The Two Christmases

Blog, Featured — By on November 28, 2011 at 8:00 am

As I walked through the front door of the post office, I was faced with a choice. On my left was a vending machine from which I could purchase books of stamps, and to my right was the customer service desk, where I could make the same purchase from actual human beings. Because there was no line at the moment, I chose the human interaction. I strolled up to the middle-aged, slightly balding postal employee, read that his name was “Rex,” and I asked for two books of stamps.

As it was mid-December, Rex asked me “would you like Christmas stamps, or…”.

Once I realized he wasn’t about to complete the sentence, I looked down and saw that he was holding some very un-Christmas-like stamps bearing images of the Liberty Bell and the word “Forever.” Knowing that my wife had planned to mail several Christmas cards, I told him “One of each.”

To my surprise, the decision-making did not stop there. Because I had asked Rex for the one set of Christmas stamps, he asked me to narrow down my choice even further. He held up two types of stamps: one had a picture of Mary and Baby Jesus, while the other had various non-sectarian Christmas symbols like snowflakes, Frosty, and Santa. As he held these two up for my perusal, he asked me something I had never been asked before:

“You want religious or irreligious?”

I am not making this up.

I began to process the word “irreligious,” which I had never heard before. But as a long line was forming behind me, I quickly told Rex I’d like the “religious” ones. It turns out the image contained on this stamp is  by a 17th-century Italian painter named Sassoferrato. It’s a nice picture.

Still, the fact that I had to choose between two alternatives, and do it twice, is very telling. The Postal Service, in an effort to not offend anyone, has recognized the dichotomies that exist and has chosen to offer something for everyone. The second choice I had to make—between Mary holding the Christ child and the snowman—makes it clear: in twenty-first century America, there are two Christmases to choose from.

The two Christmases are separate and distinct. For the sake of discussion, let’s call them Christmas #1 and Christmas #2.

Christmas #1 is the so-called religious way to celebrate the holiday. It emphasizes the entrance of Jesus into a sinful world. It’s certainly an event worth rejoicing over, as He came to rescue mankind, who had sinned and become separated from a holy God. A Savior was necessary, and His birth is what we celebrate each December.

Christmas #2 invokes sentiment, nostalgia, and feel-good moments. It urges Americans of all faiths to enjoy family and friends, to shop for loved ones, to give to charities, to eat rich foods, to party, to take some time off of work. It’s about chestnuts roasting on an open fire and silver bells. Christmas #2 results in timeless stories like Clement Moore’s “A Visit From St Nicholas,” and Chevy Chase’s Christmas Vacation.

Each of the two Christmases manifests itself in parallel ways. The perennial TV event for Christmas #1 is “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” with Linus’ stirring recital of the second chapter of Luke. Christmas #2 is about Will Ferrell’s Elf or, for older viewers, A Miracle on 34th Street.

Christmas #2 has songs like “Silver Bells,” “Winter Wonderland,” and “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus.” Christmas #1 gives us “O Holy Night,” “Silent Night,” and that “In Exelsis Deo” song.

Both Christmases are prone to nostalgia. Those who prefer Christmas #1 get the warm fuzzies when they think about baby Jesus, the manger, and the Wise Men. Mention Christmas to #2 folks and they smile as they remember Ralphie and the quest to acquire that BB Gun.

Of course, this dichotomy needn’t exist. It doesn’t need to be an either-or thing. But each of the two Christmases has adherents, a small minority of which are very vocal, a bit snobbish, and suspicious of the motives of the other Christmas.

Some of those in the Christmas #1 camp are offended that the clerk at Target says “Happy Holidays.” It is seen as not just an affront, but part of a greater conspiracy to rid America of its Christian roots. A few who hold this view see a hidden agenda in every component of Christmas #2. They can’t just sit back and enjoy Elf. While wearing their “reason for the season” t-shirts, they complain that characters in Elf are willing go all out to say they believe in Santa, but will not be so bold in saying they believe in God. They shake their head when they see Hanukkah or Kwanzaa greeting cards at Wal-Mart.

The Christmas #2 folks have some conspiracy theorists in their ranks, as well. A few of them arrive at conclusions just as irrational as their counterparts. They protest the inclusion of nativity scenes on public property. They insist that songs like “Silent Night” have no business being in the school program.

Both Christmases have folks who go overboard. On the Christmas #1 side, there’s this from the American Family Association, a “Naughty versus Nice” list of which retailers won’t let their ads contain the word “Christmas,” the implication being that real Christians should spend their money elsewhere.

Lost on the AFA and other leaders is the fact that the stores in the “good” list have their ads full of Santa, elves, etc. There’s not a baby Savior to be seen anywhere. Ah, the irony.

(One well-known Christian leader allegedly said that Christians who celebrate Christmas are being “persecuted.” If we could ask second-century Christians who were torn apart by lions what they think of that statement, I wonder what they’d say.)

Christmas #2 people can be just as silly. Some retailers, thinking they are walking on PC eggshells, have renamed Christmas trees “holiday trees,” a ludicrous over-reaction. Has anyone ever walked out of a store and refused to do business with them because they still call it a “Christmas” tree? I doubt it. Renaming a very traditional item to appease non-existent protesters qualifies as going overboard.

To be fair, most people, while preferring one Christmas or another, are reasonable. They realize that the two Christmases need not divide us as bitterly as the divisions like that between Republicans and Democrats, dog and cat lovers, the Ginger/Mary Ann debate, or the one where the sparks really fly: PC versus Mac.

This is the state of Christmas in 2011. It’s very different from, say, 20 years ago.

What does the future hold? What will Christmas in America look like 30 years from now? Will the two Christmases grow further apart, creating a huge chasm? Will the two Christmases converge?

One thing’s for sure: if we ever get to the point where we stop allowing ourselves to be divided over Christmas, we will find something else. We always do.

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  • karenzach says:


    Giving new meaning to the word POLARization. Terrific insights. I guess the take away is avoid human interaction, heh? :)

  • Matt Miles says:

    I actually remember asking my parents the point of saying “Happy Holidays,” and they said because Christmas isn’t the only holiday we celebrate around that time. (Wow! Could it really be that simple?) And I grew up in a fairly conservative Christian home. X-mas, however, wasn’t tolerated as much, until the time I discovered one box of our decorations was marked “X-mas” due to spacial limits. Now that I think about it, 20 (plus) years ago sounds about right.

  • Pamelotta says:

    Great post, James. You nailed the two parties. Where Christmas is concerned, I find myself on the fence. My husband and I know the “reason for the season” but we also embrace the nostalgic traditions we grew up with. I think it’s a pretty healthy balance. I pretty much ignore the extremists on both sides and if someone is kind enough to wish me a happy holiday, I’m not going to be picky about how they say it. ;)

  • Brother Anthony says:

    Great piece James! resonated with every bit. I have found my self on both sides of the fence with Christmas in the past, but this really encourages me to strive for a heathy balance. Thanks for sharing it : )

  • Michael Snow says:

    “This is the state of Christmas in 2011. It’s very different from, say, 20 years ago. What does the future hold?”

    That kind of depends on whether those in Box No. 1 stay boxed in or become salt and light.

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