On not leaving Christmas to 'the pagans'

© Rex A E Hunt

• Published in Ministry: Journal of Continuing Education 7, 2, (1996).


The church seems to have given up on Christmas.  And that’s a pity.

The church’s attempt to portray itself as offering a counter culture through the adoption of the classic ‘Christ against culture’ stance, seems not to have solved anything.  Some church people, especially evangelicals, are crying ‘give Christmas back to the pagans’ (Riga 1971, Clapp 1993).  They seek to narrow its focus by removing as many of the popular influences and traditions as possible.

The target of much of this seasonal hostility is the commercialisation of the event, symbolised in the Santa Claus myth.  For them, Santa Claus represents the hedonism and materialism evangelical religion has long opposed.  But the seasonal staging of a mock slaying of a church member dressed as Santa Claus in a town’s main street, for example, does little apart from shocking shoppers and terrifying children (Bartsch 1994:1).

Christmas is a global experience which is a mix of "faith, tradition and culture" (Shea 1993:35) and as such is an important opportunity for the weaving of both culture and religion.  And during such we can tell the stories of God in creative and imaginative ways.  In this article I want to offer some ‘thoughts-in-the-rough’ about Christmas and religion and culture and see where it might take us.  So welcome to my journey.


Christmas in Australia
Religion, in the shape of Christianity, has always been rather a casual affair in Australia.

In 1788 when the first fleet arrived, Governor Arthur Phillip not only established a gaol for the 736 convicts (and to a certain extent, the marines and officers who accompanied them), he also won the land for ‘protestant’ Christianity (Breward 1988:2).  However, instead of that religious experience being a spiritual journey or theological pursuit, Phillip saw religion as a “useful package of warnings and admonitions that supplemented the cell, chains, the lash, the gallows, or the rewards and remissions for good conduct” (Blainey 1987:429) - the case of the moral policeman.

As a religious event Christmas was usually remembered with a compulsory Anglican church parade and at times, a double share of rations.  It didn’t get much publicity until after the establishment of the first newspaper in Sydney in 1803, and then it took a couple of more years to even rate a mention within its pages - a notice about a service of worship of Christmas day.

In those early years ‘nostalgia’ was to the foreground.  Old customs and symbols were yearned for, and the arrival of food stuffs and other items were eagerly awaited as ships from England docked in December.  Later, aspects of the festival were ‘Australianised’.  The small tree, aptly named ‘Christmas Bush’, which was growing in great abundance around Sydney, became a popular substitute for the fir tree.  And large fern branches often decorated town and country churches.

And while American artist Thomas Nast introduced a ‘winter’ Santa Claus to the world in the 1860s, some enterprising Australian artists a few years later soon gave him a cooler ‘summer’ outfit, complete with kangaroo driven sleigh.  However this Australianised Santa has now all but gone.  Popular media have largely reinforced the traditional images of Santa as an obese, caucasian, white-bearded, jolly, dressed in a red suit trimmed with white fur, male, and as the bearer of gifts of toys for children (Belk 1987:87).

The Christmas event in Australia which today attracts the most numbers of participants in one form or another, is the folk ritual 'Carols-by-candlelight'.  According to Norman Habel (Habel 1980) ‘Carols’ is by and large:
(i) conducted by community organisations rather than the church;
(ii) is seen to be something for the family rather than for the so-called 'faithful';
(iii) promotes values consistent with folk attitudes rather than official church teaching, and
(iv) preserves traditional symbols commonly accepted as community based rather than those promoted by religion.

This public celebration has become an expression of a people's religion.

At the Melbourne ‘Carols’ in 1968, for example, more than 150,000 people attended the Sidney Myer Music Bowl waving candles and singing carols.  Now days that number has been reduced to just over 40,000, but many more, up to six million, will watch that same event on television, making it the second most watched special on Australian television behind the Australian Football League grand final (Bryan 1995).

In recent years many churches now combine to co-sponsor similar but smaller ‘Carols’ in local communities.  But much of this church-based activity is again often a protest: an attempt to 'put Christ back into Christmas' and as an alternative to what some call 'Dollarmas' - the materialistic and commercial take-over of a religious festival.

Invented celebration
Christmas is an invented celebration.  And it has had a chequered history.

As a Christian festival it didn’t make the church calendar of feasts until well into the 4th century and then as a result of a series of mixed motives, including the take-over of a number of rival so-called ‘pagan’ festivals such as the Roman Saturnalia (Millar 1993:10).

Much later, in the 17th century, the Puritans in England banned Christmas, while on 11 May 1659, the Legislature of the Massachusetts Bay Colony (USA) enacted the following:

“Whosoever shall be found observing any such day as Christmas or the like, either by forbearing of labour, feasting, or any other way, upon any such account as aforesaid, every such person so offending shall pay for every such offence five shillings, as a fine to the county” (Marriott 1974).

So it wasn’t until the mid 1800s that much of what we would identify as ‘Christmas’ was really celebrated.  And this came about as the result of the influence of several things, including  changes in technology, the development of a cheap commercial postal system and at least three offerings from within the arts - an imaginative poem written by an American profesor of religious studies for his daughters, some sketches inspired by that poem, and a sentimental story published in England by Charles Dickens.

With its reinvention Christmas became a global festival, narrowed down to meet the modern ideology of the nuclear family, and heavily laced with sentimentality.


Traditions were incorporated from around the world: Germany - evergreen tree; Holland - filling stockings; England - Christmas cards; Sweden - family focus; United States of America - Santa Claus; Australia - public/open air carols.  While there is still some debate about how well these traditions have been concocted or woven together, much anecdotal evidence points to the feeling that ‘this’ is the real Christmas.

Meanwhile, Daniel Millar suggests that the modern controversy which now surrounds Christmas is whether or not the most powerful of all forces, that of commerce, “has been so successful in its appropriation as to overturn and then destroy the spirit of Christmas celebrated by Dickens” (Millar 1993:4).  While many in the church would seem to agree that the problem with Christmas is commerce-based, few I feel would want to concede that a ‘loss’ is the Dickens sentimentalism.  At several workshops I have conducted, including some with church groups, their religious piety is to the fore... ‘put Christ back into Christmas’ and ‘where in the Bible is the word ‘Christmas’?’ But, when I also attempt to ‘unwrap’ the many customs which make up Christmas today, they are often shocked and insist it wouldn’t be the same without them.  They still want the tinsel!

Culture as resource for faith

Two people, from two different perspectives, have begun to shape my thinking about the way religion and culture are a part of each other and can be woven together:  post-liberal theologian Bernard Meland and religious sociologist and author Andrew Greeley.

Briefly, Meland suggests we could begin the religion/culture debate by reassessing our own attitudes to it.  We need to be open to the possibility that faith is a deeper psychical and realistic event within the culture than that “cultic experience, defined and conveyed through church doctrine and history, has made evident, and than theologians generally have recognised” (Meland 1976:86).

Much of this faith remains unarticulated and latent, “remaining as an overtone of common thought, or an undertow of feeling” (Meland 1976:86).  Thus there is culture, cultus and individual experience.

The role of the church theologian then, according to Meland, is to decide whether what is given in the witness of faith is “available only to one who stands within the community of faith” or is also available to “everyone within the cultural orbit of meaning who is open to receiving this witness” (Meland 1976:148).

Meland would suggest that what is expressed in culture is an important “supplement” to the church’s formal witness, not just a pale reflection of something else.  “It is the gospel story reenacted and communicated with the subtlety and sensitivity of the creative talent within art forms” (Meland 1976:161).

Greeley offers the suggestion that  we should start our religion/culture journey by studying those things “which ordinary people commonly consider to be religious” (Greeley 1982:10).  And for most of human history the

“telling of stories and the singing of songs and the celebrations of feasts were the only form of religious socialisation... (They) were not intended to provide propositional knowledge.  They were intended, rather, to recreate experiences, to reach into the preconscious of the creative imagination and call forth past experiences and link these experiences - poetically, not logically or philosophically - to the basic symbol arrangement which constitutes the heritage”  (Greeley 1982:87).

Offering the example of the midnight mass at Christmas, Greeley says this powerful festival is designed to recreate the experience of light and darkness rather than propound a certain theological proposition about the Incarnation.

“(T)o stir up experiences of light, dark, of fidelity and infidelity, unity and disunity, of warmth and cold, experiences which the participants have had themselves in the course of their lives, and link these experiences through the dominating stories of the religious heritage” (Greeley 1982:87-88).

Perhaps it is in the realising that

(i) the church does not have a monopoly on spirituality (or Christmas for that matter), and

(ii) popular culture provides an opportunity to experience God and to tell stories of God, that our first steps to reconnecting with culture and the way Christmas is celebrated can be taken.

Religion influences the shape of culture.  But the flow is also reciprocal.  Both are about experiences

Christmas now

Christmas can be a traumatic time.  People alone can be very lonely.  But it is also a time of celebration and good will.

Many charities have also found Christmas to be a good season to raise much needed funds.  “Despite everything,” writes Richard Frisbie,

“people are in a generous mood... (and) Christmas turns out to be basically an occasion for doing something for others and reaching out to renew human contacts.  Whatever excesses must be conceded, goodwill and joy and love are there” (Frisbie 1972:13).

Christmas should not be given up on by the church.  Instead, the church should seek to offer a more generous view, and tap into the events and grace which surround this occasion within our culture.  And it could seek to make contact with people in all their celebrations, especially with those non-regulars who regularly appear at late-night Christmas Eve services where, more often than not their welcome is like a reprimand for not attending at other times!  Many of these people make up the 51% of people who seldom attend worship services but are nonetheless religious (Hughes et.al. 1995:1).


And let us work at overcoming one of our greatest weaknesses: devising new and imaginative ways of relating to them and relating them to God.  For many find it hard to believe in God “because they do not have available to them any lively imaginative picture of the way God and the world as they know it are related” (Nineham 1977:202).

I repeat: let’s not give up on Christmas.  Instead, let this invented festival be seen for what it is: a weaving of religion and popular culture, with possibilities for the telling of the stories of God.  And a time when the church can build bridges to that 51% of the Australian society who have beliefs wider than those handed down by the church.

To do otherwise may be just scrooge grapes.


Bartsch, P. (1994). "Santa 'shot' by an angry pastor". The Courier-Mail (Thursday, 22 December), 1.

Belk, R. W.  “A child’s Christmas in America:  Santa Claus as deity, consumption as religion” Journal of American Culture 5, 10, Spring, 87-100.

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Breward, I. (1988).  Australia.  The most godless place under heaven.  VIC: Mitcham. Beacon Hill Books.

Bryan, R.  (1995).  Personal correspondence.  Royal Victorian Institute for the Blind.  In author’s personal files.

Clapp, R. (1993). “Let the pagans have the holiday” in Christianity Today 37, 14, 31-32.

Frisbie, R. (1972).  “Let’s keep the tinsel in christmas” in US Catholic, December, 12-13.

Greeley, A. M.  (1982).  Religion.  A secular theory.  NY: New York.  The Free Press.

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Hughes, P.; C. Thompson; R. Pryor; G. D. Bouma. (1995).  Believe it or not.  Australian spirituality and the churches in the 90s.  VIC: Surrey Hills.  Christian Research Association.

Marriott, D. P. (1974).  “When christmas was banned in Boston” in (Ed). M. Link. The merriest christmas book. ILL: Niles. Argus Communications.

Meland, B. E. (1976).  Fallible forms and symbols.  Discourses of method in a theology of culture.  Philadelphia.  Fortress Press.

Millar, D. (1993).  “A theory of christmas” in (Ed). D. Millar. Unwrapping christmas.  Gt. Britain: Oxford. Oxford University Press.

Nineham, D. E. (1977). “Epilogue” in (Ed). J. Hick. The myth of God incarnate. Gt. Britain: London. SCM Press. 

Riga, P. J. (1971).  “Let’s give christmas back to the pagans” in US Catholic, December, 12-13.

Shea, J. (1993). Starlight. Beholding the Christmas miracle all year long. ILL: Chicago. Thomas More Press.