Writing for Christianity Today in December 1993, Rodney Clapp noted the beginnings of a cottage industry, the Christmas protest, that would balloon into a full-blown cable news extravaganza a mere decade and a half later:
It is time to recognize that a new tradition has been added to Christmas. As surely as trees and lights and reindeer, December now brings Christian complaints about the secularization of the holiday. T-shirts and posters and preachers declare, “Jesus Is the Reason for the Season,” but their protests are drowned in the commercial deluge.
Christmas is ruled not from Jerusalem or Rome or Wheaton or any other religious center, but from Madison Avenue and Wall Street. In a revealing symbolic act, President George [H.W.] Bush two years ago inaugurated the season not, mind you, in a church, but in a shopping mall. There he bought some socks and reminded Americans their true Christmas responsibility is not veneration but consumption.
Clapp’s main argument is that Christmas, when it rises above Easter in prominence, cannot help but become a post-Christian holiday. Separated from the stark ugliness of Good Friday, he asserts, the idyllic picture that appears over so many fireplaces (including the Gilmour house’s) becomes a monument not to divine grace but to Enlightenment-flavored moral sentimentality:
Christmas celebrated without the events of Easter overshadowing is too easily sentimentalized and secularized. A baby in a manger, angels hovering overhead, cattle lowing nearby—surely this idyllic world needs no redemption. A dechristianized Christmas is the ultimate Pelagian holiday; for at what other time of the year can we seem so certain that, merely with good feelings and good will, humanity can save itself? Annually, in fact, newspaper editorials and television commentators say exactly that, pleading that all the world needs is to spread Christmas cheer through the year.
I agree with him about the sentimentality of the Charlie Brown version of things, but I do wonder whether (now arises the N.T. Wright fan) some more historical awareness might give Christmas back some of its distinctively Christian character. When I read the opening chapters of Matthew and Luke, I see in the former a mad King Herod, with Pharaoh’s soul but with a tenuous grasp on the power bestowed to him by Marc Antony, murdering villages full of children for fear that a Parthian Jewish revolt will break out when the countryside, always friendlier with Persia than with Rome, rallies around their new king and throws out the Roman collaborator whose pig, according to a saying attributed to Augustus Caesar, was safer than his sons. I see in the latter Mary singing one of the most blatantly revolutionary songs of the New Testament and then shepherds, at once the old world’s symbol for kings but deprived of the most basic legal rights in Roman Palestine, greeted by angels, those fierce and fiery and normally invisible warriors who delivered Elisha from the armies of Syria, and told that those with whom God’s favor rests will soon see peace. In other words, war and crisis surround the birth of Christ in the New Testament, and the psychological harrowing Clapp finds in Easter one could easily find in the nativity texts themselves if one had eyes to see.
None of this is to say that Clapp does not know of these things; neither is it to say that his emphasis on Easter is a bad one. I’m just trying to add an a fortiori to his valid argument, demonstrating that if one can find such things in traditional Christmas texts themselves, even more so should Christians, whose annual cycle pivots on Easter not Christmas, be able to see what Clapp sees given Easter.