The Persistence of Christmas: A Conversation with Historian Gerry Bowler

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.

Dr. Gerry Bowler received his Ph.D from King’s College in London and currently teaches at University of Manitoba. He was the founding director of the Center for the Study of Christianity in Contemporary Culture at Calgary’s Nazarene University College. While Dr. Bowler’s research and writing interests range widely, he has written prolifically on Christmas, including The World Encyclopedia of Christmas and Santa Claus: A Biography. His most recent book is Christmas in the Crosshairs: Two-Thousand Years of Denouncing and Defending the World’s Most Celebrated Holiday. As the title of the book indicates, it’s an invitation into a consideration of Christmas and its importance and its history.

Dr. Bowler, welcome to Thinking in Public.


MOHLER: Professor Bowler, the title of your book is an eye-catcher: Christmas in the Crosshairs: Two-Thousand Years of Denouncing and Defending the World’s Most Celebrated Holiday. I have to tell you, that’s a pretty provocative title. Why has Christmas been controversial from the start?

BOWLER: Christmas is enormously important. It is central to the Christian message. The notion of the incarnation of God becoming man is something that is inescapable when we think of the Christian message, and over the years it has grown enormously as a social and commercial event—a political event in many cases. It now has a global reach, so I guess it’s not a surprise that there have been 2000 years of argument about it.

MOHLER: I think it would be a surprise to a lot of contemporary Christians, perhaps even to secularists among us, who might know that Christmas is controversial now in terms of language like “a war on Christmas” and other more contemporary issues, but I think there would be a good many who would not understand what you document so well. That is the origins of Christmas in controversy throughout the Christian church in Christian history.

BOWLER: The celebration of the nativity got started with a decision by the early church that they weren’t going to bother with marking it. For the first century or so, I think the early church ignored the nativity, choosing to concentrate on the imminence of the return of Christ. There wasn’t much point in talking about his earthly birth if Jesus was going to return in glory. It was not really until the 2nd century and the rise of Christian Gnostics, who asserted that Jesus had not been present in a physical form, that it had been spiritual only, that Christian thinkers realized they would have to start emphasizing Christ’s bodily origins. They would have to talk about the registration of Bethlehem, they’d have to talk about the cradle, and even the swaddling clothes become an article of faith. It’s after about 100 years that Christians have decided to start thinking seriously about the nativity, then the next question for them is when to market. So we have another century to debate when the events in Bethlehem might have taken place. All kinds of dates are suggested, then probably by about the late-200s the church (at least in the West) has decided that December 25th is the date.

MOHLER: Before we get to the date issue in itself, I think it’s really important to mark the fact that the early church put a primary emphasis upon celebrating the crucifixion and, in particular, the resurrection of Christ. A festival in the church to mark the resurrection predates the festival that marks the incarnation. Unlike the Passover being being tied to the resurrection, when it comes to the birth of Christ there is no particular mark in the year that becomes automatic; yet, as you say, by the end of the 3rd century, December the 25th has become associated with the celebration of the incarnation. Tell us the story of how that happened.

BOWLER: The old theory used to be that December 25th was chosen because it was right in the midst of Roman season celebrations, such as Saturnalia and lupercalia particularly the calons of January or the Roman New Year, even a rather novel invention in the 270s of an imperial holiday called the birthday of the unconquered sun. The theory was either that Christians chose to go unnoticed in their celebrations or Christians were hoping to co-opt the festivities and bend people’s attention toward the nativity away from their pagan celebrations. That seemed entirely reasonable; the problem is there’s absolutely no proof for it, and it seems to go against all that the church stood for at the time. Christianity was unanimous in its repudiation of any kind of pagan festivity, so it seems unlikely that December 25th was chosen as the date because of Roman holidays. Most historians are now leading toward something they call the computation theory, which is based on a couple of notions that we would find very strange today. One is that the birth and death of a great man occurs on the same day. We know that Jesus was crucified sometime in the early spring. The church thought that March 25th was a reasonable date for that. If so, that would correspond to perhaps the birth but more likely the conception of Jesus. If we place the annunciation on March 25th, then nine months later we have the nativity celebrated on December 25th. There are also calculations that others make about the service of Zechariah in the temple, thus the conception and birth of John the Baptist. If John the Baptist has a mid-summer holiday and he says of Jesus later, “He must increase and I must decrease,” people take that to be a reference to the various solstices. The summer solstice, after which the sun decreases, and the winter solstice (at which time Jesus was said to be born) when the light increases.

MOHLER: So we can just stipulate that the church really doesn’t know when Jesus was born or when Jesus was conceived, but there was nonetheless a concern for the historic rooted to the Christian faith — historicity of all the claims made concerning Christ — and there was the impulse towards a festival for the incarnation. As you write in your book, for whatever reason the church chose December 25th to celebrate the nativity, you say it was a momentous decision that will cause centuries of controversy and conflict. Is that really a settled issue now? It certainly is in the West, but is it a settled issue worldwide in what we know as Christianity?

BOWLER: It took the Christian church a couple hundred years to solidify December 25th. The eastern cities—Alexandria, Jerusalem, and Antioch—had chosen on the basis of similar computations, the date of January 6th, which we now celebrate as Epiphany. It took the Roman church at least a hundred years to get the eastern cities to come into line. Speaking of historicity, one of the pieces of evidence they used was the claim that in Rome, in the archives, they possessed a copy of the tax registration of Joseph of Nazareth in Bethlehem on the date of December 25th. Armenia, however, failed to come in line and Armenia was the first country to go completely Christian still celebrates Christmas on their January 6th. The problem with choosing December 25 as the date is that it is right in the midst of these very popular mid-winter festivals and a lot of the pagan practices and imagery tries to creep in naturally to the Christian holiday, so the church is going to spends hundreds and hundreds of years trying to keep out this kind of syncretic influence.

MOHLER: You call the early developers of Christmas the “inventors” and then you have to talk about the “revivers.” That implies that something happened for Christmas to fall into something if not a disrepute, that at least perhaps confusion and misuse. What was the story of Christmas in the early church?

BOWLER: In the early church, Christmas developed certainly as a religious festival, the second most holy on the calendar. But inevitably as it spreads it will become involved with the local customs, particularly as it spreads into northern Europe. Being a mid-winter festival, it’s going to have an association with light and heat, and with excess of food and drink, and greenery, and so we can see those things creeping into the Christian celebration. Christmas really falls into disrepair in the 17th century after a hundred of years of attack from a variety of Protestants and its abolition in many places of a Calvinist persuasion. So Scotland abolishes the celebration of Christmas entirely, the New England colonies that had been settled by Puritans made it against the law to celebrate Christmas, and in England itself the Puritan revolution that had abolished the monarchy also abolished Christmas and it had to take the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 to bring Christmas back. But when it came back, it found itself rather discredited. It had become a holiday of the lower classes and associated with outdoor revelry, a lot of drinking and male violence.

MOHLER: In terms of the early church fathers, there were already warnings—Chrysostom and Augustine—they were already warning against the association of this festival, the incarnation with revelry. And in the case with Augustine, there the Bishop of Hippo in North Africa, he was very concerned about New Year’s celebration becoming an opportunity for Christians to sin, and he was quite clear that better not to celebrate than to celebrate sinfully.

BOWLER: He preached a number of very important sermons on December 25th, as did Bishop Asterius in what’s now Turkey. I have in the book a quote from Bishop Asterius’ Christmas Day sermon in the year 400 in which he makes complaints about Christmas Day, that the celebrations of that time of year that we could transfer to the 21st century and we’d think are quite vivid–the greed of children, the hypocrisy of giving presents, the concentration of wealth in places where it not ought to go.

MOHLER: Yes, he actually used language in which he said, “Give to the crippled beggar and not to the desolate musician; give to the widow instead of the harlot; instead of to the woman of the street, to her who is piously secluded.” You can already see some patterns, not so much of what might later be described as the commercialization of Christmas, but a debauchery and quite frankly that was why so many Protestants rooted in the Reformation and particularly in the Reformed tradition just thought there’s no way to separate this kind of festival from, well, sin and debauchery and associations with paganism. So I think many modern Americans or North Americans hearing that there had been a censure against Christmas might not understand that what was being censured was in many ways not the Christmas that we know today, certainly not the Christian celebration of Christmas, but something that had been co-opted by the culture.

BOWLER: Very much so. Particularly the alcoholic part of the culture. Christmas came in the Middle Ages and early modern period during a time of enforced leisure, it was an agricultural-dead period. There were lots of unemployed and under-employed men of both. It was also a time when the wine harvest when was in, the wine was ready. The barley had been made into beer, and so there was a lot of alcohol and a lot of spare time to go with it. And that produced some very unsavory Christmas celebrations, both on the continent and in the New American colonies where it was celebrated, certainly New York, Pennsylvania, and places.

MOHLER: You make some very interesting points about the arrival on the scene of Saint Nicholas as a main figure associated with Christmas. And I’ve read so much about it, there has been some good historical work on Nicholas. And one of the points you make is that he was the most powerful male saint on the calendar of the Christian church in the medieval centuries and thus a powerful symbol for Christmas.

BOWLER: Very much so. We’ve kind of forgotten about Saint Nicholas. He’s been demoted by the Catholic Church to an optional celebration, but it would be hard to overestimate his power in the Middle Ages, right next to the Virgin Mary:  Nicholas was a miracle worker, he could fly, he could raise people from the dead, he was given the powers of a bi-vocation, he could be in several places at once, he was fierce for justice, and also most importantly for the celebration of Christmas, a protector of children and young people and a symbol of generosity. The number of stories told about him lead him to become the patron saint of children and the first of all the magical Christmas nighttime gift-bringers.

MOHLER: You know the whole cult of the saints in the medieval church, the Catholic church, plays so much into this, but I had not realized until your work that when Nicholas becomes a part of Christmas he was the patron saint of sailors, vikings, Russians, Normans, barrel-makers, thieves, perfumers, picklers, florists, haberdashers, and children. That’s quite an assemblage there.

BOWLER: That’s only a small sample of it. Europe is full of Saint Nicholas churches. He was the leading the focus of devotion, and on his day, his feast day–December 6th–it became the practice, probably around the 12th century, for parents to put little treats in the shoes of children and to say that St. Nicholas had come in the night and delivered them. So out of that little custom comes an entire industry of celebrating Christmas. We now see toy stores starting up to supply toys and dolls for kids, we have Nicholas fairs in December that will sell these things, sell particularly cookies in the shape of St. Nicholas who was a bishop, and so we have a kind of mitre-shaped cookie that’s kind of popular. He reigns as this preeminent, magical gift-bringer until the 1500s when the Protestant Reformation gives him the boot, along with other saints, in the church calendar.

MOHLER: Well, indeed he got the boot, but you might say not for long. Nicholas has the last laugh in this. On the one hand, by being back, but however being co-opted there’s quite a price for Nicholas coming back in the lands of Protestantism.

BOWLER: That’s an excellent point. He’s abolished in many countries, but parents still want the custom of a midnight gift-bringer, so in many places they replace St. Nicholas with the Christ Child. In France he’s called Le Petit Jesus, in Germany, it’s called Das Christkindl. But the problem with the Christ Child as a gift-bringer is that he’s not terribly frightening, and St. Nicholas had the wonderful knack of being able to thrash badly behaved kids, nor can the Christ Child be envisioned as carrying around big sacks of toys. So the Christ Child tends to be given a scary, furry, dark helper, who will frighten kids into good behavior and carry either a bucket or a basket to take away bad kids away in or a sack of toys. Interestingly, many of the names for these characters harken back to Nicholas, so some of the scary creatures are called Rough Nicholas–Ru Clas.  And very important for the celebration of Christmas in New York and Pennsylvania is Pelznickel–Nicholas in Furs. He’s a character that German settlers will take to the United States in the 1600s and 1700s.

MOHLER: Something that came to me as I was reading your book was a connection–and this is not explicitly made in your book but I’d like to pick up at this point–there’s a lot of work that’s been done on this, especially about parenting in the Western world and of the use of fairy tales. Bruno Bettelheim, for instance, pointing out that the deep forests of Germany produced these fairy tales, like the Brothers Grimm, and that they were ways the parents taught their children difficult lessons of life by means of a story, whether it be Little Red Riding Hood or Hansel and Gretel, about very real dangers and these stories became ingrained. And what you make clear in your book is that in some ways the medieval world took off with Nicholas in much of the same direction. You make this statement—that parenting is, under the best of circumstances, a difficult profession—and in that sense St. Nicholas, like so many other figures in the day, became an assist to his parents because he could see whether children were naughty or nice, he would reward those who behaved and he would punish those who misbehaved. That was quite useful to parents, you argue.

BOWLER: Yes, I think that’s an indispensable part of it until the 20th century, when parenting is taken on a much less threatening tone, but in many places he still has that aspect. Parts of Europe still use him as that. But by then he’s been kind of changed yet again: he was taken to the New World by Dutch settlers in what’s now New York in the form of Sinterklaas, the Dutch term for St. Nicholas. And from these folk memories a number of New York artists and poets transformed him into the figure that they called Santa Claus. And in doing so they stripped him of his Bishop’s uniform, they sort of de-denominationalized him, so he’s no longer a Catholic, he’s no longer particularly Dutch. He is made much more genial, and to some extent non-judgmental, and non-sectarian, and it’s that transformed St. Nicholas who conquers the world as Santa Claus.


MOHLER:  So millions and millions of Americans celebrate Christmas and scores of American Christians are a part of that celebration and most of them, including the Christians, don’t recognize just how many controversies have been a part of Christmas in the past and how worthwhile for consideration so many of these controversies turn out to be. It can be argued that many of today’s controversies have deep, deep roots in the past, but it is also the case that our contemporary controversies make sense only in our contemporary context. The older controversies, however, are worthy of our consideration and a close look as well.


MOHLER: You know, you make some very interesting points in your book about the Christmas that we know now. And in the English speaking world you really can’t separate that from Victorian England and the tales told by Charles Dickens, but also the example set by the royal family in Great Britain with Queen Victoria and Prince Albert and their children seen to be celebrating Christmas together and creating a new domestic center for Christianity as a Christmas celebration.

BOWLER: Exactly, the notion of midnight gift bringer had entirely disappeared from England as far as I can tell in the 1550s. But Germany had its Saint Nicolas in some parts and Christ child in another, so when queen Victoria marries her German prince, prince Albert, he brings with him German Christmas customs. And among them the notion of presence for children under a christmas tree and there is an illustration from the 1840s that printed in a women’s magazine that shows the royal family around a Christmas tree.This was reprinted in New York, the artists in New York took the crown off Victoria’s head and took the metals off of prince Albert, and made it  look like North America middle class family. So what we have was the creation of a domestic child centered indoor celebration that repudiated the rough outdoor alcohol fueled festival that have been for a while.


MOHLER: I just found that really interesting pointing to the role of the royal family during that time as presenting the idyllic domestic life, and by the way as I remember you say the New Yorker artist not only removed the crown from queen Victoria’s head and the medals from prince Albert, but they also moved the mustache from his face, evidently that didn’t fit the American christmas either.

BOWLER: It’s like photoshop today, really a credit to their talent.

MOHLER: I will tell you that the most interesting section of your book to me was about tyrants and christmas. And especially looking to tyrants you might say as new and old. I think that is a part of christmas people would simply not know, and in particular the communist tyrants who sought to eradicate christmas in the 20th century and not altogether successfully.

BOWLER: Well, by the 20th century, christmas was simply too important to be ignored by tyrant. If you have become a dictator of a country that celebrated christmas, you would have to come to grips with it. You either try to abolish it because it was a festival of someone to whom the people owed the higher allegiance than to you and that’s the method the Bolsheviks and in the Soviet Union tried, or you could try and co-opted, you can bend it to your party’s ideology and that’s what Adolf Hitler and the Nazis tried in Germany. The Soviet Union in the 1920s attempted to be the first world atheist country and they began by executing a huge proportion of the country’s orthodox clergy, they ceased all the churches and turned many of them into museums of atheism or potato barns, allowed a tiny puppet of Orthodox church, and they kept an eye on people who celebrated christmas.

Eventually, it started an organization called the league of the militant godless which were dedicated atheists who tried to inculcate secular rationalism and eradicate any kind of religious belief, and of course the celebration of religious holidays was a prime target, if you could keep people from celebrating easter and christmas you were uprooting a lot of their faith. And so for a good number of decades the Soviet Union really cracked down the celebration of christmas. One clever idea Joseph Stalin had in 1930s was to take the need people seemed to have  for winter festival and transfer to new years. And so we have the new year boy and grandfather frost instead of Saint Nicolas and one of the points historians had made of this was that the New year festivity is always looking ahead, it is rooted in the future, it’s all about progress and change whereas christmas always look to the past, it looks back to nativity, it looks back to family and cultural memories, and so you can see that the Soviet attitude of radical reform was much more suited to New Year holiday than it would be to christmas celebration.    

MOHLER: But even a totalitarian government is not match for christmas not where christianity has been part of the culture, christmas has been a part of the community and domestic life. I was very interested, you go back to Fidel Castro in 1969, who in Cuba abandoned Christmas celebration and all declarations. And you cite one writer looking back saying, “of all naughty words I remember from childhood two stand out as particularly taboo: christmas and human rights.” You know, I find it difficult to believe these two were altogether separated in terms of that memory.

BOWLER: It is interesting, isn’t it? Christmas has now become legal, it has been legal since the visit of Pope John Paul II, but it is really discouraged by the government. They tend to allow in hotels or places where tourists are, but they are still not happy with the celebration of christmas. Early on, in the book, I mentioned artists tried to portray Fidel Castro and Che Guevara as two of the three wise men in street art.

MOHLER: That wasn’t very successful either. But I think most Americans even now are unaware of the fact that there is a continuing oppression of Christianity and a continuing repression of Christmas, but of all historical moments you recalled in the book concerning the engagement of dictators and Christmas it is the third Reich that I think is the most chilling, with again with a dictator who very much recognized the Christian truth claim would undermine his claim of absolute tyrannical authority. So, Christmas was a problem for Adolf Hitler, but like in so many other things, he had a plan.

BOWLER: He did. The Nazi approach to Christmas was even darker than the Soviet approach because it wasn’t just an attempt to abolish Christmas. It was an attempt to paganize it–to return it to an imagined Teutonic past–particularly led by the SS Elite. They tried to shift the focus off of December 25th to the Winter Solstice on December 21st. The signing of Christmas carols in schools was outlawed–no nativity scenes in schools, but kids were taught new Christmas carols with Nazi words. A new version of Silent Night had Adolf Hitler watching in the darkness over Germany. The state was able to control printing of propaganda, the control of food stuffs. One of the things that they took care of was to monopolize candles. During the war, they didn’t want people putting candles on Christmas trees. They wanted them as kind of a national or Nazi death cult that they were building around Christmas Eve. It was all very distasteful.

MOHLER: Well, distasteful is certainly true, and worse than that because it was a form of state-sponsored syncretism of the ancient Teutonic myths that were of use to Hitler as he was trying to create the new German Volk and a new myth concerning even itself. As you say in the book, there was no way to ignore Christmas, so they sought to co-opt it. But you also point to a push and pull that’s going on, a tug-of-war during the Nazi years when the Christian churches were taking advantage of every vestige of Christmas in order to continue some form of Christianity even under the Third Reich, and thus you had the apparatus of the Third Reich doing its very best to police any breakout of Christmas that might be connected to Orthodox Christianity.

BOWLER: One of the things I found very poignant was a beautiful drawing done on the back of a military map produced during the siege of Stalingrad, as the Red Army was tightening the noose around this German invading army that was freezing to death. One of the chaplains drew a picture of the Virgin Mary and Christ child on the back of a military map and the motto was “Light. Peace. Love.” And he took that from military unit to military unit to remind them of Christmas, and it was heartening for these troops, and it was smuggled out on one of the last planes to leave Stalingrad. When it returned to Berlin after the fall of Stalingrad, the Nazi parties refused to put it on display as being subversive with what they were trying to do with Christmas.

MOHLER: Now fast forwarding to your later chapters, you deal with more contemporary controversies concerning Christmas and frankly, as much as some of us try to watch these things, you brought together a lot of material I had not seen before. You’ve got a more aggressive secularism now that also has to deal with Christmas and not in a very pretty encounter or collision. You point out the fact that they seem absolutely intent on eradicating Christmas because they’re really not able to co-opt it.

BOWLER: No, they’re not. One of the things I point out in the book based on very recent surveys is just how much a divide there is on so many issues between people who take religion seriously in the United States and people for whom religion is not important. There is a considerable cadre of atheists and secularists inside the government, unions, corporations, school boards that would like to drive religion from the public square and absolutely allow it no public space at all. And if you’re going to do that, then Christmas has to be tackled. It is that time of year when Christianity is not only at its most visible but also at its most appealing. This is when the message of love and peace and forgiveness and reconciliation pour into society. So if you can privatize that, if you can drive it out of the schools, drive it out of the legislative buildings back into the homes and churches, you’ll have done secularism a great favor. There’s hundreds of battles every year in airports, at schools, out in front of a courthouse or a state capitol building over whether or not Christmas, and thus Christianity, is going to be allowed any public space.

MOHLER: So you asked the question, “Is there a war on Christmas?” and obviously there is. There’s abundant evidence for that in the fact that many people who would say there isn’t a war on Christmas are the very people who are combatants in it. But I have a theory, my own theory based upon my observations of Christmas and the very same patterns of secularization that you document in your book, and that’s this: I think the main evidence of a privatization of Christmas or a forced kind of secularization of Christmas is not any kind of official edict or even a court decision, but it’s the fact that so many Americans are intimidated by these controversies that they are afraid that they just might violate statutory law, some kind of criminal act, or the Constitution of the United States by saying, “Merry Christmas.” There’s no law against it, but there is a cultural intimidation that’s very clear now.

BOWLER: I think that’s true. It’s become part of political correctness. For many, many people, to say “Merry Christmas” is to commit some kind of assault. If I wish people merry Christmas, I can tell right away, when they very quickly say “happy holidays” that I’ve transgressed some kind of unwritten law. It’s not so much a fear of some legal processes but of being seen as old-fashioned and uneducated in polite morality.

MOHLER: Oh absolutely. And you’re a scholar in Canada writing in many ways in this book specifically about the United States. One of the things you draw attention to is the very mixed jurisprudence that’s come from the United States Supreme Court, in many ways the Court trying to answer questions it’s incapable of answering for the larger culture. But one of the things that certainly comes to my mind that’s important for Christians to think about is that the allowable displace in the public space — certainly in governmental space — are allowable under a legal document that basically declares them to be ceremonial deism. In other words, they’re allowable if they don’t mean anything. I’m concerned for Christians who don’t understand that’s what’s happening.

BOWLER: Yes, and that’s the infamous Reindeer Rule, a Supreme Court rule that allowed a certain amount of overt Christianity in the shape of a cross and a nativity scene. As long as it was sufficiently diluted by Santa Clauses and candy canes and plastic reindeer, jurisprudence on this subject has been utterly unpredictable; that has made way for competing armies of lawyers at Christmas time — all kinds of atheist groups, the ACLU are combated by all kinds of Christian law firms that engage in what’s called “lawfare” over singing carols, even playing Ave Maria instrumentally is deemed to be too religious. A Christmas tree!

MOHLER: And this leads to ludicrous things. One of the things you document in your book is, I think, a California case in which the police were called because a high school choir was going to sing Christmas music, and there was a Jewish, medal-winning, Olympic figure skater, and someone thought it must violate the law for this high school choir to sing Christmas carols. They called the police.

BOWLER: They called the police and enormously embarrassed the Jewish figure skater because she was on what she called her Christmas tour. As I say, it’s not minorities that protest the presence of Christmas in the public space so much as it’s this army of what I call the umbridge industry, diversity coordinators, sensitivity trainers, and people who are so fearful of any kind of manifestation of religion that, for them, it’s become entirely a legal issue.

MOHLER: You know, you make a really good point in your book when you underline the fact that there are many people who are ready to cry, “Theocracy!” if there’s a Christmas tree in the public square, as if that’s supposed to be some kind of a statement of imposed theocratic government just to have a Christmas tree.

BOWLER: I love that notion. Of course, it’s not a Christian symbol. It’s associated with the mid-winter festivity end of things. My favorite story about that is the annual Christmas tree that the city of Halifax sends to the city of Boston. In 1917, there was a huge explosion in Halifax that devastated the city. It caused thousands of casualties, and the city of Boston was enormously generous in its response, and so for decades Canadians have sent to Boston an enormous Nova Scotia Christmas tree as thanks. Somehow, this ended up being labeled a holiday tree, which was enormously offensive to the Premiere of Nova Scotia, who said when it left Canada, it was a Christmas tree. And the guy who chopped it down said he would have turned it into toothpicks if he’d known it was going to end up being called a holiday tree.

MOHLER: Well, long live Canada on that one. I’m intrigued by another story. My favorite anecdote in your book along these lines comes from Port St. Lucie, Florida, where a school was going to present a musical by children entitled, A Penguin Christmas. It was deemed too religious, and one of the quotes said, “Any reference to a religious holiday has the potential to offend anyone who is not part of that particular persuasion.” And then, as you write, a gobsmacked parent complained, “What do penguins have to do with the Gospel? I don’t even think penguins could survive in Nazareth.” Fair statement.

BOWLER: I think I can go one better than that, and this was just a few days ago. The Texas Women’s University issued an edict that suggested the word “holiday” was offensive because the root of that day was holy, and holy means something religious so you should not say the word holiday in regard to any party that you might be thinking of having because it might offend someone of incredible sensitivity. So you couldn’t call it a Christmas party, you couldn’t call it a holiday party; you were allowed to call it a semester-ending or fiscal-year-ending party. No part of language is safe from these people.

MOHLER: Oh, absolutely. The TCU advisory also said you should be very careful not to have cookies that are red or green because of the deep Christian content that is implied by the red and green cookies. Again, as a Christian theologian, I simply have to say I’m going to have to research a great deal to find out exactly how particularly theological those colors are to be.

BOWLER: I’m sure it was something in Leviticus about the shape of cookies.

MOHLER: You know, in terms of your treatment of Christmas, I think it’s the richest historical documentation of the development of Christmas as a holiday and the controversies that have been a part of it. I think someone looking at the title might say, well you know that’s a rather cynical way to address Christmas, but I think it was brilliant actually because it lays out the fact that whenever you are talking about a Christian celebration like either that of the Resurrection of Christ or the birth of Christ, you are asserting a truth claim. I think one of the things to which I am most thankful, and by the way you deal in the book with all the commercialization and co-opting and commodification of Christmas, but the reality is the reason why so many people dislike Christmas in the secular society is because, just as you said, it is really still impossible to describe Christmas without running the very real risk of having to talk about Jesus Christ and his incarnation, and that continues to shine through the centuries.

BOWLER: That’s true and that’s why you’ll see in Europe and the Middle East an increasing Muslim uncomfortableness with the celebration of Christmas. In North America, as I’ve said before, minorities really have no objection to the celebration of Christian religious festivals. The attacks tend to come from government officials and so on, but in Europe, as their Muslim minorities increase in size, a number of them have taken to organizing demonstrations and so on partly to dissuade Muslims from adopting local customs such as the celebration of Christmas but, partly, also as an attack on Christian truth claims. And so I mentioned some episodes in London that occurred recently that are becoming more and more common apparently in Turkey, which is the home of Saint Nicholas, so they use that as an excuse to attack Christmas.

MOHLER: Professor Bowler, it’s been a delight to talk to you. I think your book is incredibly well-done, very well-timed, and not only do I thank you for joining me today for Thinking in Public, I want to wish you, your family, and all a very merry Christmas.

BOWLER: Merry Christmas to you!

MOHLER: God bless you, sir. Thank you.


MOHLER: So the sum and substance of this conversation is the fact that controversy over Christmas is not new and fundamentally probably isn’t avoidable. And that’s because the truth claims of Christianity are not avoidable in Christmas. That’s why so many secularists rail against it, and that’s why so many Christians celebrate Christmas without the slightest tinge of theological conscience, even as most biblically sensitive Christians will be very much concerned about some of what goes under the commodification of Christmas. And of course there’s ample ground for outrage if you’re considering the misuse of Christmas. But one of the most fundamental affirmations of this kind of book is the fact that the continuation of Christmas is at least in part a testimony to the fact that the gates of hell should not prevail against the church of Christ. I think of this particularly in the most important, or at least the most interesting portion of this book to me, which was the engagement of the dictators and totalitarians, especially in the 20th century, with Christmas. And, at the end of the day, let’s just state it plainly: Christmas won. I really like the way Professor Gerry Bowler has outlined his history of Christmas and all the attendant controversies. He begins with the inventors and looks to the earliest centuries of the church where the foundations of Christmas as a festival and celebration of the Christian church are to be found. There too were controversies, and some of those controversies were centrally about the person of Christ and the truth claims that are made very clear in Scripture concerning the circumstances, the facts of Christ’s birth. Then are the revivers, they came along after the period of the marginalization of Christianity, and they largely explain why Christmas, in terms of the celebration we know today, is now so central to Western societies. Then he talks about the tyrants, there’s that engagement between the dictators and Christianity that the dictators lost. Then he talks about the godly and the godless, taking us very much into the terrain of our own times, where there is a continual tug-of-war between secularists, who increasingly have to deal with Christmas and are trying to marginalize it, if not to eradicate it, and Christians who are seeking to celebrate it. And of course there is also the commodification, the commercialization of Christmas, they come under the rubric of what Gerry Bowler calls the appropriators. And of course they were the appropriators, because that’s exactly what they did. They took Christmas and ran off with it, turning it into a massive, consumerist experience, a bacchanalia of spending and gift-giving and celebration. Professor Bowler then talks about the discontented, that is those who are very dissatisfied with Christmas, and that covers a great deal of territory. And then the privatizers, those especially now driven by a secularist impulse who are trying to make very clear that Christmas might be tolerated so long as you keep it in your house and in your church and then shut up about it. As a Christian theologian the most satisfying portion of this book is its affirmation of the fact that Christianity was rooted in the biblical impulse, the rightly ordered impulse of the Christian church to celebrate the historic truth of the incarnation of the Lord Jesus Christ. And then even going back to controversies over the date when the holiday was to be celebrated, affirming the conception of Jesus Christ by means of the Holy Spirit. In that sense, the history of Christmas is quite affirming to gospel-minded Christians who come to understand that at its core was the impulse to celebrate not only the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ, but also his birth. Christians reading this account will also find, as I have said, ample ground for outrage, because so many outrageous things are done for Christmas, in the name of Christmas, and against Christmas. I appreciate the fact that Professor Bowler doesn’t act censoriously and certainly condescendingly toward those Christians throughout the ages who have seen the abuse and misuse of Christmas and decided its too high a price to pay, that once you begin to sanction such a holiday, it then grows out of hand and becomes something essentially pagan. But Christians in our generation, understanding the fact that that is what we should expect a fallen world to do with anything, a certainly with things most precious, there is that affirmation that wherever Christmas is mentioned, the name of Christ is mentioned also. And I really appreciated what Professor Bowler said in this conversation: Christmas is that of year where as we celebrate the birth of Christ, that story gets told despite all efforts of a secular society to try to keep it from being told. So perhaps the greatest impulse that should come to us from reading this book is not just to respect the history of Christmas, but to seize is as an opportunity to tell the story of Christ, not just the story of his birth, the whole story of Christ. And there could be no better was of ending a conversation about a book like this than expressing, most sincerely, Merry Christmas.


Thanks again to my guest, Gerry Bowler, for thinking with me today. For more information on The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to For information on Boyce College, go to

Thank you for joining me for Thinking in Public. Until next time, keep thinking. I’m Albert Mohler.