If the question is whether our American Christmas is a religious or secular holiday, the answer is Yes. It’s both.
Here in Haywood County, many of us go to church and resist the commercialization of what should be a holy time of year, the nativity scene is on a table in the living room, but Santa Claus is not a requirement, probably not appropriate, to honor the birth of the Christ child to a virgin named Mary and her husband Joseph in Bethlehem.
Angels announced the birth to shepherds in the Bethlehem fields who came to worship at the manger. Later, Magi from the East also came to bow in homage. If you equate Santa with St. Nicholas, as Clement Moore tries to do in “Twas the Night Before Christmas,” it doesn’t work.
The generous and holy St. Nicholas lived in the third century in an area of Asia Minor that was Greek in his time and now on the southern coast of today’s Turkey. It is fascinating to read about the actual St. Nicholas, a caring man, but he wasn’t “a right jolly old elf whose droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow.”
This is one group of Haywood Countians. The sincerely religious who read and believe in the birth stories in Luke and Matthew and go to church throughout this season of Advent.
Increasingly though, according to the Pew Research Survey, Americans are a less religious people. Many have moved toward a strictly secular celebration of what they still call Christmas, a contraction of Christ’s Mass.
The symbols of the season are Christmas trees, Santa, shopping, and great food. Lots of thinking about buying presents, but no focus on the Bible story. The attention to gift giving began in our country in the late 19th century and has become a monster of advertising.
On the plus side, it keeps our merchants in business and the economy humming. This non-religious celebration is filled with the joy of giving and receiving gifts, sharing love with family, friends, and those in need. It’s why we’ve added Merry to Christmas.
For secularists, it’s more a celebration of happy feelings and family traditions than of the long-awaited arrival of God as a baby in Bethlehem.
A third approach to the season is to be happiest when it’s over. It’s only in later years that I’ve become sensitive to how many find Christmastime depressing. A woman in a church I served had experienced the death of her husband a few days before Christmas.
If the doors of the church were open, you would find Margaret in her pew near the front, but she told me how hard it was to be merry at Christmas when it is more a reminder of her husband’s death than of Jesus’ birth. It was difficult to sing the familiar hymns through tears. The weight of grief was lifted a bit when it was finally over.
Finally, I fall into a fourth group. While I don’t have a little statue of Santa kneeling at the manger, which I find offensive, we do have images of Santa Claus, snowmen, a Christmas model train, and decorated tree surrounded by presents covered with wrapping paper.
There are also many nativity scenes around the house. We set up both symbols, secular and religious. I was fortunate to grow up in a pastor’s family who went to church yet also watched Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” in which there is no mention of Jesus. And, although it’s an inspiring story, the nativity is not heralded in Jimmy Stewart’s movie “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
I am an unapologetic follower of the Christ child. Until I die, he will continue to be reborn in my heart. I love the Christian faith, and now in retirement, Carol and I are still very active at church.
I’ve preached hundreds of sermons from our sacred scripture, the Bible. I am also unapologetic about my love of the feelings of the season when I gather with family for a Christmas morning cup of warm coffee and delicious breakfast, and then dive into the expressions of love wrapped in bright paper packages in a room glowing with colorful lights.
The Rev. Rich Ploch is a retired Methodist minister who lives in Bethel.