As you would imagine, I have to do a lot of writing about The Holidays -- or the holy days? -- this time of year. I try not to think about this as writing about Christmas, because most of what is going on really has nothing to do with Christmas. The key, you see, is to realize that there is no ONE WAY of celebrating this period of time on the calendar. There are many things going on. The other day I had a blitz of invitations to talk about that on radio shows, in part because of that GetReligion piece that I wrote entitled "When is Christmas, anyway?" Then I did my Scripps Howard column on an issue related to that, as well.
As I said the other day, I think the key -- an ironic one at that -- can be found in the following simple typology. Here in America, and thus in the media of most of the world, we actually have three things going on (at the very least). Let me repeat them again:
* The Holidays or Xmas: Begins formally on Black Friday after Thanksgiving, but the advertisements and cable movies keep creeping earlier and earlier. Ends on Dec. 15, with remnants through Dec. 25. Basically, this is the secular season defined by the shopping mall.
* Christmas: Begins on Black Friday or roughly Dec. 1 in most churches. Continues through Dec. 25, with most parties and concerts occurring between Dec. 7 and about Dec. 15, so as not to veer too far away from office parties, school Holiday events and complex family travel plans.
* The Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ: Rarely celebrated. It begins on Dec. 25 and runs for 12 days, ending at Epiphany (there are a few variations on the ending). While traces of this season lingered in some parts of our culture until the early 20th Century, it is now all but extinct.
Now, what does all of this have to do with the "Christmas wars," campaigns to "Keep Christ in Christmas" and other clashes that spill so much ink this time of year?
There are so many ironies to note (and even more if and when you explore Hanukkah). As a reader recently noted, some people us the term "Xmas" in place of Christmas, thinking that creates some distance from religious content. But, of course, the "X" is a symbol for Christ. So there. And "The Holidays" is sort for "holy days." And so forth and so on.
But the key to the wars is that most American churches are actually trying to base their religious observances on the same calendar that is being used by people who are celebrating the non-religious version of the season. Many Christians are trying to defend "Christmas" on the same secular ground -- calendar-wise -- as those who want to commercialize, standardize or neuter the season. They are fighting to save "Christmas" on Dec. 10 or 11 or whatnot. There are all kinds of solid journalism stories woven into this clash of the three holiday or holy days seasons.
You can see that in Cathy Lynn Grossman's news feature the other day in USA Today about how people who don't give a flip about Jesus Christ have -- family by family, office by office, school by school -- developed a somewhat emotional but essentially commercial version of something that a few people still call "Christmas." This is option No. 1 in my earlier typology.
The bottom line is something that has been seen for several decades in serious polling about religion in America. A very high number of citizens in this country are essentially non-religious, especially at Christmas. Others have been spray painted with faith, but the FORM of their lives (think calendar issues and day-to-day choices) are almost identical to those with no faith at all.
And at Christmas? They're in my option No. 2.
Come-all-ye-partiers trumps O Come, All Ye Faithful for more than one in three people asked about their Christmas activities in a survey by LifeWay Research, a Nashville-based Christian research organization.
"A lot of Americans celebrate Christmas like they participate in yoga: unaware and unconcerned about its religious roots," says Ed Stetzer, LifeWay president and a Southern Baptist pastor.
Who is to blame? Here are Grossman's key bullets:
* Blame the little kids. Although 37% say Christmas is more religious when children are present, 43% says it's less so. "That's not surprising when more people encourage belief in Santa Claus (38%) than tell the Gospel story (28%) that undergirds the whole of Christianity," Stetzer says. ...
* Blame the grown kids. Many Millennials, ages 18 to 29, have switched the lights off on the Nativity scene. More than half (56%) say their Christmas is "primarily" religious; three in four (74%) told LifeWay many of the things they enjoy this season "have nothing to do with the birth of Jesus."
"Christmas for them is just something you do because you're an American these days," says Drew Dyck, 33, who works in church ministry for Christianity Today International. ...
Esther Fleece, 28, of Colorado Springs, who works as the link to Millennials for the evangelical Focus on the Family, has many friends less tied to faith. "Black Friday has become a national holiday, and Christmas is like Valentine's Day with more presents," she says. ...
* Blame the secularism sweeping the culture. "Christmas is no longer about baby Jesus and the sheep. It's solstice with friends, Saturnalia at the office party. At Thanksgiving, you say grace, but at Christmas, you take a break and you go on vacation. It's been downgraded on the religion calendar," says Barry Kosmin, director of the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn.
See, there's the key word -- calendar.
What does it mean to say that Christmas has "been downgraded on the religion calendar"? Which religious calendar? Whose religious calendar? The one that coincides with the local shopping mall or the actual traditions linked to Christmas? I think what Grossman is writing about is an important reality, which is that life is getting more and more vague in the "Christmas" camp -- option No. 2 -- in which millions of Americans want a religious Christmas, sort of, but on the calendar and the terms of The Holidays or Xmas. There is all kinds of evidence that this is true and there are plenty of valid stories linked to that.
The bottom line for journalists who are struggling to cover all of this: Christmas is now three different seasons. There are valid, interesting, poignant and complex stories in all three. Cover them.
Still, covering The Holidays is not the same as covering "Christmas" which is not the same thing as covering the Nativity of of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. In a way, this makes life easier for journalists this time of year. There are more things to cover. You just have to keep them straight in your mind. Good luck with that.