My 2013 Piece on Christmas at the *Pacific Standard*

Another magazine has bit the dust.  Read Lloyd Grove’s piece at The Daily Beast on the end of the Pacific Standard.

I wrote a piece for the Standard website back in December 2013.  I don’t know if it will disappear or not, so I am re-posting it here.  Here is “Was There a Golden Age of Christmas in America?“:

The so-called “War on Christmas” has reared its ugly head again. Conservative Christians—most of them evangelicals—have hit the airwaves and lecture circuits to warn their followers about the supposed threat to the only event on the Christian calendar to have the status of a federal holiday.

Former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin visited Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, recently to promote her new book and alert undergraduates and other assorted culture warriors to the way “revisionists” are trying to turn December into a “winter solstice season.” She told her audience that “protecting the heart of Christmas” (the subtitle of her book) is “really about protecting the heart of America.”

Leave it to Palin to use this most sacred of Christian celebrations for political purposes by comparing its “message of hope and change” to the “stuff you hear coming out of Washington.” At the heart of Palin’s defense of Christmas is an understanding that the United States was founded as, and continues to be, a Christian nation. In her talk to Liberty students she connected the “War on Christmas” to a much larger assault on the country’s Judeo-Christian heritage as embedded in our history and founding documents, concluding that Christianity has made America an “exceptional” nation.

According to Palin and her fellow soldiers in the fight, if stores start replacing “Merry Christmas” with “Happy Holidays,” if schools will not let children sing Christmas carols with strong Christian themes, or if city hall is not permitted to display a manger scene, then America’s Christian civilization is eroding. Those who complain about the “War on Christmas” want us to return to a golden age when Christmas was a more important part of American culture.

Did such a golden age of Christmas ever exist in America? Yes. But if the Christmas culture warriors took an honest look at the history of this holiday in America they may not like what they find.

From the perspective of Christian theology, Christmas is about the Incarnation. It is the story of God revealing himself to humankind in the form of a baby. As the Gospel of John describes it, “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” But in America, the sacred meaning of Christmas has always existed in tension with the profane.

For those who carried English holiday traditions to North America, Christmas was an important day on the church calendar, but the celebration of the birth of the Christ child always took a backseat to week-long festivities characterized by feasting, shooting guns, playing rough music, drinking to excess, disorderly public activity, and all kinds of raucous behavior. Indeed, this was the golden age of Christmas in early America.

And what did the Puritans, those godly Christians who arrived to New England in the early 17th century to establish what their first governor John Winthrop described as a “city upon a hill,” think about Christmas? Certainly in towns like Boston and Plymouth, the places where defenders of American exceptionalism turn today to find the roots of a “Christian America,” Christmas was revered and respected as a sacred day, a fundamental part of the Christian civilization that these settlers were trying to build?

Not really.

The Puritans of New England frowned upon the celebration of Christmas and outlawed it for more than half a century. They believed it was necessary, as Christians pursuing pious living, to separate themselves from the sinful behavior associated with the way the holiday was celebrated in jolly old England. And since few of these Christian American forefathers had anything good to say about materialism or commercialism, it is likely they would have similar feelings about the way we celebrate Christmas today.

In the mid-17th century the governors of Massachusetts would have probably banned Palin from the colony because she insisted on defending Christmas. After being banned, there is a possibility that Palin would end up in Rhode Island, a colony that had complete religious freedom and where it would have been anathema to consider making any December religious celebration an official or unofficial holiday.

There is an important history lesson in all of this. When we try to use history to score political points in the present we end up picking the things in the past that suit our needs and ignoring the rest. This is bad history.

The history of Puritan New England works just fine for us if we want to show that parts of early America were founded by Christians with Christian motivations for settlement. Ronald Reagan loved to compare America to a “city upon a hill.” Christian nationalists turn to the Pilgrims to teach their children about the nation’s “Godly heritage.” But the history of Puritan New England does not help us at all if we want to win the “War on Christmas.”

Of course, we are free to think anything we want about how our culture should or should not acknowledge Christmas. But let’s be careful when we use history to make our points.

James K.A. Smith: “Christmas IS Political”

merry-christmas-donald-trump-men-s-premium-t-shirtIn his piece at The Washington Post following Donald Trump’s Values Voter Summit announcement that “we will be saying Merry Christmas again,” philosopher James K.A. Smith reminds us what it really means to think politically about Christmas.

Here is a taste:

The biblical account of the birth of Jesus Christ is drenched in political significance. His genealogy in the Gospel of Matthew makes Him royalty, the heir of King David. The titles Savior and Messiah, which we imagine are merely religious, carry political connotations of deliverance and liberation. When his mother hymns her Magnificat, she praises a Savior who “has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble.” (Luke 1:51-52).

None of this was lost on Herod, ruler of Judea at the time of Jesus’ birth. Herod the Great — Herod the infrastructure king, the tyrant who was the biggest, best, greatest ruler — knew that Christmas meant a rival was in town. When he caught wind that people were paying homage to a “king of the Jews,” he summoned priests and teachers for intel. They reminded him that the prophet Micah had promised that a ruler would emerge from Bethlehem. So Herod unleashed the heinous solution we know as the slaughter of the innocents, which was (he thought) a surefire way to eliminate any pretenders to his throne.

So yes, Christmas is political.

Read the rest here.

Southern Baptists Are Not Happy About the New Starbucks’ Holiday Cups

A lot of Christians on my social media sites are asking if anyone out there is actually opposed to the new Starbucks cups.  I initially thought that the Starbucks critique came from one guy–an evangelist named Josh Feuerstein

But I was wrong.  
Richard Land, the president of Southern Evangelical Seminary and the former president of The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, has joined the cause.
I am curious to see what Russell Moore, Land’s successor as the president of The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, has to say about this.  How many Southern Baptists does Land represent?  If what I have read about Moore is any indication, I would think he would rise above this petty issue and keep the Southern Baptist Convention focused on more important things related to its mission. But will he speak out against his predecessor?  (I haven’t seen any commentary by Moore on this.  If he has spoken or written on this topic please let me know).
It is worth noting that in 2012 Moore spoke out against a Christian boycott of Starbucks after the coffee company announced that it would support same-sex marriage.
Al Mohler, another Southern Baptist leader, is not too happy about it either.

I Like the Red Starbucks’ Cups

I just started drinking coffee about two years ago.  I like my coffee with a lot of cream and sugar. When I order coffee I am basically looking for the taste of coffee ice cream with a shot of caffeine.  I have never liked Starbucks coffee.  It is too strong for me and the baristas never leave enough space for the cream.

It appears that Starbucks is now the latest company to be complicit in the so-called “war on Christmas.”  Starbucks has rolled out new holiday cups that are red, white, and green.  Wait–aren’t these Christmas colors?  Frankly, I really like the new design, although it is unlikely I will be drinking much Starbucks this holiday season for the reasons stated above.

This whole hullabaloo was started by a guy named Joshua Fuerestein who calls himself a “pastor” and “social media personality.”  Here he is on CNN:

On one level this video is hilarious (Is Fuerestein really unable to hear the other guy?).  On another level it is very sad.  Shame on CNN and other media outlets that are covering this story in a serious way.  This is just another example of the shallow culture-war shouting matches that pass for serious dialogue in our culture today.

For those of you who want to think seriously about the role of Starbucks in American culture check out Bryant Simon’s Everything but the Coffee: Learning about America from Starbucks.

And here is my irreverent take on coffee in church.