The Nation's Pulse

A New Old-Fashioned Christmas

Why the post-Christian English are delighted to wish everyone a "Happy Christmas."

By 1.4.07

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There I was, just two days before Christmas, making my way through the over-crowded shops to pick up a few last minute Christmas gifts. It's a situation I'd been in many times before. This time, however, something was different. Upon entering each store, I was greeted with signs and banners that read "Happy Christmas," the same salutation enthusiastically offered by sales clerks after each purchase I made. Outside the shops, Christmas trees, lighted angels and creches adorned the busy sidewalks and a large poster invited passers by to attend a Christmas carol service at a nearby church. Christmas hymns could even be heard emanating from a nearby government building.

Did 2006 mark the end of the War on Christmas?

No. In fact, this year saw many of the usual suspects lining up to take their shots against the annual Christian festival celebrated by 95 percent of Americans. There were agitated atheists upset over public displays of nativity scenes, and politically correct public schools re-writing Christmas songs so as not to offend non-Christians. The attacks on Christmas seemed to reach new levels of absurdity. A Texas school district barred the colors red and green from all of its holiday displays because those colors are most often associated with Christmas. Meanwhile, the city of Chicago banned showing promotional clips from the movie The Nativity Story at its annual, er, Christmas Festival.

Fortunately, I did not experience any of this bah humbuggery, because I spent my Christmas in England, where across the country -- from London to Lands End to the Shetland Islands -- Christmas was celebrated without any of the hand-wringing and finger-wagging that have come to dominate Christmastime in America.

I knew Christmas in England would be different when I arrived at Gatwick Airport and saw a "Christmas tree" proudly displayed. All week I sat amazed watching television as newscasters wished their viewers a hearty "Happy Christmas" and talk shows held Christmas specials. Even Britain's leftwing Guardian newspaper announced it was taking two days off for Christmas, writing: "We would like to wish our readers a very Happy Christmas."

It was all rather disconcerting. How is it that in the United States -- where 90 percent of the public calls itself Christian and well over half goes to church -- the public recognition of Christmas has been stifled to the point that even many pious Christians think twice about wishing their coreligionists a "Merry Christmas"? And, how is it that in England -- where according to a Christmas Eve Guardian/ICM poll, non-believers outnumber believers two to one, only one in ten regularly attends religious services and an overwhelming majority (82 percent) sees religion as a cause of division and tension in the world -- Christmas still reigns supreme?

It's not that Americans are any more "politically correct" than the British when it comes to religion. Anyone who has spent significant time in Great Britain knows that tolerance, diversity and multi-culturalism have become the cardinal virtues of British society. Illustratively, Prince Charles recently said that when he becomes king, he will change his title as English sovereign from "Defender of the Faith" to "Defender of Faith."

The reason the British celebrate Christmas with such alacrity, paradoxically, is that for the vast majority of Britons, Christmas and Christianity no longer represent what they once did, or indeed what they fundamentally are. Most Britons view Christmas simply as a custom -- an inheritance from the past -- and as an opportunity to spend quality time with family and friends. So while many Americans -- an impressive majority according to most polls -- continue to understand Christmas as the celebration of the birth of the savior of mankind, in post-Christian Britain you'd be hard pressed to find many Englishmen who think the substance of Christmas is much more than a sentimental myth, akin to Americans' understanding of Halloween.

America's Christmas wars also derive from the fact that Christianity continues to be a powerful force in American society, shaping our culture, politics, purchasing habits and much more. Its substance remains wholly relevant to scores of millions of people, which is why activist judges and liberal special interest groups work so diligently to expel Christmas from the public square. Christianity still matters in America.

That is not the case in Britain, however, where, for the vast majority, Christianity is perceived as a rather quaint phenomenon, something to read about in school history books and to be viewed in magnificent centuries-old, and largely empty, churches. Britain has just as many liberal advocacy groups as the United States; but most simply do not see a need to incite a battle over something few believe in.

Of course, Americans have their problems when it comes to Christmas. Too many children grow up believing Christmas ends just after the final present is opened on Christmas morning (as opposed to January 6th, the Feast of the Epiphany). But, in the end, as dispiriting as they are, America's Christmas wars ought to be seen as a sign that the birth of the Christ Child still has the power to influence hearts and minds and that the Nativity Story has not yet been relegated to the status of legend.

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About the Author

Daniel Allott is a writer in Washington, D.C.