Christmas as Religion: Rethinking Santa, the secular, and the sacred
Church Times Bookshop £27
CHRISTOPHER DEACY says that there is a significant presence of religion — however strikingly different from what one understands by that endlessly contested word — present at the heart of the media, especially when it comes to the contemporary Christmas.
The commercial Christmas can be understood, in terms of its social function, as just as religious as the so-called spiritual side. After all, we simplistically regard spiritual and material as binaries, whereas, on the nuanced view represented by Deacy, they interpenetrate.
This argument overlaps claims about the contemporary presence of personally appropriated spiritualities diffused in society as contrasted with tradition-bound, God-centred, dogmatically based and hierarchical — indeed, patriarchal — organised religion.
Deacy’s account of the ambiguities of the Christmas festival, and of biased evaluations of it as really Christian, or really materialistic consumption, is well done. He brings out the sources of our recently invented “traditional” Christmas in Victorian sentimental humanitarianism, medieval Catholic celebrations, and pagan ceremonies at the winter solstice.
His analysis of the symbiosis of, and essential difference between, Santa Claus and Jesus is rich in insight. The marginal link between the thin and ascetic St Nicholas and the uproarious geniality of the corpulent Santa is nicely brought out. This is intelligent analysis.
Unfortunately, Deacy also claims to have punctured the secularisation thesis, although he mostly ignores a hugely complex debate.
It is also a pity that he did not follow the sociological tradition of cross-cultural comparison with societies where Christmas has had a very different meaning and provenance, such as Russia and Scotland, or with celebrations having similar elements, such as St Patrick’s Day, Armistice Day, the Republican and Democratic conventions, the Olympics, or Hallowe’en. Corbynism and Trumpery are ripe for intimations of transcendence.
Pump up your vocabulary, demythologise it like Harry Williams from religion to Real Life, and then Eden, Jerusalem, and resurrection are ubiquitous.
This is where religious studies is useful in spawning new academic industries, and for meanderings across disciplines. Religious studies has no serious conceptual framework; so it allows you to maraud between theology, which is normative and hampered by God, and sociology, which has a conceptual framework from which you can borrow opportunistically — notably functional equivalence.
Throw in notions of the sacred, appeal to Tillich’s “ultimate concern”, relieve religion of extraneous baggage to do with God, and wander at your own sweet will. You can caricature sociologists such as
Steve Bruce as wedded to some essentialist notion of religion, deviation from which counts as secularisation.
Functional equivalence, whereby political movements are labelled “messianic”, or media celebrities
or sporting heroes are seen as analogous to figures attracting conventional religious veneration, makes secularisation impossible.
In just this way, Harvey Cox located the true end of religion in “the secular city”, although Deacy cites few precursors, unless one counts Don Cupitt.
Ritual is ubiquitous in law, the army, politics, and everyday life; so virtually anything can acquire the tincture of religion — and, indeed, can be truly religious in a way that religion in churches, hamstrung by God and binary distinctions such as religious and secular, or Kingdom and world, is not.
Deacy can locate ultimate concern infused in the rituals of acquisition themselves. People care about these things, and they are embedded in their human relationships just as they are in churches. Getting and spending, addiction to the internet, soaking up popular culture — all exemplify faith.
This is relativism on a massive scale, with no use for conventional religious concepts that are based on qualitative difference, such as judgement, truth, idolatry, or corruption.
As Bentham said: “Pushpin is as good as poetry” — if not better.
The Revd Dr David Martin is Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the London School of Economics.