"There's no underestimating the intelligence of the American public," H.L. Mencken is reported to have said. That may well be true, but there's certainly no underestimating the propensity of educated but unwise urbanites to transform holidays into bacchanalia. The latest such effort is SantaCon, a drunken party where attendees wear cheap red outfits reminiscent of Santa Claus. And it is spreading to more and more cities each year. "Think Burning Man with a little eggnog thrown in and you're starting to get the picture," explained a hip NPR reporter to her hip listeners. The purpose of SantaCon, depending on whom you ask, turns on making Christmas less ... something: less commercial, less traditional, less stuffy, less virginal, less sober.
Before it was Christmas, the popular understanding goes, this holiday was a pagan winter celebration. It's not altogether clear that this is true; Pope Benedict XVI argues that December 25 is simply what you get when you add nine months to March 25, the Feast of the Annunciation. Whether by intention or serendipity or something else altogether, Christians appropriated the pagan winter celebrations the way a company might buy out a competitor, keeping the location to which everyone was accustomed but gradually getting folks to think of it as having different significance.
While we seized the ground, we didn't hold it. We succeeded in supplanting the pagan holiday, but we didn't rid ourselves of the pagans. Instead, a good many of us joined in, gradually helping to associate Christmas with over-consumption, drunken revelry, and self-centered celebration. One can't help but wonder if Christ would just as soon have us call what America now celebrates something else, something that doesn't invoke his name. In this I find myself increasingly on the side of the grievance-minded and the anti-Christians-let's publicly call this big event the "Happy Holidays," or "Winter Festival," or even "Saturnalia," and stop-for the love of God-calling it Christmas. Maybe we could revert to the time of Roman persecution and quietly celebrate the birth of Christ in our churches and homes, in the hope that Christmas-Christ Mass-becomes once again something holy, and not just another excuse to live like Roman emperors.