The war on Christmas comes but once an election cycle, and with Good Tidings and Great Joy: Protecting the Heart of Christmas Sarah Palin, the former governor of Alaska, fires the first shot. The volume is part call to arms against the “Scrooges” secularizing Christmas, part theological statement about the meaning of Jesus’s birth, and part recipe book.
The problem with the holidays today, writes Palin, is they’ve been secularized. Nativity scenes can no longer be erected on government-owned property, people are afraid to say Merry Christmas, Christmas trees have become Holiday trees, and business owners have taken the Christ out of Christmas. And, as we all know, “this ‘war on Christmas’ is the tip of the spear in a larger battle to secularize our culture.”
Christmas isn’t only the first line of defense in the war against Christianity. It’s also a weapon against the “angry atheists” and “liberal seculars.” In one of many excursions down the rabbit hole to Tea Party stomping ground, charitable giving at Christmas becomes evidence against evolution: “I bet Charles Darwin never understood this,” says Palin: “If the world could be described as truly ‘survival of the fittest,’ why would people collectively be stricken with a spirit of generosity in December?”
Christmas spirit sticks it to the scientists. Hear that? That’s the sound of biology departments around the country shutting up shop to the tune of Away in a Manger.
Or not. Perhaps communities share supplies in the coldest months as a means of surviving the winter and perpetuating the species.
But as I read Palin’s book and snacked on Rice Krispie treats (no baking necessary; recipe at back of book) I wondered what kind of Christmas she is trying to protect.
Palin rails against consumerism, but her issue isn’t Leviathan over-spending or advertising run amok; it’s that the commercialization of Christmas has become generic. Seasonal advertising bad; hawking those LED lights in the name of Christ good.
For nervous business-types mumbling their season’s greetings, Palin is the bearer of good news: the majority of people back companies that share their values. When consumer pressure made it viable, she tells us, Wal-Mart and Lowe’s returned to the seasonal profession of faith: Merry Christmas. Putting the Christ back in commercialism, Palin tells us, “makes financial sense.” Go forth and profit fearlessly, Christian retailers.
Protecting the integrity of Christmas isn’t just about God, it’s about patriotism. Christmas, in Palin’s eyes, is the All-American holiday. Nativity scenes “acknowledge the very real history and identity of the vast majority of our citizens.” They are a part of “our National Heritage” and should be protected. Real Americans build crèches.
In fact, Americans really began to celebrate Christmas widely only in the second half of the nineteenth century. The Puritans who came to the New World to escape religious intolerance in Europe didn’t celebrate Christmas at all. It was outlawed in New England from 1659-81. Why? They saw it as a Papist extravagance. As far as they were concerned it was a fourth-century innovation adapted in part from the pagan festival of Saturnalia. To this day there are homegrown American Christians that frown upon the celebration of Christmas because it’s not in the Bible. For them, as for the Puritans, Christmas is a gaudy distortion of the original message of Jesus.
Were the Christmas-hating Puritans on the Mayflower “Scrooges”? You betcha! You might say it’s a part of our National Heritage.
Palin doesn’t seek the original Christmas (a fourth-century invention), the traditional American Christmas (they didn’t celebrate it), or consumerism-free Christmas (you Communist!). The festival Palin wants to retrieve is the Christmas of her youth. Palin’s Christmas is a medley of joy-filled eating, present opening, charitable giving, and idiosyncratic family tradition.
On Christmas Eve, she and her family place a menorah on the table “as a way to acknowledge Christianity’s Judeo-Christian roots” (logical error). Hanukkah is the celebration of a Jewish military victory in the second century BCE. Neither the ancient victory nor the modern celebration of it has anything to do with Christmas Eve. The festival, like all Jewish festivals, floats around the calendar—this year, in fact, it falls on Thanksgiving. And then lasts for eight days. Palin reduces it to a table decoration beside her Christmas ham.
This could be the tip of the spear in a larger battle to Christianize Jewish culture. Someone needs to take a stand against the war on Hanukkah.
For all the references to Baby Jesus, there’s more pop theology than Biblical literalism here.
The call to return to the real meaning of Christmas does not necessitate cracking the Good Book. While she sometimes quotes from the Bible she doesn’t always know what’s in it. She quotes a University of Michigan pamphlet that claims that the Old Testament “can be used to justify slavery, prohibit the wearing of red dresses and eating of shrimp and shellfish, and to reinforce the inferiority of women.” Apparently unaware that the Bible does actually say these things, Palin accuses the publication of having “mocked Bible believers.” She doesn’t even know the New Testament, getting the name of Paul’s epistle to the Romans wrong. But is this surprising when the Nativity story she reads on Christmas Eve comes, by her own admission, from a children’s book, not the Bible?
Palin says her book is “about Christ and our ability to worship Him freely.” But there’s not a lot of worship here.
Amid all the personal anecdotes about gifts, food, and Nativity scene drive-bys, Palin never once describes attending a church service at Christmas. It’s clear that she’s a churchgoer herself, but she’s not advocating for renewed church attendance. Ultimately, this is a Christmas of no-bake cookies, half-baked theology, and pre-packaged Christmas stories.