Christmas: A Sacred Holiday in a Secular Age – A Conversation with Tara Moore

Albert Mohler: This is Thinking In Public, a program dedicated to intelligent conversation about frontline theological and cultural issues with the people who are shaping them. I’m Albert Mohler your host and president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. Tara Moore teaches in the writing program at Penn State University at York. She has previously authored the book Victorian Christmas In Print. Her most recent work is Christmas The Sacred To Santa. This new book was published just this year by Reaction Books in London. Dr. Moore welcome to Thinking In Public.


Tara Moore: Thank you for having me on to talk about Christmas.


Albert Mohler: Well, this is an appropriate time as the Christmas celebration here in the United States is very fast before us but your book had to have taken years in terms of research and writing and it had to be a major interest that was driving you in terms of your writing and research for years. How did you come to write a book on Christmas?


Tara Moore: Well, when I was a graduate student, we had to decide on a dissertation topic and I thought that Christmas, and I was interested in the Victorian period, I thought that Christmas would make for a pretty lively and entertaining topic certainly more upbeat than some of the other choices that I was faced with at the time. And it has, it’s continued to be something that’s been engaging and interesting and uplifting at times so I’m glad I went with it.


Albert Mohler: And of course you’re writing as a professor, you’re writing as a historian and one of the things I appreciate about the book is the attention you give to the historical issues but also to pop culture and not only in times past but today. But one of the things that I was thinking about as I read your book is that you’re not only an academic you’re also a mom.


Tara Moore: Yes. And so, this research has informed the way that I think about Christmas as I transmit our traditions to my three daughters recognizing some of the roles that women play, especially in carrying sometimes the burden of the Christmas rituals. So, I’ve tried to come to terms with that as I recognized it in our own family but I mean we all work together and we have a wonderful time decorating and celebrating. So for them, my oldest daughter wants to read the book but really I don’t have to overload them with all the information that I discovered.


Albert Mohler: All in good time and the time is a big theme of your work as a matter of fact because it is a work of history and a very interesting arrangement in terms of the organization of the book. But one of the things that I think is just front and center is the fact that we’re looking at the fact that Christmas is a tradition that has evolved, that has developed over a very long period of time and there’s a sense in which those who knew Christmas even a century ago would be rather astounded by the developments that Christmas has undergone since then. So you begin the story there in terms of the historical origins of what celebrated by Christians at Christmas in terms of the incarnation of Jesus Christ but you also make very clear that your book is really dealing with Christmas in the intersection of the sacred and the secular that really began a very long time ago.


Tara Moore: Yes. I think the fact that Christmas has developed and has evolved in so many different ways was one of the things that was the most surprising to me as I was researching it. We think that the way we celebrate Christmas today is how it has always been celebrated but that really can’t be said. I mean even in the 1890s Christmas was still changing a lot in America and how people celebrated it. So, and that’s just a little more than a hundred years ago. Some people were ignoring Christmas and refusing to celebrate Christmas and it took them another decade or so to really embrace it even in the Protestant section of society. So, it has changed a good bit and I mean let’s see it started being celebrated around in the 300s and it was controversial to start celebrating Christmas then. So it wasn’t so much the secular and religious conflict happening right then it was more within the religious sector. The church was deciding do we want to celebrate this as a feast? And of course eventually they did.


Albert Mohler: Yeah let’s talk about that origin in about the third century in terms of the churches, the Christian celebration of Christmas. How did that arise and why then?


Tara Moore: Well, it took awhile for the church to settle down. For a long time they had so many, they were being persecuted, they were trying to develop as an entity. And so, by about the fourth century they started to have some real security and they could look around them and decide, “What kind of rituals do we want to transmit? How do we want to continue as a body?” And so, that was when they had, and they were also had worked through some doctrinal issues. So, now they’re at the point where they feel secure enough that they can make these decisions.


And so, we see in Antioch and in some places the local churches were making choices to start celebrating the feast of Christmas and some churches were holding out. We have some very old documents showing that there were leaders of churches who were calling the celebration of Christmas, it was called the feast of the nativity then, newfangled and possibly dangerous but it spread and it became a useful tool for missionaries as they were working their way across Europe. So, and once that became a part of the culture it was there to stay.


Albert Mohler: The traditional Christian historic understanding of the development not only of Christmas but of several other of the central festivals of the Christian year is that for the earliest Christians the calendar itself became a teaching instrument of what was called the catechesis of disciples of teaching them in the faith. And so, even as Easter or the great celebration, the festival of the resurrection of Jesus Christ is a far more important holiday in virtually every Christian church theologically speaking than Christmas was or even now is you needed the starting point. They needed to talk about how the incarnation had taken place when God decisively acted in the birth of Jesus Christ and even in the story proceeding that. And so, to what extent would you think that what the church was doing was finding a way through the course of the year to tell the story?


Tara Moore: Well, I know that they were trying to figure out when to place Christmas and that was a bit of a debate for them and I agree that Easter is a larger liturgical event but Christmas, at least the way we’re familiar with it today, it seems to because of all the secular hoopla that has added on to it, it seems to be a larger celebration in our culture. I’m not sure exactly how well that featured in the original churches that were celebrating Christmas and we don’t have that many records. I mean we have very little evidence of even how it was celebrated back then and the earliest churches that celebrated it. We only have I think the earliest image is a carving on a sarcophagus of the nativity and that isn’t even really a celebration. So it is hard to say what exactly the thought process was there.


We know that when the earliest church fathers were trying to figure out the dating of Christmas they were looking at, well when could Jesus have been present on earth. They were looking at the facts in the gospel stories. They were also trying to figure out what the significance that they felt different parts of the year held. For example, they thought that March back then was the beginning of the year, they felt that was the time for new life. So some people were arguing that this should be the time of Christmas because this is the new life of Christ coming to earth. Later on the people who argued and won the argument were arguing that that would’ve been the time of his conception on earth so and then his birth would have been a very routine and nine months later birth happening and that would happen in December.


Albert Mohler: Yeah. Thinking of it in terms of its context one of the points that I wanted to make is that the church settled on the fact that it would celebrate the resurrection very early. As a matter of fact even in the book of Revelation we’re told that Christians met together for worship on the first day of the week even in a weekly cycle of celebrating the resurrection. And the idea at least in terms of any consensus of celebrating the nativity of Christ that that came later but I think it’s understandable. In terms of telling the story they had to begin, at least in terms of the Christian gospel narrative, even where the gospels began right there in the beginning. But in terms of your research and in your writing when you look at this celebration of Christmas that came so early, what do you think was the main point of it? What was the main concern of those who began a festival that became known as Christmas?


Tara Moore: Well, and we don’t have so much evidence about that but I can only imagine it was celebrating the joyful beginning of Jesus’s walk toward the cross. So, I think recognizing that this was his start, the start of his ministry he had to get there and there was so many miraculous elements in the nativity narrative that added interesting details to how we and they both think about Christmas. So, I think it did spark the imagination and it was certainly I know a big enough deal for them to pause and want to work into their calendar.


Albert Mohler: In terms of the calendar you referenced the fact that at least some pagan antecedents were present in terms of the organization, the calendar, there were pagan festivals, cultural festivals having to do with the winter tide. How closely is the development of Christmas tied to the absorption of those antecedent holidays?


Tara Moore: Well, we do have evidence that missionaries who were sent into Europe were encouraged to make use of pagan practices to get the attention of the people living in those regions. So we know that some people were, they went to Europe, they found in places in Germany and as they get a little further north that there was a celebration called yule and that was scheduled during the midwinter time period so around what we would consider December 21st, their dating system was a little different, but that’s around the winter solstice. And so, the missionaries made good use of the excitement of that time period and as they were sharing their faith they harnessed that, those rituals and redirected them into a new direction, the celebration of Christ’s birth.


I’ve been asked before if Christmas has pagan origins and I don’t really see this as a pagan origin of Christmas I think this is a blending of the European tradition and the desire to celebrate during that mid winter solstice. And it seems like a natural time to choose to celebrate Christmas. Because really we don’t have very, a very clear idea about the date of the actual birth of Christ. So I think we can, well I think the missionaries were fine being a little flexible with their dating as well.


Albert Mohler: Well, and of course even the dating we know today has been shifted at least three or four significant times in western history as church and cultural officials have actually reset the calendar, thus the Gregorian calendar and all the rest. So at least we’re in the neighborhood and I think that’s probably the most any historian would claim about some of these developments. In terms of Santa Claus and Saint Nicholas one of the most interesting chapters of your book is entitled Characters of Christmas and you deal with Nicholas of Myra and the cult that grew up around him in terms of Christian devotion and you deal with Santa Claus and in one place you described them as having a modern merger of the two figures. So unwind them for us and tell us how they get merged.


Tara Moore: Yes, this is, they are so wrapped up it is very difficult to tell the story because it isn’t even just these two characters we also have a couple others that add to the patina of the Santa Claus figure that we know today. But yes, Saint Nicholas of Myra was a bishop of the time. We knew that he was a real man who traveled to the council of Nicea and had some interaction there but there also was quickly after his death he became a Saint and there were different myths associated with him. So, he was seen as a gift bringer so he also developed into this character who would bring gifts. In certain countries around in December usually Saint Nicholas Day is early in December so but he’s seen as a gift bringer.


And then if you fast forward to when people, the settlers were coming to America we see that the name of Saint Nicholas made it to America but it’s a little confusing about whether or not that’s actually the saint who was from Turkey, modern day Turkey. So, but the gift bringer idea was present because the settlers were some people from Germany where they also had gift bringer characters, they had different names. And so Santa Claus has really changed his name and changed his looks over the years. There is some evidence that people were aware of a wild man of Europe and some people think that he developed into Santa Claus a little bit, he developed into the gift bringers that were original to the Alpine region of Germany.


And so, when the settlers in America were thinking about gift bringers and waiting to see who would bring them presents some of those people would refer to the gift bringer as the Belsnickel because that’s the German name for this gift bringer. And finally in the 1800s we saw this nexus of these characters coming together and people got to know a little bit more about who Santa was. So, especially this developed because of print media and so while there were a lot of different local ideas once print media was being dispersed nationally things got standardized the same way that the dictionary has standardized the English language Santa Claus got standardized.


So, his name was sometimes referred to as Saint Nicholas but he was being drawn in a new way. He was no longer a Bishop now he still might wear some fur trimming his suit but back then in the 1800s he was a little bit, a little rougher around the edges then we think of the guy today. He might have the red nose of a drunk and he was covered in soot meaning he was pretty dirty. So the character that Thomas Nast drew in the 1860s he was an illustrator for Harper’s Weekly and his pictures really crystallized what Santa looks like and they still hold for us today. There wasn’t any color for them but he was remembering the gift bringer as he knew that him back in Germany.


So, there’s this blend between gift bringers in Germany and gift bringers in Turkey plus the name Santa Claus is most likely a Dutch name if not a mix of a German term. So, he finally got standardized in the late 1800s about 1880 because of some poems and some stories that were being written about him. So, now we see this clear figure and he seems to look the same in every department store you go to but that’s only because of the work of print media that happened over a hundred years ago.


Albert Mohler: And a specific item of print media and you acknowledge it in your book and other historians do as well, it was a 1931 Coca Cola ad that offered the face of Santa Claus as virtually everyone might for the first time recognize him as he is often depicted today.


Tara Moore: Yes. Then we had the color red come in. Before that some of these gift bringing characters were wearing brown and they were wearing green so Coca-Cola really harnessed their own brand of red and that’s what we’re used to today. Also those, the 1930s pictures had cleaned up Santa, he no longer looked like a drunk, he no longer was dirty. So even though he was going up and down chimneys he seems to do so and stay pretty clean. But so, the images really stick in our minds and now that’s where we are and I don’t think Santa Claus is going to change all that much in American culture. He does look a little different around the world depending on the climate. Sometimes he wears shorts, sometimes he’s not quite so rotund, but otherwise he’s pretty much crystallized for us today.


Albert Mohler: Frankly it’s sad that there are not enough Christians who know about the historic roots in terms of the Christian tradition and church history in terms of the celebration of Christmas and even someone like Saint Nicholas. Because in terms of the theological importance of Saint Nicholas it’s important to recognize that he was involved in the council of Nicea, the first of the ecumenical councils of the church. That is the council that drew together virtually all of the churches of the known world at the time in order to deal with the most pressing theological issue of that day, which was the full deity of Jesus Christ, that he was of the same substance as the father. And the Christian tradition records the fact that Saint Nicholas of Myra, the Bishop in the area now known as Turkey was a great defender of Christian orthodoxy and of the full biblical understanding of Christ.


And indeed, there’s a tradition that is at least passed down now through many, many centuries that it was the bishop now known as Saint Nicholas who punched Arius the heretic in the face at that very counsel. Whether that actual punch in the face happened between Nicholas and Arius is not well known and cannot be historically determined but as one church history professor I had decades ago said, “Well if it didn’t happen it should have.”


In terms of Christmas as a holiday there are tremendous regional variations and you make reference to that. But reading your book convinced me of something I really hadn’t thought so clearly about before and that is that our American experience of Christmas is really historically dependent upon the traditions of Germany and of Victorian Britain perhaps more than anything else. And I was really interested in reading your book to think through some of the characteristic differences between the German and the English celebrations of Christmas.


Tara Moore: Yes. This is still hard to track down today because how we celebrate in cultural issues are not always written about very carefully or recorded at the time. So what I discovered was that well in the United Kingdom before the Victorian period, before the 1800s, Christmas was more about maybe gift giving from people who were wealthy or to their dependent’s, people on their land and maybe opening their home up to for a feast but it wasn’t about children and Christmas trees were not really featuring. There were some decorations, greens were being hung up but it was a different look to Christmas entirely. And Germany also was changing its celebration of Christmas but by the early 1800s Germany had changed enough to have a child focus in their Christmas.


And this was written about by several English writers, it got into the English magazines. And this was a time when England was trying to develop its own national identity. Print media was growing so people were reading more, learning more about expectations about how they were thinking about, “Well how can we celebrate?” And so, the English were interested in adopting this child focus of Christmas. They also had more disposable income at this time because of their changing economy so they were able to have some extra money to spend on children.


So it went from, in England at least and that’s what carried over mostly to America, it went from a celebration where gifts were given to the poor to a celebration where gifts were given between equals and also to children. And the child focus really came about by the 1860s and ’70s and that’s also when the Christmas tree was being established as a focal point in the domestic holiday that was really celebrated in the home. So people were instead of mixing in the public spaces or in the great house on the great estate where you went into that place and then left and Christmas was over. Now Christmas was something that the family prepared on a domestic level and it was very treasured. And so, I think we still look back, at least I have a sense that we look back on the Victorian Christmas is somehow an ideal Christmas and also the German Christmas as an ideal Christmas. We see decorations that are Victorian.


Albert Mohler: That Victorian English or British idealized Christmas was somewhat intentionally fostered by the Monarch, by Queen Victoria. And you a matter of fact reproduce in your book an image from Illustrated London News in 1848 showing the royal family with Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and their children gathered around a Christmas tree and you and others have pointed out that that really helped to popularize, even to legitimate the idea of a Christmas tree as part of the Christmas celebration in the home.


Tara Moore: Yes. There probably were some Christmas trees being used in England before that time period but the royal family had deep German roots. And so, Queen Victoria grew up speaking German herself, that was her native language although she was being raised in London, she spoke English beautifully but she actually learned several languages. But, and then her husband came directly from Germany when he married her. So they had a lot of connection with German culture and in Germany we did see the Christmas tree developing earlier. We’re not really sure why or how. There are several myths and they seem to have replaced any sense of the true story of how people started bringing Christmas trees into their home. But yeah so, when that was in print, once again print media dispersed that image and it looked like such a happy, joyful family image that other especially middle class families wanted to replicate that in their own homes and so they did so.


Albert Mohler: When you’re thinking about the differences between the English and the German Christmas you point to the Christmas tree and of course that very historic and interesting linkage between the monarchy and its ties to Germany and to even the deep forested areas of Germany where so many of the tree stories and traditions of Germany began. But you also update it just demonstrating in the 20th century even as the Nazis in the Nazi regime in Germany tried to basically marginalize all claims about Christ and all Christian symbolism even Herman Gehring allowed the singing of O Tenenbaum.


Tara Moore: Yes. This was something that surprised me. I am fascinated by the history of World War II but I didn’t realize that the leadership, the Nazi leadership, was interested in stamping out Christianity entirely in their country it was a very atheist regime. And so yeah, they made plans to redirect the energies of Christmas. They wanted to maintain Christmas but make it more of a celebration of the people and a celebration of being Germanic.


So they offered some tips. They put out flyers about how to bake cookies that were different from the old type of cookies. They wanted cookies that were more German and they had symbols in these cookies for how it represented the best of being German. They also, they changed the lyrics in some of the Christmas carols and at least one Christmas carol they put out they forbade school children and children in certain institutions from singing the Christian version and they worked the name of Hitler into these Christmas carols. So the children were being redirected away from the Christian Christmas certainly into the celebration of the Nazis version of Germany.


Albert Mohler: The controversy over Christmas though isn’t just limited to the 20th century or even now to the 21st but goes back to a very deep issue of controversy rooted in the period of the great reformation of the 16th century in which case you had the majority of the reformers in the reform traditions being opposed to the practice of Christmas is basically a vestige of popery.


Tara Moore: Yes, and this seemed to have been, this was displayed most clearly I think in the parliament that took over in the 1600s when it was influenced by the Scottish church and because of a treaty that was signed with Scotland the Puritans who were in power in parliament in England they made a lot of laws to limit Christmas and censor Christmas. So for example, they tried to change the name of Christmas to Christ tied but they also didn’t want people celebrating in a joyous manner or with drinking or feasting on Christmas. They wanted it to be a day of mourning and trying to make people feel bad about the excesses of the past. So, and they tried to also always schedule parliament for Christmas day to say, “This is a work day. You don’t take off this day.” And they didn’t want people decorating in public either. So they tried to stamp out Christmas. It really only went underground and by the time King Charles the second came back it popped right back up.


Albert Mohler: And it’s interesting that of course the reformation tradition you’re citing there is English speaking puritanism in particular but I would simply point out as a historical theologian that this points to a distinction amongst the reformation churches from the beginning. Because Luther himself, Martin Luther was far more amenable to keeping the festival days of the Catholic calendar. And so, in the Lutheran churches there’s always been a greater openness to affirming many of those Catholic festivals and even saint days that continued.


And so, it is interesting to me as a theologian to look at this and see that Luther himself wrote nativity hymns and Luther himself very clearly embraced what we would call Christmas, he would not, but rather the festival of the nativity as something that was good for the church, righteous for the church, joyous for the church to celebrate. Meanwhile the traditions more influenced by Calvin and the reform tradition were far more concerned that these festivals would be co-opted by other energies and would become vestiges of the wrong kind of devotion. And so, it is interesting that the very illustration you raised was an indication of that distinction and it came to the United States where very famously the Puritans who came here early on had gray suspicions about Christmas as well.


Tara Moore: Yes, they did. We know that one of the earliest, December 25ths that the Plymouth Pilgrims celebrated brought about some controversy because the non pilgrims among them, they called them the strangers they wanted to celebrate Christmas. But the pilgrims said, “Well this would be all right as long as you do it tucked away. Don’t become public with your Christmas celebration. Because everybody else is working and we don’t want them to be jealous.” Well, the strangers took it into the streets, they were playing some games, they were excited because it was Christmas and this caused tension so for the community. This continued especially in the North of America for a long time.


Now further in the south where there was more, the Lutherans developed some churches and some of the other denominations were more willing to celebrate Christmas from the start. But the Northern colonies were not as welcoming to Christmas and really that debate continued until the 1880s and 1890s where Quakers were slowly, became more welcoming to Christmas and Presbyterians really held a tough line against Christmas for decades. And today Presbyterian churches and I mean, most all of these churches are out there celebrating and Christmas really transforms their December calendar.


Albert Mohler: Absolutely. An interesting issue that is perhaps the most raging current controversy amongst Christians over Christmas is the consumer culture and its intrusions into the holiday. One of the interesting things you point out in your book by the way is that for many, many centuries basically the gift giving was you said first of all directed to the poor but otherwise the gifts were often food. The extension was of food and hospitality rather than of toys or consumer products. At least some economic historians say that the rise of the modern consumer Christmas is actually even more recent than had been understood and can be traced back to the period in the very early 20th century in the United States with the development of the great department stores like Macy’s and with the effort to come up with a great advertising surge. In other words they’re saying there couldn’t be the kind of consumerism we have now without the mass production of products and without the consumer culture and modern advertising that came really well into the 20th century.


Tara Moore: Yes, that’s true. We know that there were immigrants coming from countries like Norway where that over there in the early part of the 20th century Christmas gifts tended to be handmade clothes and also in the late 1800s but they came to America and they were a little shocked by how everything was store-bought and they felt that they needed to shift into the American Christmas. But that build of store bought gifts that just continued and continued but it really was not part of the global Christmas until the middle and even after the middle of the 20th century. Because we have evidence that even in France in the 1950s there were French priests who were saying this developing Americanized Christmas that we have here in France now we don’t like it. We want to shift away from this commercialism and back to a religious celebration of the holiday. So I mean and that just seems so recent when now gift-giving and gift buying seems like such an enormous part of the holiday. It feels like it was always here but that really is not the case.


Albert Mohler: The most recent controversies over Christmas generally have been about well how Christmas as an explicitly Christian holiday is now situated in an increasingly secularizing culture and you make some references to this at the end of your book but how do you think that situation now stands? How does Christmas now come to be understood by a society that is almost by any measure becoming far more secularized in any point in recent past?


Tara Moore: Well I have been thinking about this. It seems like Christmas is just so enormous, it’s such a big machine that within it there seems to be two separate entities if not more different parts of Christmas and at times they’re in conflict with each other but that really isn’t anything new. Although Christmas has been standardized over the years, at least the rituals have been standardized, there’s always been a conflict within it between how religious should the celebration be. And now we’re seeing that it’s more between the secular and the religious celebration expression of the holiday. So yeah, I think that people who are choosing to celebrate they might choose a little of both or they might try to retreat to one side or the other but it’s probably never going to coalesce into a single identity of Christmas. I think there’s always going to be multiple expressions of Christmas out there and our society is continuing to adapt and develop ways to be okay with this. And I think it’s, we’re in a rough patch right now.


Albert Mohler: A rough patch indeed that sometimes ends up in the headlines and sometimes in the courtrooms but one of the great highlights of your book is demonstrating the controversy over Christmas isn’t new. It’s been around ever since even Christians alone have talked about Christmas much less when you get into the context of a secular age. Professor Moore, thank you so much for joining me for Thinking In Public. I will tell you there have been many books about Christmas I could not recommend but I’m very glad to find yours and I want to tell you how much I enjoyed it.


Tara Moore: Well thank you so much. I’m glad you enjoyed it.


Albert Mohler: I wish for you and your family a very merry Christmas.


Tara Moore: To yours as well.


Albert Mohler: I really enjoyed the conversation with Tara Moore about Christmas and frankly I enjoyed her book as well. There have been a good many bad books written about Christmas and frankly that pile is pretty high. It’s good to find a book that is a worthy consideration of Christmas and one that I think is written from the vantage point of someone who has a keen awareness of history and is also very concerned about the cultural developments of Christmas and what Christmas represents. Her book is well documented. It’s well written. It’s also delightfully illustrated and those illustrations help to drive home the point about the development. of Christmas and even the standardization of so many of the things that we simply take for granted.


We use the word tradition in the Christian life and in the Christian Church often without understanding how superficial beneath the things we claim to be traditions actually are. Some of the Christmas traditions are very venerable. They are worthy. They go all the way back to the New Testament and to the depiction of the nativity indeed even the conception of Christ found in terms of the two gospels of Luke and Matthew in particular. And then we find that even the earliest Christians understood that the only way to tell the story of Jesus is to begin in the nativity. But we also come to understand that many of the things we think are traditions about Christmas that must have been around for centuries and centuries if not all the way back to the beginnings of the church simply are not so beginning with the Christmas tree. And even with the fact that December the 25th is celebrated at least by most Christians as Christmas and even the kind of gift giving that is now associated with Christmas that simply wasn’t a part of the festival of the nativity as the church first experienced it.


One of the other features of Tara Moore’s new book on Christmas, and again the title is Christmas The Sacred to Santa is that she does deal with theological issues sometimes in ways that are frankly somewhat unexpected. For instance, she not only points to the cultural distinctions between the British or we might say the English and the German traditions but she also deals with the fact that there were theological distinctives as well. One of the interesting things she looks at is the history of Christmas carols and how these songs became very folksy over time but how they began in more formal Christological affirmations. And furthermore she notes something really interesting that I haven’t seen much theological attention given to before and that is the fact that Christmas became more and more associated with Christology in particular about the person of Christ rather than the work of Christ.


Whereas in the German tradition there have been a lot of attention to atonement. In the English tradition it became far more centralized in terms of a focus on the historical birth of Jesus and in particular the baby. But let’s think about that for just a moment, that baby Jesus is not as threatening to the secular world as the atoning Christ is and that leads to the fact that at least in terms of this country the development of Christmas as a major consumer holiday has been one that has found a way to do its best to domesticate baby Jesus. And perhaps a good many Christians, Christian pastors and Christian churches, Christian parents and all those who follow Christ should consider whether or not we sometimes kind of aid and abet that marginalization of Christ by the way we see Christmas being told. Even when the facts are right, even when there’s an appropriate concern for the infant Christ we need to be very clear that it is the Christ who died for our sins and was raised on the third day that is worshiped even as he was born in Bethlehem and laying in a manger.


It’s also good for evangelical Christians who often don’t step back to think about such things to recognize that we are traditioned creatures. We are produced by traditions that we inherit and then we further the development of those traditions as we passed them down in our own time to our own children and grandchildren and beyond. That’s a very important affirmation because it helps us to understand that when we experience something like Christmas even in the most intentionally Christian and theological way we’re doing so in ways that aren’t starting from some kind of neutral ground we’re starting from a very traditioned position. And we need to go back and reconsider those traditions in light of scriptural truth and in light of the demands of Christian devotion and indeed even the context of Christian worship.


It’s good for evangelical Christians also to recognize that controversies over Christmas aren’t new. Sometimes we can look at some of the collisions between the Christian celebration of Christmas and the secularized attempt to co-op Christmas or even the secular hostility towards the Christmas holiday. We can look at that and say, “Well, that’s a new development.” Well, it’s new in one sense but it’s not as new as we might like to think. But honestly one of the aspects of Tara Moore’s book I most appreciate is the fact that she reflects on the fact that even as the secularists try to co-op Christmas and even as the consumer culture seem somehow often to almost smother it the reality is is that Christmas remains resolutely a theological holiday. And even those who have tried to completely secularize it find that virtually to be impossible. After all, just think of the name of the holiday and think about what it very clearly declares this is Christmas.


Given a recent book deadline I had to delay the new season of Thinking In Public sometime but I’m glad to say we’ll be back soon in full force after the first of the year in 2015. This is something of a Christmas gift, a very special edition of Thinking In Public having to do with a book about Christmas written by an author with a real contribution to make. I hope you’ve enjoyed the conversation, I surely enjoyed my conversation with Tara Moore and even more than that I certainly hope and pray for you, and for your family, for your congregation and for everyone within your reach a wonderful Christ filled joyous and glorious Christmas. We’ll look forward to the full season of Thinking In Public beginning in just a matter of weeks.


For more information on the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to For information on Boyce College just go to Thank you for joining me for Thinking In Public. Until next time keep thinking, I’m Albert Mohler.



Tara Moore teaches in the writing program at Pennsylvania State University in York. She has previously authored Victorian Christmas in Print. Her most recent work is Christmas: The Sacred to Santa.