Some say that ever ‘gainst that season comes Wherein our Saviour’s birth is celebrated, The bird of dawning singeth all night long; And then, they say, no spirit dares stir abroad; The nights are wholesome; then no planets strike, No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm, So hallow’d and so gracious is the time. William Shakespeare: Hamlet
With no irreverence intended to the season of our Savior’s birth, I think today Shakespeare would have had to conclude, ‘‘so shallow’d and so avaricious is the time.’’ While once again Christian eyes are turned toward the holy birth of our Lord, we will not help but spy the ever encroaching secularization of the season called Christmas. It is not always what we may consider blasphemous. At least blasphemy takes a subject seriously. The secularization of Christmas robs the Saviour’s birth of its religious significance.
Gene Veith, in Postmodern Times, wrote, ‘‘Traditional symbols, such as those of religion, are not repudiated; rather, they are trivialized. Statistics reduce beliefs to opinions and moral standards to personal preferences. Technological reproduction and ceaseless visual representation work against any concept of mystery or the sacred.’’ And so the ‘‘season’’ has become a technological production of color schemes, attractive products and personal pleasures; things that, of themselves, are not harmful but as a substitute for the sacred surely become.
In his Letters to an American Lady (29 December, 1958), C.S. Lewis wrote, ‘‘Just a hurried line . . . to tell a story which puts the contrast between our feast of the Nativity and all this ghastly ‘‘Xmas’’ racket at its lowest. My brother heard a woman on a bus say, as the bus passed a church with a Crib outside it, ‘‘Oh Lor’! They bring religion into everything. Look–they’re dragging it even into Christmas now!’’ What is sad about such a comment in the 1990’s is that I don’t believe my neighbors and many of my acquaintances would get it! They probably would agree with the lady. After all, this is the generation that will, at Christmas, buy a music video called ‘‘The Immaculate Collection’’ by a woman who calls herself ‘‘Madonna’’ and will never make the connotation.
For a long time now we have seen the secular set side by side with the sacred. As the years went on Christmas became more secular than sacred until the sacred was found only in churches and private dwellings but certainly not in any public setting. Recently, however, the secular is using the sacred as a productive marketing tool the fruit of which is just beginning to be reaped.
This process of secularization is snowballing due to this society’s lack of respect (much less reverence) for anything religious. This year in London (according to the AP) Pepsi-Cola got in trouble when their advertisers beamed its logo onto the Anglican cathedral in Liverpool as a marketing tactic. To the offended parishioners Pepsi said, ‘‘It was never meant as any offense. It was a light-hearted stunt.’’ McDonald’s came under similar fire in Britain for printing a burger bag with the flag of Saudi Arabia including a passage from the Koran. Apology was made. In this country there is a commercial for Hebrew National Frankfurters which, at the end claims to surpass federal standards because (the camera shifts toward heaven) ‘‘We have to answer to a higher Authority.’’ Where once a clear distinction was maintained between the secular and the sacred, now we see a slow erosion of the border, a trivialization of the things once thought too sacred to tread upon. We shouldn’t be surprised this year to see marketers turning the manger of Christ into a den of thieves.
Twentieth-century Christianity cannot dodge all the blame. We have spent a lot of time ourselves scaling the secular city (as one title puts it) in search of slogans, sounds, styles and other similitudes from a secular society. It never bothered us when we were the ones crossing the line and bringing back the secular into the sacred. It seemed to make our worship more realistic and a lot more up to date. British theologian J. S. Whale put it best when he said, ‘‘Instead of putting off our shoes from our feet because the place we stand is holy ground, we are taking nice photographs of the burning bush from suitable angles.’’ Well, that was all right for us but not for the world? Perhaps we only see the vulgar when we see it in others.
I have written these lines with a distaste for the negative, especially at Christmas. My prayer is that they may have a farthing of positive effect and that we should not be, on December 26, as Franklin Pierce Adams who once said, ‘‘Christmas is over and business is business.’’ We should rather be as Charles Dickens when he wrote, “I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round, as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys . . . And so as Tiny Tim said: ‘A merry Christmas to us all, my dears, God bless us, every one.'”
Come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant;
Come ye, come ye to Bethlehem;
Come and behold Him, born the king of angels;
Come and adore Him, come and adore Him,
Come and adore the Lord. (St. Bonaventure)