maintain a group of gentlemen in a state of merriness.
The message here is clear: we, the evangelical true believers, have access to the “true meaning of Christmas,” the much-invoked “reason for the season,” and we really, really, really believe in it in a way you non-believers just can never grasp.
This trend fits strangely with the annual “War on Christmas” rhetoric, however. By insisting that everyone make some token gesture of acknowledgement toward Christmas, aren’t the pro-Christmas insurgents pushing an agenda whose logical endpoint is the very secularization of Christmas they elsewhere deplore? After all, if Christmas is to be the hegemonic winter holiday, isn’t it natural for non-Christians to attempt to find some kind of point of contact that’s meaningful for them? Hence the “secular” carols invoking the fun decorations or the weird legend of Santa Claus or even — as seen in the great Jewish Christmas carols of the mid-century — the bare fact that it’s cold and snowy out.
Asking what all of that is supposed to have to do with Jesus is missing the point — you can’t have a holiday that’s simultaneously “all about Jesus” and a meaningful celebration for a broad range of people in a pluralistic society. One could say that the evangelicals don’t want to live in a pluralistic society, but I don’t think that’s quite right, either: part of the very structure of the movement is its drive to convert, even if it mostly winds up “converting” inactive members of other Christian groups. It needs the indifferent almost as much as it needs the imagined outside opposition.
The surface-level conflict between the drive toward making Christmas a simultaneously more partisan and more universal holiday disappears once you stop viewing it as a policy agenda and start viewing it as a representation of the sense of wounded superiority that serves as a motor for the entire evangelical movement.