Today is Good Friday and this coming Sunday is Easter Sunday, both major days in the Christian calendar. The so-called ‘war on Christmas’ is something that politicians have got a lot of mileage out of. In addition to feeding the persecution complex of some Christians who like to think of themselves as under siege for their faith in the US of all places, it is also used as a cudgel by them against those who oppose their attempts to impose Christianity and its practices on everyone, by having prayers and Christian symbols occupy the public sphere.
But why is there no corresponding ‘war on Easter’? Jonathan Merritt posed this question to Dr. Gerry Bowler, a historian who specializes in religion and popular culture. Bowler says that there has long been a ‘war on Christmas’ that was theologically based and involved far deeper issues than the current one about whether you can say ‘Merry Christmas’.
The first arguments about Christmas began in the early Christian Church when theologians disagreed as to the propriety of celebrating the Nativity of Jesus. Some thought this was the sort of thing best left to pagans. When the Church eventually decided that a celebration was proper, the next debate was over the proper date. Western churches opted for December 25 and the cities in the east preferred January 6.
Then arose a centuries-long struggle to keep pagan accretions out of the holiday, a struggle that was sometimes lost – thus the giving of gifts, the Yule log, and perhaps the Christmas tree – but which was successful against transvestism, riotous social inversion, and wearing animal costumes.
Today, the war rages around the world with opposition from atheists, hard-line Hindus and Muslims, and neo-Calvinists, and attempts by LGBT people, vegans, anti-consumerists, and nationalists to appropriate the season to their own ends.
Bowler discusses why there is less of a fuss about Easter than there is about Christmas. He says that there have been campaigns against Easter in the past.
Christmas is celebrated much more publicly and intensely than Easter, at least in North America and is marked by many who are not overtly religious. It is the biggest phenomenon on the planet, dwarfing any rock festival, sports tournament or other holiday. It occupies probably 10 percent of our lives in preparing for it, celebrating it, and paying for it.
That makes Christmas the obvious target of those who oppose any place for religion in the public sphere or those who oppose Christianity specifically. In those times when Christianity was suppressed such as the French Revolution, Nazi Germany, the USSR or the Mao era in China, Easter was victimized in the same way as Christmas.
Bowler seems to be suggesting that there is an actual war on Christmas by anti-Christians who see it as the most prominent symbol of Christianity and thus seek to discredit it as a means of undermining the religion.
I think he is wrong. What people are opposed to is the assumption by some Christians that they can force the symbols of their religion on everyone else, especially in schools and in government. It is that which is opposed, not Christmas itself. Actively seeking to maintain a separation between the religious world and the civic world is not a war on religion unless you think there should be no distinction.
Of course, the whole idea underlying Easter, the business of Jesus dying to free us from original sin, makes absolutely no sense, and it should be no surprise that Jesus had a lot of difficulty understanding the point.