Pod people: Christmas vs. Christmas in the news

GetReligion readers who have been paying close attention during the last week or so are probably just shocked, shocked to know that the topic of this week's "Crossroads" podcast is related to Christmas. Actually, it's about the reality that there are two different Christmas celebrations going on in this land of ours. Journalists face more than a few challenges these days trying to keep these two celebrations separate, to some degree, while covering the valid news stories that are related to each.

One Christmas is essentially economic, cultural and, alas, legal, while the other is defined by centuries of Christian traditions in both the East and West. (There are now two Hanukkahs, of course, but that's another story.)

To explore these themes a bit, I called up two very different, but very sharp, individuals to discuss what seems like a simple question: When is Christmas?

This, of course, immediately raises another question: When does Christmas begin?

Ah, you say, but WHICH Christmas are we talking about? The cultural one or the religious one?

Thus, I began this week's Scripps Howard column (the main hook for the podcast) like this:

For those who follow Christian traditions, Christmas begins when the darkness of Christmas Eve yields to bright midnight candles and the Mass of the Angels or the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

The Christmas season then lasts 12 days, ending with Epiphany on Jan. 6.

But things aren't that simple in modern America, the land of the free and the home of the malls. For millions of us, today's Christmas begins when "Feliz Navidad" beer ads start interrupting National Football League broadcasts and Holiday movies surge into cable-TV schedules previously crowded with Halloween zombie marathons.

I picked that Corona beer ad because of my own personal prejudices. I am a football fan (Go Ravens, go Broncos) and that means putting up with a lot the same beer ads over and over.

Several years ago, I decided that, for me at least, the secular Christmas begins the first time that I see that old Corona ad on television. Yes, I know that it could have aired earlier and I didn't see it. I get that. This is a personal thing, just cut me some slack.

This year I swear that I saw that twinkling palm tree two weeks before Thanksgiving.

So I ask GetReligion readers this question, which seems rather non-journalistic at first: When does the secular steamroller called "The Holidays" officially arrive for you? When does the "starter's gun" go off?

The "starter's gun" image comes from Washington Post scribe Hank Stuever, author of that snarky but fine book called "Tinsel: A Search for America's Christmas Present." He told me that, while he was researching that book, he decided that big event is the day that the National Retail Federation releases it's first official forecast of precisely how many billions of dollars Americans will be spend during any particular Holiday marketing season. Once that press release hits reporters' email in-boxes, he said, "there's no stopping it. Here comes Christmas, whether you're ready or not."

So what's your "starter's gun" moment?

And what about the other Christmas, the supposedly religious one?

The problem on the religion side of this equation these days is that the overwhelming majority of American churches -- especially the so-called megachurches of evangelicalism -- are essentially doing Christmas according to the shopping-mall calendar, not the calendar of the church year.

Stuever thinks that's the truth, and so does the dean of the School of Theology at the very, very conservative Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. Pause and roll that duo over in your mind for a moment.

Moore told me:

Many evangelicals fear the "cold formalism" that they associate with churches that follow the liturgical calendar and the end result, he said, is "no sense of what happens when in the Christian year, at all." Thus, instead of celebrating ancient feasts such as Epiphany, Pentecost and the Transfiguration, far too many American church calendars are limited to Christmas and Easter, along with cultural festivities such as Mother's Day, the Fourth of July, Halloween, Thanksgiving and the Super Bowl.

So here is my second question -- with two parts -- for GetReligion readers who happen to be churchgoers: When does the real Christian season of "Christmas" begin and when does it end?

These clashing realities, in my opinion, affect journalists in several ways.

First of all, nothing turns a reporter into a pillar of salt faster than having a tired, world-weary editor look over in your direction and growl: "&*%$, we need a Christmas story with some art for tomorrow's paper. Go find one."

My point is that reporters need to summon up the courage to ask that editor which Christmas he/she is talking about. Are we talking about a glowing-twinkle-lights story about shopping and eggnog? Or are we talking about a local congregation's plans to reach out to divorced dads and their children on Christmas Eve? Are we talking about the hellish Dec. 24 duties of truck drivers wearing brown jumpsuits or are we talking about a Catholic parish trying to plan its first celebration of El Dia De Los Tres Magos with its rising number of Hispanic families?

So I'll end this highly personal rant with my third question for our readers and listeners: What are some valid news stories that you would enjoy seeing covered that are related to Christmas No. 1 and Christmas No. 2? Care to share any URLs with us for the good and the bad that you have seen this year, as we count down the last few days until the start of the 12-day Christmas season?

Enjoy the podcast.

Please respect our Commenting Policy