The war between religion and consumerism that is waged every Christmas season rages on in 2010, as evidenced by this bizarre “ad” created by ChurchAds.net, depicting the Christ-child as a sonogram image replete with in-utero halo. Cathy Lynn Grossman of USA Today‘s Faith & Reason column astutely asks, “Is this a 21st century icon — or an ad with an abortion agenda tied to Christmas?”
Before we try to tackle the abortion issue, let’s talk about the difference between the religious and secular celebrations of the Christmas holiday. ChurchAds.net, a British site, suggests that “85 per cent of people agree with the statement that ‘Christmas should be called Christmas because we are still a Christian country’. But it also shows that only 12 per cent of adults know the facts of the Christmas story in any detail.” England is one of the few countries in the world where Christianity (the Church of England) is indeed the religion of the state. But what is the “Christmas story,” exactly? Is it the story of Jesus’s birth, or is it the story of Santa Claus, who himself was once a religious figure?
The word Christmas is derived from the phrase Christ’s Mass, the use of which was recorded as early as 1038. In the 1700’s, scholars began to argue that the December 25th celebration of Christmas had more to do with pre-Christian, pagan celebrations than the date of Jesus’s birth. It’s widely believed that the December 6th celebration of the feast day of Sinterklaas, or Saint Nicholas, as well as the English tradition of visits from Father Christmas, begat the idea of holiday gift-giving, and thus the commercialization of Christmas. In 1800’s New York, Christmas was still a largely sacred holiday, but by the 1920’s, when advertisers had standardized the image of the American Santa Claus, the holiday had begun its turn toward a secular celebration.
The question then becomes, I think, is it important for Americans to “keep the Christ in Christmas,” and do ads like this have any effect in doing so? Religious zealots may be well-meaning in trying to remind people of the sacred origins of the holiday, but Christmas as we know it now embodies hundreds of years of tradition, both religious and cultural, from over more than one continent. Ads like this – and this one in particular, with its unusual pro-life overtone, result in those who celebrate the holiday in a purely secular way thinking that religious folks are a lunatic fringe who don’t know how to have fun. Not to mention the fact that this ad is so confusing. Is this supposed to be the sonogram of the second coming of Christ? (And if so, does that mean that the Hindus have it right and reincarnation is real?) Or back in the year zero, was Mary unable to find a bed of anything but straw and yet able to get her hands on futuristic body scanning technology? You thought a baby kicking felt weird, imagine having a halo burning the inside of your uterus!
When I was a kid, Christmas had a dual meaning that was very easy to digest. On Christmas Eve, my family would go to mass and celebrate the birth of the baby Jesus, and on Christmas morning, we’d celebrate a visit from Santa by opening presents around a tree. Neither one seemed to get in the way of the other, nor did it feel like we had to choose sides by celebrating only the religious or cultural aspect of the holiday. The problem it seems with religious advertising is that it’s reaching out to a secular world using secular tools trying to convince people that they should hold God sacred, and yet in doing so, is actually debasing the very thing it claims to venerate.
So do I think it’s appropriate for a religious group to pass out posters of a sonogram of “baby Jesus?” No. I think it’s tacky, ineffective and unholy. I’m not entirely against creativity and the embracing of modern technology by religious groups. After all, I thought it was pretty inventive and hilarious when the Catholic Church put out a Sham Wow parody trying to get people to go to confession. How it is that the Church embraced YouTube before condoms, though, I don’t know, but that’s exactly the kind of disconnect I’m talking about. If the Catholic Church or any other church for that matter wants to win hearts and minds, I think they should focus on being a place of peaceful respite from the “evils” of this world, not another conduit for more advertising.