Martin E. Marty, the very prominent historian of Christianity, pointed out in a speech at Penn State’s Altoona College two years ago that state sponsorship of Christianity may not be such a good idea — unless one’s interest is in seeing Christianity wither and die. That’s what’s happening in all the Western European countries with state-sponsored churches.
Of course, the various Advent traditions haven’t been much affected by this withering of faith, since they long predated the imposition of Christianity. In central Europe, the demon Krampus (pictured above, courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons), who accompanies St. Nicholas, is still widely popular, as is the shaggy horned monster Klaubauf, Knecht Ruprecht, and many others. The American Santa Claus — a conflation of St. Nicholas and Father Christmas — has spread throughout the world, even to non-Christian countries like Japan, where Christmas trees and lights and gift-giving have become commonplace. One could chalk this up to the modern commercialization of Christmas, but in fact the exchanging of presents during the midwinter holiday goes back at least as far as ancient Rome, where it was a central feature of the Saturnalia celebration.
One can point to many signs that might indicate a decline in Christian values in contemporary American culture: the deep ignorance of the Bible among both secular and religious Americans; the decline in support for social welfare programs and the ever more popular equation of greed with moral virtue; the continued popularity of violence and warfare; the widespread lack of awareness of the very basic fact that Easter is the most important Christian holiday and movable feast. (Does anyone even still remember what “moveable feast” means?) But I strongly doubt that wishing folks “Happy Holidays” out of consideration for their possibly non-Christian sensibilites amounts to a war on Christmas, as certain demagogues have claimed in recent years.
As for officially sanctioned displays of nativity scenes, we should be careful what we wish for, as officials in Barcelona discovered a couple of years ago when they tried to ban the popular caganer figure from public displays. Catalonians told them loud and clear: Don’t crap on our holiday traditions!
Subscribers must click through to see the highly edifying video (which is a couple years out of date, but what the hell).