DESACRALIZATION OF CHRISTMAS

This year’s Orchard Road Christmas Light up was heavily criticized by many Christians as being too commercialized and secularized to the extent that the spirit of Christmas is lost.  The question is, are we celebrating Christmas or Disneyland?  What is the primary focus of this event?  The truth is that Christmas without Christ is not Christmas.  It is just another festival.

This attempt to secularize or desacralize Christian festivals is the result of Western influence.  It began with the Age of Enlightenment, when reason became the dominant philosophical approach to life.  Faith was reduced to reason, like the rest of the sciences.  As a result, the personal encounter with Christ was gradually forgotten, which was perceived as lacking objectivity.  Since God was no longer felt and experienced personally, faith became a routine and an empty culture deprived of a personal relationship with Christ.  This led to a repudiation of the roots of Christianity in Europe.

Yet, the truth is that we cannot separate culture from faith.  Most of the western culture is deeply intertwined with the Christian Faith.   In their attempts to separate culture and traditions from the Christian Faith, they sought to retain the external celebrations without Christ.  So instead of celebrating Christmas, they wish each other “Happy Holidays” or “Compliments of the seasons.”   Have we ever asked why Christmas is a public holiday and why we wish each other only in this season?  Why not other seasons, or other holidays?  Simply because it is the birth of Christ and the Western world celebrates the coming of the Saviour.

Again, this attempt to remove Christ out of history and reduce Him into a mythological figure is the way we renamed the Gregorian calendar.  Whether we like it or not, the current calendar takes its departure from the birth of Christ.  Originally, we would name the year “Anno Domini” (AD), that is, in the Year of our Lord, or BC, that is “Before Christ.”  To disavow the Christian origin of this calendar, the world replaced it with CE (Christian Era) or BCE (Before Christian Era).  Some have gone further by referring CE to Common Era and BCE to Before Common Era.

Again, this is true when it comes to the celebration of Halloween.  In truth, it is a Catholic celebration in honour of the Saints.  That is why it is always celebrated on the eve of All Saints.  Halloween therefore means the eve of All Saints Day.  It is a day to rejoice that our loved ones are in heaven.  But today it has been desacralized into a costume day, where people wear all kinds of costumes, the ghastlier the better, to scare others all in the name of fun.   It is the world’s attempt to desacralize our Catholic feast and make a mockery of our belief in the existence of spirits and the soul.  To deny the reality of spirits and reduce it to child’s play is to subtly tell people that we are just made of matter; that spirits do not exist and therefore God does not exist.

Hence, it is important for us to understand the real meaning of secularization.  A healthy secularization is to be neutral to all religions, including those without religion.  This is the way to promote harmony among all believers and non-believers alike.  To exclude religions from public life all together is not secularization but desacralization.  It unwittingly discriminates those with religious beliefs in favour of those without.  To expunge religions from public life is to do injustice to those who take their faith seriously.

Yet, the truth is that religion can contribute to the culture of the people.  Culture and faith are interwoven in many ways.  Faith and its values are expressed in culture.  One’s values are determined very much by his or her religion.  Once we remove the religious origin of that culture, the values are also lost because they lack foundation.  So to celebrate the values of the culture, we must understand the origin of that culture, which in most places are influenced by their religious beliefs.

Indeed, how do we celebrate Deepavali or Hari Raya or Chinese New year or Vesak Day?  Do we remove their religious significance and dress the celebration with symbols unrelated to the religious or cultural festival?  Do we seek to strip the religious motivation from their celebrations? We do not, and we should not!  It will impoverish everyone.  To celebrate Deepavali meaningfully, we must understand that it is the celebration of Good over Evil, light over darkness.  To celebrate Vesak Day, we need to know that this is the Day of Enlightenment, when Buddha was enlightened and that we too can attain enlightenment.  Can we celebrate Chinese New Year without the Animals Zodiac? By appreciating their cultures, which are rooted in their beliefs, we too can rejoice with them and integrate some of their positive values in our own culture as well.  While we might not share the same Faith, yet we share in their values.  This is how we celebrate with others who have different faiths and cultures.  The faith and culture of others are not a threat to our Christian faith and culture.

Catholics therefore must not fall into this secular agenda of desacralizing our Christian religious festival, especially Christmas, Easter and Halloween.  Christmas tells us that our faith is a personal faith in God who comes to us in Christ at the incarnation so that we can relate to Him in a personal way.  By looking at the baby Jesus, we see the peace and love of God in Him.  In God’s gift of Jesus to us, we too are called to give up our lives to Him by living a life of love and peace.  Unless we recover Christ at Christmas, this event will be another commercial and social celebration that brings emptiness, frustration, false hope and meaninglessness.   When we “X-mas”, that is, take Christ out of the mass, all we are left with is a mess.  Let us put Christ back into the celebration of Christmas, for the giving of gifts and our parties and joyous celebrations are on account of the fact that God has come to give Himself to us in Christ for our salvation.  He has come to teach us and lead us all to true peace, joy, meaning and purpose in life.   Let us greet each other, “Holy and Merry Christmas.”

Devotedly yours
Archbishop William Goh