How SouthPark’s Christmas tree flap misses the point about religion and culture

The planned replacement of SouthPark Mall’s Christmas tree with a glacier sparked protest.
The planned replacement of SouthPark Mall’s Christmas tree with a glacier sparked protest. Staff

Is a nation’s religion its culture? Is its culture its religion?

A thoughtful man once posed those two questions to me. He was asking about modern America. As a Christian, I would have liked to be able to say that the two are totally separate things, that religious faith stands apart from the social and political culture of a nation.

But in the messy day-to-day reality of modern life, the two bleed into each other. It’s easy to think you’re defending your faith when in truth you’re defending your culture.

That’s what I think I see in the protests that forced the owners of SouthPark Mall to abort a decision to replace their traditional Christmas tree and Santa Claus display with one that placed St. Nick in a glacier scene. Some Christian mall shoppers suspected it was another example of the secularization of Christmas, how it is being scrubbed clean of religious references in the quest for political correctness.

Mall officials bowed to public pressure, but said their initial impulse in switching to the glacier was simply to give their Christmas display an update.

Christian traditionalists are sure to see it as a small but satisfying win in the culture wars they seem to be losing.

But is it really? As many commenters on the Observer’s online story mentioned, Christmas has roots in pagan winter solstice celebrations. The Bible itself, in Jeremiah 10:2-4, contains an explicit reference to a Christmas-tree-like tradition, describing it as being part of “the way of the heathen.”

Given that the early church expropriated and reformed pagan traditions as a way of helping people pivot toward the Christian faith, that’s not the real issue.

The real issue is that we get so caught up in the comforts of religious tradition that we mistake the traditions for the faith itself. That’s how switching out a Christmas tree display gets read as an attack on Christianity.

Perhaps the mall’s owners secretly were out to remove a symbol they thought might turn off some shoppers. But even if so, does that kind of business decision really jeopardize true faith? Isn’t such faith more effectively reflected in the many acts of love and selflessness on the part of believers than by a glittery symbol in a shopping mall?

The SouthPark tree controversy is, I’m sure, just the first of many “attack on Christmas” alarm bells that will go off this holiday season. But as dear as many of us hold our holiday traditions, let’s remember that Jesus repeatedly bent religious traditions to draw close to prostitutes and tax collectors and others on society’s margins.

He didn’t overthrow all religious traditions of his day, but Jesus didn’t mistake culture for religion, either. He focused on what was most important.

Perhaps we should try harder to follow that example. Eric Frazier