Twelve days of Christmas? Man, it feels more like 12 weeks. I saw lights on sale before Halloween and tree stands up before Thanksgiving. That’s just wrong.
A recent Pew survey reports that the holiday is as popular as ever – about 90 percent of Americans celebrate it, even though only about three-quarters of us identify as Christians.
That gap helps explains another Pew finding, that 56 percent of Americans believe the religious elements of Christmas are less important than they used to be, and that this only bothers about a third of us.
Sure, people have been complaining about the commercialization of Christmas at least since Charles Dickens and Clement Moore helped transform it into an extravaganza during the 19th century.
But the Pew survey says the desacralizing of Christmas has quickened in recent years. Only 57 percent of respondents said they believed all the pillars of the biblical account of Christmas – the virgin birth heralded by angels and wise men as the baby Jesus lay in a manger. Just three years ago, that number was 65 percent.
That Christmas endures even as it is being sapped of its traditional meaning is part of a broader trend accelerating in America and the West.
At bottom, it is that our culture – deeply rooted in Judeo-Christian traditions and understandings – is changing much more quickly than our ability to find new ways that allow us to express our seemingly innate desire for the meaning and communion those traditions have provided.
We have no secular mechanism to replace the sense of fellowship and tradition generated by Christmas, so many of us embrace a pale version of it.
Another example: wedding announcements in the New York Times include a growing number of ceremonies presided over by “a friend” who was ordained by an online ministry. Many of these couples want the majesty and meaning of a religious wedding without the religion.
My response has always been mazel tov and God bless ’em. I hope they have a happy life.
But passing over these developments with a “What, me worry?” shrug doesn’t just display tolerance. It also ignores our modern state of limbo in which we are caught between a past that bequeathed powerful tools to express desire and understanding and a present that lacks equally rich and stirring replacements.
I was reminded of this while listening to an NPR report about gratitude. The word still has meaning – we are all grateful for many things. But absent a loving creator who bestows on us both grace (receiving that which we do not deserve) and mercy (sparing us punishment that we do deserve), who cares for us like shepherds tending their flocks, gratitude is just a recognition of the cosmic joke that somehow we are alive on this rock spinning through a vast and indifferent cosmos. That is heady stuff, but it doesn’t provide the universal sense of comfort, communion and purpose, or the need for humility and mutual respect, that flows from the idea that we are all God’s creatures.
I am not condemning any of this, just noting it because it is interesting. Consider, for example, how the rise of gay marriage, feminism, the normalization of divorce and broad changes in the economy are redefining what it means to be a husband or wife. For centuries, these words conveyed a life-shaping set of duties and obligations expected of men and women. Increasingly, they are terms we use to describe the gender of a married person.
Similarly, the recognition of transgender rights is transforming the idea of what it means to be a man or a woman. Rather than encompassing a host of specific experiences shared by members of a gender, they are words that describe how people identify themselves.
At bottom, meaningful concepts are becoming words. In time, maybe they will become more again.
And yet, here’s the really complicated and inspiring part of the story. Amidst all this untethering and unmooring, we have become a more moral people. The vast extension of rights and respect to African-Americans, women and other minorities since World War II is miraculous.
The wave of reports regarding sexual harassment and abuse is a happy sign that we will no longer tolerate disgraceful behavior.
We are far from perfect and never will be. But we are getting better.
This holiday season, that is a reason enough to celebrate, and to ponder.
Contributing columnist J. Peder Zane can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.