The Christmas message: not commercial enough for Washington

A scuplture of a baby Jesus that is part of a nativity scene from Spain is displayed during a "Joy to the World" exhibit December 9, 2004 in Washington, DC (Getty Images)

For years, the “War on Christmas” has struck even conservative Christians as a tad over-wrought. Though half of Americans still consider Christmas a religious holiday, only 32 percent believe “Merry Christmas” is the only acceptable seasonal greeting. The rest either prefer something non-descript like “Happy Holidays” or don’t care either way. America’s Culture War is colder than President Trump’s Twitter feed might lead one to believe.

But the Catholic Church is coming under fire in Washington, DC for ad space it bought on city buses. The ads themselves are subtle: the silhouette of shepherds, sheep, and twinkling stars surround a banner reading, “Find the Perfect Gift”. It leads one to a website owned by the archdiocese that declares (spoiler alert): “Jesus is the perfect gift.”

The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority refused to run the ad, citing a rule against religious advertising. However, as the Archdiocese’s communications secretary Ed McFadden writes in RealClearReligion, the WMATA “indicated that if there was a way we could make the ads more ‘commercial’ they might be able to run them.”

Let that sink in. If the Archdiocese charged admission to attend Christmas Mass, that would be fine. But because the Church’s services (feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, reconciling sinners to God, etc.) are offered pro bono, she cannot advertise them.

McFadden goes on to ask:

Have we as a society reached the point where the only acceptable message during the holidays is the commercialized Christmas message? Where a message of hope and offers of help for our fellow man are now deemed too controversial or too “religious” to be acceptable in public view? The Archdiocese of Washington believes that there is no “secular half” or “religious half” of Christmas – or any other religious holiday, for that matter. There is simply Christmas, a season in which fundamental, universal sentiments such as joy, hope, and love and values such as faith and charity, are inextricably bound to our culture; they cannot and should not be divided.

Indeed. Pope Francis – who’s no doubt familiar with the Archdiocese’s plight – spoke to this theme in his last general audience for the year:

In the name of a false respect for non-Christians, which often hides a desire to marginalize the faith, every reference to the birth of Christ is being eliminated from the holiday. But in reality, this event is the one true Christmas!

Without Jesus, there is no Christmas. If he’s at the centre, then everything around him, that is, the lights, the songs, the various local traditions, including the characteristic foods, all comes together to create the atmosphere of a real festival. But if we take [Christ] away, the lights go off and everything becomes fake, mere appearances. 

In fact, it’s worse than that. Take Christ out of the equation all we are left with is a grotesque festival of consumerism. There is no more disturbing contrast with the Nativity, where (in Chesterton’s words) “a homeless couple crept underground with the cattle when the doors of the crowded caravansary had been shut in their faces.” The Holy Family are majestic in their humility; Catholicism inspires humility by embodying majesty. But majesty without humility is mere decadence, which is the only fitting descriptor for our post-Christian Christmas.

And, granted, most non-believers still hew the holiday’s message of charity and gratitude. But woe to him who says so on a DC bus!

The secular world has a right to treat Christmas as an excuse to get snockered on rummy eggnog and exchange socks. But it is, in fact, a commemoration of the Catholic Church’s founder and high priest. To throw Jesus a birthday party and not invite him is silly; to disinvite him is both silly and cruel.