Column: Who really 'owns' Christmas?

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 20, 2006

By D.G. Martin

For the Salisbury Post

What do big-time colleges sports have in common with Christmas?

It is a question of ownership.

Every year, the holiday season seems to bring new ways for people to argue about how others are trying to take Christmas away for “us,” raising the question, who owns Christmas?

Last year, I wrote about how some religious and political leaders had criticized the use of terms like “holiday” and “season’s greetings” when they are used in place of “Christmas” in advertising and greeting cards. Some of them urged us to boycott businesses that were not using “Christmas” in their holiday ads.

But the threat to the real Christmas is not the failure to use the term “Christmas” in connection with the orgy of holiday sales, parties and parades. The real danger is the surrender of the religious holy day to a holiday season that has less and less to do with its religious origins.

Even the non-commercial aspects of the season have become so divorced from religion that some atheists embrace the celebration, as reported in a recent New York Times article, “The Grinch Delusion: An Atheist Can Believe in Christmas” by Randy Kennedy.

The article quotes Sam Harris, a best selling author and defender of atheism, “It seems to me to be obvious that everything we value in Christmas — giving gifts, celebrating the holiday with our families, enjoying all of the kitsch that comes along with it — all of that has been entirely appropriated by the secular world.”

Last year I urged that those who wanted to protect the “real Christmas” should distance their observances from the other winter holiday activities. If they, for instance, owned the “Christmas” trademark, like Disney owns “Mickey Mouse” and Coca-Cola owns “Coke,” they should restrict the use of that term to religious observances relating to the celebration of the birth of Jesus and rejecting all commercial “exploitation” of the term.

Of course, nothing of the sort is going to happen.

Too many “Christians” have bought into the commercial and secular holiday. Many of us have important economic interests in Christmas as we know it. This kind of Christmas so has wrapped itself around our culture that Santa Claus is as sacred as the Christ Child and “Jingle Bells” is as holy as “O Holy Night.”

Purists like me urge that we break away from nonreligious activities of Christmas. But, if we got what we ask for, there would be a big problem. If Christmas were simply a religious holy day, if it had to stand without the support of the traditions of the secular festivities, would it give the Christian religion the same boost that Christmas gives it?

The holiday, with all of its faults, is a blitz marketing time for Christians. The institutional advertising from Christmas is better than hundreds of 30-second ads on a Super Bowl broadcast, in terms of building the brand and gathering support.

Christmas the way we celebrate it may not be pure Christianity, but today’s Christianity probably cannot do without it.

Nothing to brag about to be sure, but it’s come to that.

Here is where the connection to big-time college sports comes in.

Although it is hard to rationalize the partnership between the multimillion dollar sports business that is connected to our great colleges and universities, there is no doubt that much of the support for many of those institutions has become dependent on success in the sports business.

The bread and butter service of universities is to do groundbreaking research, to serve their communities and to prepare students to succeed. Purists like me can argue all day long that big time sports complicate and compromise these efforts. The power of the sports establishments in universities gives them incredible independence and separation from university governance. The universities that are identified with them no longer really own them.

But the universities cannot do without them.

The attention and the broad based loyalty that sports teams have brought their universities have been critical to building the support that American universities get from government and private donors.

It is not pretty and it is hard to defend — or even explain.

There is really nothing like it.

Except, perhaps, Christmas.

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D.G. Martin lives in Chapel Hill and is the host of UNC-TV’s North Carolina Bookwatch, which airs Sundays at 5 p.m. Check his blog and view prior programs at