The true meaning of Christmas: Holidays as assimilation

Cheyenne Tex/Staff

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The minute a slight chill in the wind could be felt, my child self had one desire: to celebrate Christmas. The music flooding my ears across shopping malls, the lights shining along streets and the trees adorning every storefront window only reinforced my wishes.

One year, obsessed with capturing my vision of the holiday, I meticulously planned a Christmas dinner for my family. After scouring the internet, I came up with the perfect six-course dinner menu that I printed out and placed on the dining table. I had never so much as turned on an oven, leaving my poor mother to be tasked with cooking this extravagant meal. My Christmas fetish didn’t stem from a love of ham or candy canes, but rather a desire to fit in with the picture-perfect white nuclear family I saw inextricably intertwined with the holiday.

Christmas is the most widely celebrated holiday in the United States with nine out of 10 Americans participating. While it celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ, it is also a performance of American capitalism. Nine out of 10 Americans also say buying gifts was how they marked the holidays growing up. This year’s holiday sales are expected to total to $1 trillion in the United States, and it has been calculated that a quarter of all personal spending takes place during Christmas, with each adult spending upwards of $920 alone. Adam Smith would be proud.

Because of its far-reaching commercial appeal, it comes as no surprise that Christmas is as much of a secular event as it is a religious day of observance. According to the Pew Research Center, 32% of Americans who said they celebrated Christmas said it was less about religion and more of a cultural holiday for them. And while many groups other than white people celebrate the holiday, it is almost exclusively marketed in connection to whiteness.

Because of its far-reaching commercial appeal, it comes as no surprise that Christmas is as much of a secular event as it is a religious day of observance.

Each year, holiday blockbusters and the ubiquitous advertisements running on loop almost exclusively feature a white or whitewashed family exercising their privilege to conspicuously consume to their heart’s content. One of the most popular Christmas movies is about a little rich boy whose family leaves him behind on a trip to Paris, forcing him to defend his mansion against a bunch of ragged robbers.

Flip through any cable channel come December and it will be littered with wealthy and — surprise! — white men and women facing tiny, almost laughable obstacles, only to come together at the end and sit under the tree with their gifts in their luxurious homes. Thus, it’s no surprise that “Love Actually,” “Four Christmases” and “The Holiday” are dubbed seasonal classics.

Movies are noticeably whiter than the changing demographics that make up the United States population, yet holiday movies in particular seem to take this whiteness to an extreme. Film scholar André Seewood analyzes that “the notions of privilege, power, and control associated with upper class status is still seen through the prism of Whiteness on the movie screen.” And, in a season where aspirational marketing reigns supreme, who wouldn’t want to watch and vicariously possess these virtues?

The United States’ demographic shift carries with a democratization of the holiday season. Suddenly advertisers and retailers are understanding that December consists of not just Christmas but also Hanukkah, Kwanzaa and HumanLight, and choosing to opt for the more generic “happy holidays.” 

This move away from Christmas has been met with sharp pushback, with many viewing it as a “War on Christmas.” In 2008, Lowes released its winter catalogue, which labeled the trees it sold as “family trees” rather than Christmas trees. Facing immense backlash, Lowes later stated it did not want to offend non-Christians. Their desire for inclusivity, however, ended up backfiring and offending many Christians. The company further released a statement clarifying that the misnaming “was a complete error” and that they were “disappointed in this breakdown in (their) own creative process.”

Christians around the world do face appalling persecution — however, this almost exclusively occurs outside of the Western world, where the War on Christmas is supposedly being fought.

The outrage over this seemingly innocuous naming mixup seems slightly misplaced given how many other grave incidents seem to be plaguing the world at any second.

The outrage over this seemingly innocuous naming mixup seems slightly misplaced given how many other grave incidents seem to be plaguing the world at any second. It appears to capture, however, the larger fear many white Christian Americans have over the changing country and the move away from centuries of seeing themselves as the sole face of the country. The idea that a war is being fought against them through a mere change in terminology seems almost laughable. Reverend J.C. Austin, pastor and head of staff at First Presbyterian Church in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, agrees:  “(If) saying ‘Happy Holidays’ is an intentional cultural displacement of Christianity, then insisting on ‘Merry Christmas’ is an intentional displacement of everyone else.”

The United States’ obsession with preserving whiteness can also be seen in the desire to claim Santa, a mythical figure, as white. After an article on Slate was published about the dissociation one feels as a Black Christian in the United States with only white symbols to fixate on, Fox News picked up the story to set the record straight: Then-news anchor Megyn Kelly declared, “Santa just is white. Santa is what he is. I just wanted to get that straight.” Later, Kelly announced, “Jesus was a white man, too,” suggesting that she has no idea where Nazareth actually is.

Christmas’ deep embedment in our culture can leave those who don’t celebrate the holiday isolated and envious of a holiday where you don’t even have to go to church and yet somehow wake up to a pile of gifts under a family tree.

During my family’s first and last Christmas I had one job: to bake a red velvet cake. I followed every instruction and measured every ingredient meticulously before I carefully placed my cake in the oven. Yet the cake failed to rise even an inch off the pan. My angsty young self saw it as a metaphor for my Christmases year after year. I put in copious amounts of effort to celebrate the holiday only for it to never come to fruition, my parents refusing to celebrate something that had no significance to them.

Now, I’m content binging holiday movies with Chinese takeout, understanding how my idea of Christmas, like most other things in life, was a social construct engineered by capitalism to perpetuate white America.

Contact Zara Khan at [email protected].