Christmas as Religion
The Relationship between Sacred and Secular
Christmas as Religion attempts to shift the focus from the role that religion plays in how we celebrate the festival to a focus on whether Christmas itself should be thought of as a religion. Author Christopher Deacy’s primary framework for constructing his argument is that of Edward Bailey’s Implicit Religion (Implicit Religion in Contemporary Society, Peeters, 1997) which Deacy utilizes to challenge the religion secular binary—much of which has found its way into media reporting and popular discourse on the topic of Christmas—and the secularization thesis more generally.
Deacy has a very accessible style of writing and this sometimes obscures how significant some of the ideas he is putting forward are, but this style also throws into stark relief some of the more sweeping generalizations. For example, when Deacy challenges the notion that theology somehow sits separate from the rest of culture he is actually gently noting the prevalence of the religious secular binary, and arguing that it is, at best, a specious one (75). This type of argumentation makes statements such as “Everyone has ‘celebrated’ Christmas in one way or another regardless of geographical location or religious or ethnographic background” (1) all the more disconcerting. This is because such generalizations reveal an unconscious Western-centric conception of the subject as a whole, leading to a concern that the argument of “Christmas a religion” that demonstrates the falsehood of the secularization thesis will not be as nuanced or convincing as it should be.
The book is split into six chapters that could each be used as stand-alone material–especially for undergraduate courses–but overall construct an argument for considering what we mean when we use the term “religion.” Christmas as Religion is asking if we narrow the very boarders of concepts such as “religion” and “secular” when we exclude events such as Christmas, or insist that they are one or the other, but not both. This is strongest in the chapter on Implicit Religion (chapter 4) but again, this reveals one of the book’s weaknesses in that the use of the framework of Implicit Religion is not continued throughout the remainder of the book. In fact, Implicit Religion is not mentioned again after that chapter.
The approach or structure of the framework of Implicit Religion is aptly utilized to further the argument that religion cannot said to be “X” and therefore excludes other categories—such as Christmas—because they must be “Y.” In other words, Deacy is using it to demonstrate that religion is not a distinct, singular category that is, or indeed must be, separate/different from the secular or the profane. Deacy is quite right to note that the “religion” within the term Implicit Religion cannot be seen as coterminous with Christianity or any other religion, and that as a consequence “the secular is thus no less viable at helping us to understand the nature and location of contemporary religious debate than the traditionally religious” (126). What this section highlights is that key to understanding this book is a realization that it not a concern for whether Christmas is “really” Christian, pagan, consumerist, or materialist—rather that it is a means to examine just how slippery and gossamer-like the language of and about “religion,” “secular,” and so on really are: “the implicit should not be conceived of as subordinate to or as a substitute for explicit religion. Just because someone’s religion is not as explicit does not mean that they don’t have one. All it may mean is that the main force of their commitment is directed elsewhere” (138).
Using Implicit Religion as a means to examine Christmas enables “a more realistic and precise understanding of what it means to be human, to be fully appreciated” (139). However, it also highlights that missing from the conversation is the very use and nature of the language and its origins. Instead words such as “religion,” “secular,” “sacred,” and “profane” are used without qualification, definition, and on the assumption that the reader knows what they mean.
Another notable point of Deacy’s approach is his refusal to avoid the commercialized aspects of Christmas. Instead he embraces them as an important part of his overall argument. He rejects and refutes the more typical approaches that split studies or considerations of Christmas into “religious” and “commercial” aspects. He notes: “Yet, once religion is not seen to lie in a category apart from the site of the secular–and [Dell] deChant’s thesis that the economy is the supreme manifestation of religion in the postmodern world goes a significant way towards breaking down these traditional boundaries between the sacred and the profane–then it becomes less problematic that two seemingly disparate polarities are being affirmed simultaneously” (193).
This is, perhaps, the strongest aspect of the book and is certainly much more convincing than the repeated assertion of Christmas as a religion—without a definition of the term. Ultimately in making such an argument Deacy is undermining the important points that he is making in relation to the binary of religion and secular, and the question of what “religion” actually is. In some regards Deacy is actually going against what Bailey wanted and understood Implicit Religion to be about by making Christmas a “religion” when its practitioners do not consider it so.
There is much to recommend in this book. It will make for an interesting addition to sociology of religion courses as well as courses on religion and popular culture. It does raise important questions about the continuing persistence of the religious/secular binary, and the way in which “religion” as a descriptor is applied or denied to various activities and approaches to life. As a text it is one that undergraduates will particularly appreciate and there is a significant amount of material that would be useful in the classroom for them.
Francis Stewart is lecturer in critical religion at the University of Stirling.
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