Last week, as I aimlessly scrolled past cute animal videos and ads for meal-planning kits insisting that all my friends were awful cooks who needed a subscription gifted to them, I caught myself wondering what I should get my best friend for Christmas. This was of note because I don’t have a Christian background, and I have never celebrated Christmas. I grew up in India, where Christmas celebrations were limited to watching awkward fifth-graders act out the birth of Jesus Christ once a year. No presents, no Christmas trees, no Santa Claus. And less than five years of living in the United States part-time had embedded Christmas into my subconscious.
It’s no surprise. Christmas is inescapable. If you’re in your car, good luck finding a radio station that isn’t playing Christmas songs. Back when network TV was a thing, every show would be putting out a heartwarming Christmas episode. Now, every streaming service has “original” Christmas movies. Grocery stores have their Christmas displays out, in-your-face aisles of cookies or candy canes or greeting cards or wrapping paper, trimmed in red and green. Malls have gigantic Christmas trees and polyester Santas for children to marvel at, with Mariah Carey on repeat in the background. Stores swap out their regular packaging for red-and-green, or perhaps a classier looking, faux-cursive attempt at being non-religious, a “𝓢𝓮𝓪𝓼𝓸𝓷’𝓼 𝓖𝓻𝓮𝓮𝓽𝓲𝓷𝓰𝓼” or “𝓗𝓪𝓹𝓹𝔂 𝓗𝓸𝓵𝓲𝓭𝓪𝔂𝓼.” And even if you stay at home, there’s no escaping the endless promotional flyers, emails, and push notifications from apps that you’d forgotten you’d ever installed.
And this happens all December long.
Maybe if that was all that Christmas was about–wholesome, American-as-apple-pie consumerism–my sudden desire to buy a Christmas gift wouldn’t be so upsetting. But Christmas is (surprise, surprise!) a Christian holiday.
Christmas celebrates Jesus’s birth. The word ‘Christ’ is in the name. The insistence on calling Christmas an ‘American’ or ‘secular’ holiday only reveals the depth of the Christian influence on Western culture. There is no part of Christmas that can be considered ‘secular.’
Take Christmas trees, the poster child for a non-religious Christmas. After all, Christmas trees aren’t in the Bible –in fact, they probably originated as a pagan tradition–surely nothing could be less Christian? And yet, the traditional tree-toppers are either a star or an angel, chosen for their importance in the story of the birth of Christ.
Santa Claus is also often considered a secular, winter-themed character, but he evolved out of Saint Nicholas, a 4th-century bishop. The Salvation Army–which, in 2010, let a trans woman freeze to death rather than allow her into a women’s shelter–famously uses Santa Claus to encourage people to donate. Although they deny allegations of discrimination, in 2012, a spokesperson said that the organization sees same-sex relationships as “against the will of God”. It might not be the first association most people have with Santa Claus (even if it is mine), but an organization that’s religious to that extreme isn’t using Santa costumes just because Mickey Mouse is copyrighted. Santa Claus is a Christian figure, even if he isn’t in the Bible.
There’s no way to untangle the modern versions of him (or his sleigh, or Rudolph) from the Christian holiday he’s been woven into.
You know, Christmas does sound fun! Decorating a tree together, the thrill of wrapping presents–I’ll forever be grateful that I didn’t have to buy my huge extended family gifts as a broke college student, but I can really see the appeal. The mega-sizing of the holiday has a lot to do with corporations pressing their advantage to make more money (did you know the first national Christmas tree lighting was a publicity stunt pushed by the electricity lobby?). Of course, your celebration of Christmas, if you do celebrate it, is only as religious as you make it. But frankly? It’s insulting to see people try to pretend like it has nothing to do with religion.
“Season’s Greetings” isn’t secular. We never hand out greetings in the fall, and let’s be real: if there’s a season that deserves a greeting card and a whole month celebrating its arrival, it’s spring. When people say, “the holiday season” or “the spirit of the holidays,” what I really hear is, “Christmas month! Oh, and I think Hanukkah happens around now, so we can lump that in, too.” But there are few blue-and-white storefront displays for Hanukkah. No lights are going up in malls for Diwali. There are no paper-moon laced displays of fruits and nuts in stores for the month of Ramadan (a celebration that actually does last a month). Give me one, non-Christmas reason why December is the ‘season of giving.’
Hastily scribbling out the word ‘Christmas’ with the metaphorical sharpie doesn’t make the actual event any less connected to Christianity. Those attempts at inclusion are well-meaning but still shallow. It doesn’t matter how much of a makeover you give it–it’s still Christmas, and it’s still religious. The assumption that Americans universally celebrate it needs to stop.
This isn’t about attacking people who celebrate Christmas. It’s just a reminder that there are plenty of us who don’t, and we’re trapped in a month-long, peppermint-scented barrage of it anyway. With the inescapability of Christmas, there’s a good reason some of us are saying “bah, humbug”.