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Performativity of Religion: Christmas Edition

It’s that time of year again: houses decorated, sweaters knitted, trees killed and hauled inside dwellings made from dead trees, it smells like the holiday season. And before we gather round the fire to sip chocolate flavored powder dissolved in scalding hot water and wait with bated breath for an old man to fill our really large socks with a bunch of things, let me take a moment to step back and examine Christmas tradition as it pertains to Christianity itself. Before we begin, I do want to acknowledge that many other holidays from many other religions take place at this time of year, but as the United States is by in large built on and around Christianity and its holidays, and because my neck of the woods (Western North Carolina) is predominately the same, I find I’m only qualified to engage with the tradition from which I hail.

Christmas, for the most part, has nothing to do with Christianity: nearly all of its traditions are adapted from pagan rituals, the Bible makes no mention of a celebration of Christ’s birth, and the Coca-Cola company played a large part in solidifying our image of Santa Claus as a rotund, jolly old man garbed in red and white. Yet these images dominate American culture as soon as Thanksgiving ends until the 25th takes its final bow at 11:59pm and we eagerly wait its return next year. The holiday as an event is so divorced from the religion to which its tied that its devoid of authentic religious substance. Yet every year around this time comes a cacophony of tone-deaf carolers screaming, “put the Christ back in Christmas” and proclamations that there is, in fact, a literal war on Christmas.

How any of this could be an actual issue when considering the discord between Christmas as a holiday and the total lack of its scriptural significance is a matter of performance. Performance of outrage is certainly nothing new amongst dominant groups in societies (racial, gender, sexual orientation, etc…). Decrying the notion that one might have to make room for an alternative experience as some sort of reverse oppression is nothing new. However, within the context of Christmas, it becomes far more insidious. Firstly, by claiming a set of traditions that evolved from rituals of other faiths as belonging uniquely to the dominant religion, there’s an active erasure of those who practice faiths that engage in those rituals. Furthermore, it provides a concrete frame for the performance of Christianity in a non-religious manner. There’s now an opportunity for false religious practice to invade the radio, the shelves at the supermarket, and the yard of those old people that live in the neighborhood with whom no one enjoys interacting. And that’s just where the belligerence of the Christmas spirit begins. It’s followed by the whines of millions who can’t imagine saying Happy Holidays instead of Merry Christmas, who use the event to bemoan the notion of sharing a season or month or country with another religious tradition, who believe freedom or religious means that they’re free to do whatever they believe in the name of their faith.

And then it will end. The dead green trees in our living rooms will slowly turn to dead brown trees, the high-fructose corn syrup industry will be chuckling as our teeth hurt from consuming too much candy, and environmental degradation will continue at its current alarming pace.

But so it goes.

It only happens once a year, right?

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