by Peter Franklin
Sunday, 25
December 2022
Debate
08:00

Bring back secular Christmas

It is one of the great achievements of western popular culture
by Peter Franklin
He’s about to have a religious experience. Credit: Getty

At this time of year, it’s customary for Christians to bemoan the secularisation of Christmas. I’m not worried, though. Christmas as a Christian festival has survived a lot worse than liberal modernity — and will continue to until the end of days. 

What I do worry about, however, is secular Christmas — by which I mainly mean the Anglo-American confection of the 19th and 20th centuries. It may be a worldly, wasteful rip-off, but at the same time it is one of the great achievements of western popular culture — a rare moment at which we stop doing everything else and do something together. 


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At the darkest time of the year, secular Christmas shines a gaudy light that might just point the way to a deeper truth. It is the closest that millions of us come to a shared religious experience.

So why do I think it might be in trouble? Well, not because of the efforts of the politically correct. The attempt to replace ‘Merry Christmas’ with ‘Happy Holidays’ is thankfully doomed to failure. Rather, the real cause for concern is cultural not political. 

The fact is that secular Christmas is running out of inspiration. When, for instance, was the last great Christmas single released? And by ‘great’ I mean something you might hear in the supermarket and instantly recognise.

The golden age of the secular Christmas song belongs to 1940s and ’50s America, but the tradition goes on through the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. Indeed, some of the biggest seasonal hits date from the 1990s — as Mariah Carey’s accountant could tell you. But then, with the new century, something went terribly wrong. It’s tempting to blame Simon Cowell, whose stable of X Factor winners co-opted the UK Christmas charts from 2005 to 2014. But in reality, he was just filling a void. 

Much the same goes for the classic Christmas movie. Again, we have an American golden age — It’s a Wonderful Life etc. — and, again, a 20th century tradition that’s fizzling out in the 21st. Unless one counts In Bruges (2008) the last truly good Christmas films — About a Boy (2002), for instance, or The Polar Express (2004) — date from the early 2000s. Perhaps Love Actually (2003) put us off the genre but, whatever the cause, it’s been slim pickings ever since. 

An alternative explanation for the decline of Christmas in popular culture is the decline of popular culture more generally. This isn’t just a nostalgic knee-jerk reaction on my part: there’s hard evidence that new music and cinema has entered a decadent phase (see here and here for instance). In both industries, formula has triumphed over originality, the bland over the adventurous.     

Popular culture is ultimately disposable: if it doesn’t renew itself, then it must recycle instead. This Christmas will be much the same as last Christmas — Wham! and East 17 on an endless loop.

Of course, a lot of people still love it, so let’s not knock it. And yet there was a time when year-by-year we added something new to the secular feast. Today, we dine on leftovers alone. 

In the end we must place our faith in the eternal, not the ephemeral. Nevertheless, western popular culture is my culture — and I’m sad it’s fading away. 

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Dog Eared
Dog Eared
1 month ago

The age of the Christmas song seemed to die along with the music charts and top 40. Prior to the internet perhaps it was a case of less is more. As with movies too there is so much choice it’s hard for creative innovation to break through, so publishers opt for safety, consumers opt for what they know.

Dave Weeden
Dave Weeden
1 month ago
Reply to  Dog Eared

Yes, this doesn’t seem to be about Christmas, but about secular culture generally. There are fewer memorable films, fewer decent pop songs; it is a surprise that Christmas ones have gone the same way?

Jonas Moze
Jonas Moze
1 month ago
Reply to  Dave Weeden

Ernest Saves Christmas, the Christmas movie which has a happy ending – rather a frenetic comedy of a Florida Taxi driver who picks up Santa at the Orlando airport Christmas Eve, and he saves it…

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WOwOkOdW_cQ

Brian Villanueva
Brian Villanueva
1 month ago
Reply to  Dave Weeden

Drain a society of transcendental meaning and it’s not hard to see why it produces less meaningful art, music and culture.

Buena Vista
Buena Vista
1 month ago

I admit to being baffled… I can conceive of no universe where The Polar Express is considered a good movie.
Merry Christmas to the Unherd commentariat.

Jonas Moze
Jonas Moze
1 month ago
Reply to  Buena Vista

And to you. For me give me the ultimate Christmas comedy Ernest Saves Christmas’

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vFZeIJgoLDU
for the tralier

Frederick Hastings
Frederick Hastings
1 month ago

What Christmas means to me
Ayn Rand, 1976:
A national holiday, in this country, cannot have an exclusively religious meaning. The secular meaning of the Christmas holiday is wider than the tenets of any particular religion: it is good will toward men—a frame of mind which is not the exclusive property (though it is supposed to be part, but is a largely unobserved part) of the Christian religion.
The charming aspect of Christmas is the fact that it expresses good will in a cheerful, happy, benevolent, non-sacrificial way. One says: “Merry Christmas”—not “Weep and Repent.” And the good will is expressed in a material, earthly form—by giving presents to one’s friends, or by sending them cards in token of remembrance . . . .
The best aspect of Christmas is the aspect usually decried by the mystics: the fact that Christmas has been commercialized. The gift-buying . . . stimulates an enormous outpouring of ingenuity in the creation of products devoted to a single purpose: to give men pleasure. And the street decorations put up by department stores and other institutions—the Christmas trees, the winking lights, the glittering colors—provide the city with a spectacular display, which only “commercial greed” could afford to give us. One would have to be terribly depressed to resist the wonderful gaiety of that spectacle.

Frank McCusker
Frank McCusker
1 month ago

Christmas is of course secular, as noted.
And, of course, its Christianity only ever had been grafted onto earlier pagan festivals anyway.
Which makes the woke “happy holidays” greeting as illogical as it is culturally cringeworthy.
Happy Christmas, folks

Jonas Moze
Jonas Moze
1 month ago

It is past 4 a.m. here and I was supposed to be in London for Christmas but this year has been sticking wrenches into all my plans. I could not fall asleep…

So I went to youtube to look at the old place in West London where the apartment is and watched people’s videos of walks down the high street and around the shopping…..in one two guys were fighting in the street, in another the Christmas lights looked sort of like the San Francisco ‘Winter Wonderland’ festival the Mayor tried to start this year – but without the fentynal dosed homeless laying all over on the ground passed out – but as cheery otherwise…..Lots of aimless people come from who knows where walking around looking like they have no where to go, or money to spend when they got there….

It all depressed me so I went full hog and looked up crime statics for that town….I should not have, they were bad – so I looked at mumsnet and asked – would you live in town X? and there were a couple threads on that topic – the answer was No… with some added language and stories……..

So I sit here 4000 miles away, on Christmas Day, thinking of how amazing London is on Christmas in the better parts, but it does not cheer me up……sigh..

John Hicks
John Hicks
1 month ago
Reply to  Jonas Moze

Those folk turning left out of Africa 50,000 years back may have had a destination like London in mind too. More likely they just made up for it by creating some magic for us all along the way. Hope you can also find some Christmas cheer in an amazing world.

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
1 month ago
Reply to  John Hicks

Absolutely! There’s so much to enjoy in being alive as well as the hardships, and we shouldn’t betray the strivings of countless generations of ancestors by giving way to despair or defeatism. The human race has come a long way, but has much, much further to go yet!
And i agree with everything in the article, thought the same about popular culture for quite some time. Time now, for renewal!

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
1 month ago
Reply to  Jonas Moze

If you’re spending your Christmas watching videos of strangers going about their business and somehow linking their unknown thoughts to the cities crime statistics, to me that says more about your current mindset than it does anything else unfortunately.
Turn off the computer for a few weeks Sandford, get back out in the real world, go for a pint and talk to people who have no interest in the online culture wars. It’ll do you the world of good.
Merry Christmas Sir!

John Riordan
John Riordan
1 month ago

Actually I think that this is part of a wider problem in which creative growth has stalled in the West. The article refers to the Christmas movie in this sense, but actually it’s all movies: since about the time of the financial crisis, the movie industry hasn’t bothered with experimentation, tending to focus on sequels and reboots of past successes.
The music industry, too, has suffered, but that’s more the direct consequence of the mp3 phenomenon, which has destroyed forever the business model of selling individual hard-copies of a musician’s music. As an aside and in the context of the above remarks about Simon Cowell, I always like to point out to those who bemoan the X-factor as emblematic of our cultural poverty that Simon Cowell could never have gained his pre-eminent foothold in the modern music business if the rest of us had stuck to actually paying for the music we like.
We all helped destroy the traditional music business, resulting in people like Simon Cowell having to find new ways of keeping it going – in his case, realising that the A&R process, previously the domain of skinny blokes in black jeans going out every night to gigs involving hopeful unsigned bands, could be televised and made glitzy and on occasion car-crash embarrassing for the poor sod who got the idea he could sing from just the opinion of his mum.
But anyway, I’d like to conclude on a hopeful note, which is that technology and the internet may well have destroyed the old models in which movies, TV and music were delivered via well funded, stable and lucrative business models, but that doesn’t mean we won’t discover new ways of solving this problem. The remains demand for high quality TV, movies and music which would exist even if we rediscover ways of protecting content from the freeloader effect, and that means those ways will eventually be found.

Brian Villanueva
Brian Villanueva
1 month ago

“The fact is that secular Christmas is running out of inspiration.”

What inspires Christmas for serious Christians is obvious (“Christ”-“mass”) but what inspires the secular version of Christmas? Maybe it’s not running out of inspiration; maybe it never had any: just a frail echo of a ceremony in a society that no now rejects the underlying god the ceremony celebrates.

Al Phlandon
Al Phlandon
1 month ago

Rejoice! For I bring you glad tidings that shall be for all people. For unto you this day is a poll confirming that the population of England and Wales who espouse no religious beliefs is 37%, up 12% over a decade. If this trend continues– and I have every reason to think that it will– we could in our lifetimes see the UK become majority No Religion. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2022/11/29/uk-religion-census-christian/

But your point is secular Christmas not anti-religion, two concepts at once different yet obviously parallel. So much of the western world economy is invested in Christmas that commercial pressures will inevitably follow public opinion into a more secular interpretation of Christmas. So, patience, my friend. It’s happening, just a bit more slowly than you and I would hope.

Last edited 1 month ago by Al Phlandon
John Riordan
John Riordan
1 month ago

Last edited 1 month ago by John Riordan