In my last post, Co-Opted Pagan Holidays, I discussed a forum I found about secular Japanese celebrations of Christian holidays. Within the forum, one respondent asked how Christians feel about non-Christians co-opting their holidays. One person answered that all Christian holidays are co-opted pagan holidays, so it would be hypocritical of Christians to be irritated about non-Christians co-opting their already co-opted holidays. In my last post, I addressed the fact that the major Christian holidays are not based on pagan holidays at all, though elements added to those holidays in recent centuries may be and in some cases definitely were co-opted from pagan traditions, and many if not most of the lesser Christian holidays are also probably co-opted from pagan holidays. See that post for more details if you’re interested.
How Christians Feel
So that brings us to the question asked: How do Christians feel about non-Christians co-opting their holidays?
The problem with answering this question is that Christianity is, perhaps with the exception of atheism, the most diverse religion on the planet. Christianity is claimed by one third of the world population (approximately 2.4 billion people) and includes people on all inhabited continents* and in every country, ranging from 0.01% (Somalia) to 100.0% (Pitcairn Islands and Vatican City) of the country’s population. It is the predominant religion in countries across Europe, Asia, the Americas, and Africa and is even the state religion in 15 countries on the same continents.
You might say, “Okay, I recognize that the question was impossible to answer. In that case, how do Christians in the U.S. feel about non-Christians co-opting Christian holidays?” Unfortunately, even within the U.S., it’s impossible to answer that question. Because 73% of the country’s population claims to be Christian (and about 99.8% of politicians, lol), this means Christianity is claimed by people across the racial, cultural and ethnic, educational, professional, and political spectrum. Furthermore, and perhaps largely because of the vast diversity of the people within their religious group, some U.S. Christians may know more about their religion than other U.S. Christians, some may care more about their religion than others, and some may allow their political, cultural, or other beliefs to determine the importance or character of religious concepts while others may allow their religious beliefs to determine the importance or character of political and other concepts—and all with different results—and so on.
But I think it’s safe to say a few things. (1) U.S. Christians are largely ignorant of their religion in general and of their holidays’ origins in particular. (2) Most U.S. Christians are non-practicing or only lightly-practicing (i.e., they may go to church on some or most Sundays but don’t read their Bible or pray regularly or allow their religion to inform their daily lives). And (3) most U.S. Christians don’t care who celebrates what holidays, but most do care when they are told they cannot celebrate their own holidays in their own traditional way. For example, most U.S. Christians (and even most non-Christians) agreed that referring to Christmas trees as “holiday trees” in order not to offend anyone by using a word that includes “Christ” was excessive, unnecessary, and just plain stupid. However, any further than such very general concepts, I cannot speak for all U.S. Christians, much less all Christians around the world.
How I Feel
Perhaps the best way to answer this question is to explain how I feel about the matter. I guess you could say I’m in that group of laity that cares most about my religion and knows more than the average U.S. Christian (of course, that’s not saying much, considering the rampant ignorance of Christians about their own religion). How I feel about non-Christians co-opting Christian holidays depends on the manner in which they were co-opted, but I feel a number of things.
- Pride. I once read an article by a Catholic priest about Saint Nicholas. I expected him to say something about how unfortunate it is that people have forgotten who he was and have changed him into this weird, fantastical old man who lives in the North Pole with magical animals and gives gifts to children once a year. However, he formulated what was to me a rather profound thesis statement, that Saint Nicholas is the most enduring Christian personage, whose influence on the local community around him was so profound that people thought it so important to remember him to the point that he is now celebrated by Christians and non-Christians around the world. That enduring nature is something to be proud of. The profound impact that one Christian man living a Christian lifestyle had on a non-Christian world is something to inspire. Yes, the message has largely gotten lost. When God coincidentally came up in conversation with friends in my home recently (“Mom, who turned the light off?” “No one. God did.”), a kindergarten-age child from the U.S. ask his mother, “Who’s God?” But he believes in Santa. So maybe commemoration of Santa Clause doesn’t translate to commemoration of the original Christian message and whole point of Christmas, but the very Christian love and generosity of the season, inspired by Saint Nicholas, still informs the actions of people around the world during this season. That’s pretty darn impressive.
- Indifference. So what if others celebrate Christian holidays, even without knowing what they’re all about? I’ve (intentionally or unintentionally) commemorated holidays without knowing what they were about. Now that I live in Japan, which has a significantly different set of holidays than the U.S., I almost never know what the holiday is about, or even its name, when I take advantage of my husband’s extra day off to do fun stuff. That may not be the best comparison because I don’t actually commemorate the holiday at all, not knowing anything about it or about what we’re supposed to do during it, whereas most people in the U.S. who commemorate Christian holidays do so by taking part in some of the traditional practices associated with that holiday while knowing that there’s a Christian background to it. Nevertheless, my point is that if everyone gets a day off and their ancestors were Christians and passed down through the generations the tradition of commemorating this holiday, it’s totally understandable that they would still commemorate the holiday, non-Christian though they may be. It’s a little perplexing when almost-entirely non-Christian cultures as a whole adopt a Christian holiday, but I still experience a bit of indifference toward the practice. As long as you’re not making up stories about what my religious holiday is based on or telling me how to commemorate a holiday that has belonged exclusively to my religion for almost 2,000 years before non-Christians decided to celebrate it too, we’re cool.
- Irritation. In spite of the impressiveness of how thoroughly Christianity has affected or even completely altered world culture as demonstrated by widely-celebrated Christian holidays, I do get irritated when a very secular and commercial aspect of one holiday takes over the original religious aspect of the same holiday. This, however, exists to a minor degree, mostly because I’m Evangelical. Evangelicals mostly don’t observe the liturgical calendar—that is, they don’t commemorate and probably don’t even know about most if not all of the minor Christian observances—and only commemorate the really major Christian holidays, such as Easter and Christmas, with only a vague recollection of the possibly Christian background (and no knowledge of the origins) of other minor holidays, such as Saint Valentine’s Day and Saint Patrick’s Day. So since I knew little of the origins of, for example, Valentine’s Day, I didn’t care much about the commercialization of it. However, when Santa Clause completely eclipses Jesus to the point that people (by which I mean adults) may celebrate Christmas without even knowing it had anything to do with Jesus, much less who the heck that Jesus guy is, that’s more than a little irritating. People making money off a Christian season by pushing the “Christian” out of it and replacing it with a fairy tale is a little offensive. It’s like racists commercializing MLK Day and making money off it by pushing all of the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and everything he stood for out of it.
- Frustration. When people who really don’t know anything about it, having done no research (or at least no serious research, since some people consider reading a random, poorly-written, non-researched, and fallacious blog post that agrees with their preconceptions to qualify as “research”), try to tell me that (a) my holiday was stolen from another holiday and therefore is completely invalid and entirely unworthy of commemoration and that (b) I cannot celebrate my holiday or even talk about my holiday because of the previous fallacious assertion or because it might offend someone who disagrees with me to hear a different point of view or see a different way of doing things (especially when I am constantly told that I need to hear different points of view and see different ways of doing things—in other words, that my or my group’s opinion and practices are the only ones in the entire world unworthy of consideration)… Yeah, that makes me want to grind my teeth. I get very frustrated when, having no actual knowledge of the subject, people assert that all Christian holidays—especially Christmas and Easter—are stolen or co-opted from pagan holidays. It irritates me that they’re spreading around this lie usually based on zero facts or research. Furthermore, it really frustrates me when, based entirely on their preconceived ideas and feelings and excused by this false information, they try to tell me how to celebrate my religion’s holiday. For example, being told I can’t say “Merry Christmas” or that I have to buy “holiday trees” or that I can’t write or talk about the foundation or history or purpose of the holiday in a public forum or in a public institution, or even in my private home… is pretty frustrating to someone who was foolish enough to think that “freedom of religion, speech, and press” meant “freedom of religion, speech, and press.”** I’m not sure I’d say I get angry, but I definitely get very frustrated.
So in summary… When all’s good in the world, I generally feel indifference and occasionally a modicum of pride when non-Christians commemorate Christian holidays. But when people make money off my religion’s holiday by pushing the religion out of it, when people tell me how to celebrate my religion’s holiday, or when people make up stories about how my religion or one of my religion’s holidays came to be and use that as an excuse to persecute me or my religion or to change the characteristics of the holiday entirely, I become anywhere from mildly irritated to very frustrated.
Wouldn’t you do the same?
*“All inhabited continents” includes Australia. However, you may have noticed I didn’t mention Australia by name, and that’s because Christianity is neither the predominant religion nor the state religion in Australia, so it did not warrant mentioning within the context of that paragraph.
**The full text of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, for those of you who haven’t read it, is: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” It has been traditionally understood that the prohibition on government creating any law prohibiting free exercise of religion, free speech, or free press also meant that government-funded institutions and public forums cannot prohibit the same.