Film Review: Saving Christmas—Defending a Secular Christmas from Kirk Cameron

This year was “The Year of Christian Film,” with at least seven big-name Christian themed movies: Son of God, God’s Not Dead, Noah, Heaven is for Real, Left Behind, Mary, and Exodus. (If you like, here’s my response/reviews of God’s Not Dead and Heaven Is For Real.) Andrew Romano of The Daily Beast argued that this explosion of Christian films is largely market driven, given the success of last year’s ten-hour miniseries The Bible (its premiere had 13.8 million viewers, the finale beat The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones¸ and the DVD was the fastest-selling of the last five years). It should come as no surprise, then, that child star-turned-evangelical frontman Kirk Cameron, with funding from the conservative Liberty University, has his own Christian movie this year called Saving Christmas.” (Cameron stars in it and is the executive producer.) With a tag line like “Put Christ Back in Christmas,” I really didn’t want to go see it but felt I had to.

You see, I’m putting the final touches on my own Christmas project right now—a book titled The Myths that Stole Christmas: Seven Misconceptions that Hijacked the Holiday (and How We Can Take It Back). It’s due out next year from Humanist Press. (And you can even pre-order it here, if you like.) The first myth is “Jesus is the reason for the season,” and the second is “There is a war on Christmas.” So I had to go see what Cameron was up to. Maybe it would demand some kind of response.

But what I got for my trouble (the nearest theater showing the film was an hour and a half away) was one of the most unusual—and worst—movie experiences of my life. I’ve already given a thorough rundown of why the movie was so awful—cinematically, theologically, historically, and philosophical—in my Psychology Today blog. But now I want to concentrate on what was so unusual about Cameron’s movie.

When you hear phrases like “Keep Christ in Christmas,” you probably think of pastors telling their congregations to “Remember Jesus this season” or “Make Christ the focus of your celebrations.” Liberals might suggest less spending on presents this year, and more on charity to the needy; they might even suggest giving up Christmas spending altogether. Conservatives might lament phrases like “Happy Holidays” and “Season’s Greetings,” regurgitate false Fox News conspiracy theories about public schools changing the lyrics to “Silent Night,” or spin horror stories about nativities being taking off courthouse laws.

But apparently the complaints that Cameron hears most come from Saturday Night Live’s Church Lady—who long ago complained that Santa was stealing “the focus from the baby Jesus on his birthday.” (And who could be helping him do this? Could it be…SATAN?! Just rearrange the letters!) Indeed, the Scrooge of Cameron’s film—a character cleverly named Christian—complains about Santa Claus kicking Jesus out of Christmas, and suggests that Christians should avoid secular Christmas symbols altogether (like Christmas trees) because they came from Druids, or the Norse—or some other vague Pagan source—and are not in the Bible. Christian hates Christmas and refuses to celebrate because of what it’s become.

Now, if the aim of Saving Christmas was simply to argue that it’s okay for Christians to put up a Christmas tree or visit Santa, I could get behind that. While the film’s yuletide history is way off—Druids didn’t invent the Christmas tree and the origins of Santa stretch back long before Christmas, or Jesus for that matter—it’s true that most Christmas traditions do have secular origins. But that doesn’t mean they are anti-Christian. After all, cell phones are secular, and not mentioned in the Bible, but Christians don’t have any problems using those. Even if something is originally a pagan tradition—such as hanging mistletoe—it’s not like you are invoking evil spirits by putting some in your archway. Like words, traditions get their modern meaning from modern common usage, not their origin story.

But that’s not Cameron’s aim. Instead his character (also named Kirk) argues that Christians not only can include all the “objectionable secular” elements of the holiday, they are obligated to because, in fact, they aren’t secular at all. “Every inch of Christmas is about Jesus,” he declares. “That’s our tree! Those are our lights!” And he’s not just reinterpreting these traditions; he’s claiming that, historically, they all sprang from Christianity. So not only are non-Christians not allowed to celebrate Christmas, but if Christians don’t celebrate like Cameron’s family does in the film—by pulling out all the stops, buying all they can afford, and celebrating every element—then they are not doing it right. They’re not pleasing God. They’re the jerks who’ve been drinking the pagan “Kool-Aid” and ruining Christmas for everyone.

Cameron attempts to claim all of Christmas for Jesus with labored, roundabout, symbolic non-connections. We have Christmas trees because God created trees and made them bear fruit. Glorifying Santa glorifies Jesus because he’s really St. Nicholas. (Actually, he’s not. That’s Myth #5.) And Christians should be materialistic during the holiday because Christmas is when Jesus became…wait for it…material. That’s right, folks—buying a $500 Xbox for your son honors Jesus because Kirk Cameron can equivocate on the word “material.” The movie basically consists of Kirk making these points, and his brother-in-law Christian saying, “I’m so stupid! How did I not see that?”

In my book I raise serious objections to the notion that non-Christians can’t celebrate Christmas. Just because “Christ” is in the name doesn’t make it about Christ—any more than Sunday worship services venerate the sun. Holiday celebrations weren’t even called Christmas until the 11th century, and Christmas celebrations have always been primarily secular. From the start—long before Jesus—they were traditions of feasting, drinking, sex, and social inversion (e.g., the rich feeding the poor). And they remained that way all the way through the middle ages.

The Church did try to Christianize these celebrations by declaring Dec 25th to be Jesus’s birthday, and (as Pope Gregory I put it in 601) “adapting [such celebrations] to the rites of the Church, only changing the reason of them from a heathen to a Christian impulse.”  But it never worked. Their efforts failed so miserably that puritans banned Christmas altogether in the 1600s. And when Christmas revived, it did so as a secular—and eventually domestic—affair. Once Christmas was popular again Christians renewed their efforts to Christianize it—“Jesus is the reason for the season,” and all that—but, again, it never worked. The most popular Christmas songs, movies, and traditions are all still secular. As Christmas historian Steven Nissenbaum put it, “Christmas has always been an extremely difficult holiday to Christianize.”

Christmas used to serve many useful social functions. It smoothed tension between social classes, it helped folks prepare for the long hard winter, and it helped turn the literally darkest days into the “hap-happiest season of all.” But today it’s a point of conflict that makes us anxious, stressed, fat, and poor. Christmas owns us. We do what it expects, when it expects it. We buy what, when, and how much we are told. We even lie to our children and justify it in the name of Christmas joy. And we feel like we can’t do anything about it because Christmas can’t change. Well, that’s Myth #7; in reality, it has changed, and it likely will continue to change. The only question is—will we take control and make it change for the better?

So, whether you are a Christian, a humanist, or something else entirely, don’t listen to Kirk Cameron. If you want to celebrate Christmas, celebrate how you want. Christmas doesn’t belong to him—it doesn’t even belong to Christians. It belongs to us all, so we should just all make it what we need it to be.