Saving Christmas From Kirk Cameron
Kirk Cameron's attempt to hijack the holidays is horrific.
Posted Nov 20, 2014
Christmas is a bit of an academic hobby of mine. I have a bookshelf full of Christmas books, I teach a class on Christmas, and I’m even in the midst of putting the final touches on my book, The Myths That Stole Christmas: Seven Misconceptions that Hijacked the Holiday (and How We Can Take It Back). It’s about the history of Christmas, and the social, religious, economic, and political issues that surround the holiday today. (It’s due out next year, but you can pre-order it now.) So when I heard that Kirk Cameron’s new movie was called “Saving Christmas,” I had to see what he was up to. And since it’s only in theaters for two weeks, I figured I better go see it opening weekend; that way I could write a review before its last showing in theaters the following weekend.
When I first heard of it, I suspected that the movie’s point was going to be something similar to Christmas with a Capital C, a seemingly Sarah-Palin-inspired film (set in Alaska) from a couple years ago starring a non-famous Baldwin brother. But although the trailer for Saving Christmas mentions some typical Christian concerns regarding Christmas (“happy holidays” and all that), I couldn’t make sense of what it was supposed to be about—besides the vague tag line “put Christ back in Christmas.”
Now, the trailer did drop a kind of hint. "But surely," I kept telling myself "surely he doesn’t mean 'that'! 'That' is clearly false. He must mean something else." So, despite the fact that the nearest theater to show it was an hour-and-a-half away, I had to go see Saving Christmas for myself.
But I’m here to tell you...indeed, he did mean 'that'. And he really does believe 'that'. And Saving Christmas is worse than you possibly could have imagined.
But before we get to 'that'…
Saving Christmas: A Review
Let me begin by simply saying that, its horrendous Christian theology and inaccurate Christmas history aside, Saving Christmas is just a terrible movie. The cast is just his family, and they seemed to have shot the entire thing at their Christmas get-together last year. Most of the dialogue seemed ad-libbed, with the actors often awkwardly talking over one another. When it wasn’t ad-libbed, we actually saw actors taking the time to remember their lines. Other parts were simply stretched out for length. When the protagonist learns his lesson, he simply repeats the phrase “I’m going to be that guy” about 10 or 15 times. Early on, a long selection of Christmas music covers the dialogue of the film’s stereotyped black-guy-comic-relief. (The end credits treat us to the inane blabber the actor ad-libbed to go under it). The only thing that seemed to have been written was the voiceovers; and those were even forced over live-action scenes.
For example, at one point, the fat-comic-relief tells the black-comic-relief that they should put their Christmas mugs over their mouths so that no one can see their lips. The fat-comic-relief then proceeds to spout out a poorly dubbed, long-winded, and widely varied conservative conspiracy theory. He even ends his rant with “I saw it on Fox News, so you know it’s true.” Apparently, the “crazy conspiracy theory uncle” is such a common trope in Christian households that this was supposed to be funny. The audience is supposed to laugh and say, “How funny. He’s just like Uncle X.” (Either that, or Cameron simply took the opportunity to give a voice to his own conspiracy theory uncle; this had nothing to do with the plot or message of film.)
And large portions of the visuals were intentionally stretched for time as well. For example, I nicknamed the climactic scene at the end of the film “slow-motion sister” because about 20 seconds of film of Cameron's sister was stretched over minutes. And the opening credits must have extended the length of the film by 10%; they were so long, in fact, that the animation of the Nativity that went under them concluded halfway through. So then we were treated to still frames of the animation we had just seen—like it was the end credits of 80s TV show The A-Team—while the opening credits finished. And then the film concluded with a 10 minute dance number, set to a hip-hop version of “Angels We Have Heard on High,” which Peter Sobczynski, from Roger Ebert.com, called the “whitest thing [he had] ever seen…”
But back to the message of that film...back to 'that' …
Every Inch of Christmas…
The movie itself is just a megaphone for Cameron’s opinions about Christmas—a way for him to say what he wants to say and then agree with himself. I’m not exaggerating; the majority of the movie was simply Cameron expressing his opinion about Christmas to the protagonist and then the protagonist simply saying. “You’re so right. How did I not see that before? I wasn’t looking closely enough. I was so wrong. How could I have been so stupid?”
So what opinions about Christmas is Kirk trying to force on the nation?
The story is about Cameron’s brother-in-law Christian (the clever name makes him symbolic of Christians everywhere). Christian is fed up with all the pagan (“pagan” just means “non-Christian”) aspects of Christmas—the tree, the presents, the materialism, Santa Claus, etc. That’s not “what God wants,” Christian says. It’s supposed to be about Jesus. And so Christian sits outside in the car in the driveway so as to not ruin his wife’s Christmas party. But Cameron joins him in the car so that he can convince him that “he’s all wrong.” And then, one symbol at a time, Cameron lays out his argument that all the pagan aspects of Christmas—all of them—actually belong to and are in reverence of Jesus. I quote, “Every inch of Christmas belongs to Jesus.”
Cameron sees himself as a middle ground between the liberals who, he says, are telling everyone to just keep their Christmas celebrations to themselves, and Christian voices who suggest that Christians should deemphasize the secular and materialistic elements of the holiday, and instead focus on the Nativity and charity. “No!” Cameron says. Celebrating it all, as loudly and lavishly as you can. Put up the biggest tree, eat the biggest ham, break out the richest butter—he actually used the phrase “richest butter”—and buy the biggest presents you can afford, because it’s all in praise of Jesus. (It’s worth noting that I doubt Cameron will be doing any of the cooking or shopping himself.) If you don’t, you’re not honoring God. Like I said. “Surely he can’t really mean that.” I assure you, he does.
But it gets even better. The reason you’re not honoring God is because you are giving into all the pagan propaganda that says that Christmas trees and Santa Claus, historically, have pagan (non-Christian) origins. “We don’t know this stuff,” Cameron told The Christian Post. “[W]e kinda drink the Kool-Aid and believe pagans when they tell us they have ownership of these things.” As he told The Blaze, “[Atheists are] going to get frustrated to see some of their best arguments deflated by this movie…” Now, as a logician, I’m not sure what he means by “deflated”—but I couldn’t wait to see him try.
Santa Is the Man!
So how, I’m sure you’re wondering, does something like kids getting excited about Santa Claus actually venerate Jesus? To make this point, he suggests that Santa Claus is actually St. Nicholas and then he goes on to tell of the historical St. Nicholas’s generosity to children and his defense of Orthodox Christian doctrine at the Council of Nicaea. In this way, St. Nicholas is actually the defender of the faith that the conservative Christian who hates Santa is trying to be.
But there are a few problems here. First of all, the story about Nicholas at the Council of Nicaea is not part of the “official record,” as Cameron claims. It was attached to Nicholas lore hundreds of years after the council. Second of all, according to the story, St. Nicholas merely slapped the heretic Arius for defending (what were soon to be) unorthodox views about Jesus. But Cameron has St. Nicholas beat the hell out of him—cold cocking him and then taking him outside to beat him with his staff. If that weren’t enough, St. Nicholas then returns home—he apparently lived down the street from the council chambers—where we see that he is about to throw on a red coat and hop in a sleigh pulled by two horses to deliver toys to boys and girls. “St. Nicolas is the man,” the protagonist exclaims.
Uh… No he’s not. In fact, my research suggests that St. Nicholas wasn’t even a man, much less the man. In my book, I lay out many reasons for thinking that St. Nicholas should be included with the host of other saints declared non-historical by the Jesuits and removed from the catholic calendar. Like St. Christopher, St. Valentine, St. Martin and many others, St. Nicholas is most likely the consequence of slapping “Saint” in front of the name of a pagan god; the church often Christianized pagan gods to help with the conversion of the pagan masses. (Nicholas is most likely a Christianization of a nature/fertility deity that was often called “Claus.”)
But even if Nicholas did exist, it’s unlikely that he slapped Arius; striking anyone in front of the emperor would’ve cost him his hand. In fact, it seems unlikely that he was at the council at all. He is missing from most copies of the roll of bishops that was taken, and it seems that the “slapping Arius” story was invented later on to explain his absence from the roll. (He was supposedly defrocked and so his name was erased, but the fact that he is considered a saint today seems good evidence against that.) Even the Catholic encyclopedia and the authors at catholic.org agree that anything beyond the supposition that Nicholas was a fourth-century bishop from Myra is just mere speculation. But what is most certainly the case is that he never put on a red coat and/or rode a sleigh pulled by two white horses to deliver toys to little boys and girls. Even the story about him giving hold to a father to prevent him from having to sell his daughters into prostitution was borrowed from a story about philosopher Apollonius (who lived long before Nicholas would have). The notion that Nicholas delivered gifts to children was invented by French nuns in the 11th century.
What’s more, the modern American Santa Claus is no more based on St. Nicholas than Fox news is based on reality; there is an occasional connection, but overall one has nothing to do with the other. What historical saint ever wore fur head to foot, lived at the North Pole with an army of elf helpers, and owned flying livestock? Where’s his bishop hat and crosier? Where’d the bottomless sack come from? Truth be told, Santa Claus owes more to St. Nicholas’s European helpers—like black Peter, Hans Trapp, and Krampus—and the Pennsylvania Dutch Belsnickle than he does to St. Nicholas. (For more on all this, you’ll just have to wait for my book. Shameless plug: pre-order now!)
Christmas + Tree = Jesus
Moving on…. How, according to Cameron, is the Christmas tree really about Jesus? Well, that’s because—and, again, I’m not kidding, he said this—because “God created trees” and decorated them with fruit and nuts, just like we decorate Christmas trees with ornaments and lights. So by cutting down an evergreen, erecting it in our house, and decorating it, we’re just doing what God did. God’s creation of trees was, really, him bringing trees into his house and putting lights on them.
But it doesn’t stop there. You see, when Adam ate from the tree of life, he realized his mistake and wanted to put the fruit back. But since the fruit was already inside him—and now a part of him—he could only do so by putting himself back on the tree. Of course, he couldn’t do that. But think about it; who did put himself on a tree? Jesus did. Jesus did what Adam couldn’t. So…every Christmas tree you see is simply a tree that didn’t have to be turned into a cross so that we could be crucified on it because Jesus was crucified on one instead. Could it be any more obvious? Christmas trees are really about Jesus and originated with Christianity itself. Every time you visit a Christmas tree farm, you should turn and run to tell people about Jesus. (I’m not putting words in Cameron’s mouth; the movie really includes a scene with a giant cross in the middle of a Christmas tree farm and a little girl turning and running to tell people that Jesus lives.)
Now I’m not going to get into all the theological and philosophical problems surrounding the idea that Jesus “died for our sins.” I will let Christian philosopher Eleanor Stump do that for me. But I will point out that this is one of the most labored and forced metaphors I have ever heard. By the same logic, I could argue that pizza is about—nay, was created by Americans because America is a melting pot and pizza is a melting pot of toppings. Cameron’s reasoning is so is so lazy and loose that everything is about everything; all you have to do is find some lose vague conspiracy-like metaphorical connection and, poof, you can claim whatever you want. This is apparently his version of Christian scholarship—far superior, in his eyes, to biblical exegesis (which he has his black-comedy-relief say he doesn’t need because he already has his “extra Jesus”).
Of course, Cameron also gets all of his history about the Christmas tree wrong. The protagonist suggests that they are an old druid tradition (and also said some confusing things about Norse influence). It seems that, like Stephen Colbert did for his first book, the only research Cameron did for this film involved a long hard look in the mirror. In reality, Christmas trees did not emerge as a Christmas tradition until around the 1600s, and then only in isolated parts of Germany. They didn’t become popular nationwide—either in Germany or in the Americas—until the 1800s. (And they became popular because they helped parents control the distribution of gifts to their children—not because it reminded them of Jesus’s crucifixion). Christmas trees originated in the 1600s as an extension of traditions regarding bringing evergreen branches into your house during the winter because, unlike all other trees, evergreens stay green during the winter (instead of seemingly dying like most trees). It was thought that bringing their “living force” into the house would help one’s family members all live through the winter—something that wasn’t easy to do before the scientific revolution. Indeed, the first Christmas trees were simply the tops of fir trees fixed atop tables.
This isn’t “pagan propaganda.” This is just cold historical fact. It’s not like there is hot debate in the Christmas history community about this. There might be debate in the Christian community as to whether it okay to ignore them or not—but everyone knows that most Christmas traditions have pagan (non-Christian) origins. In fact, a lot of the research I did for my book on Christmas’ history was written by Christian scholars—such as Methodist Minister Bruce David Forbes and Catholic Scholar Joseph Kelly—and they would fully agree. I don’t know if the historian Stephen Nissenbaum is a Christian—there is nothing in his Pulitzer finalist “The Battle for Christmas” to suggest otherwise—but I do know that his painstakingly detailed and documented research can’t be refuted with Cameron’s “extra-Jesus” scholarship. Confabulated metaphorical connection don’t prove a damn thing about…well, about anything!
Nutcrackers Surrounding the Nativity
In the movie, the first symbol that Cameron argues is all about Jesus is the Nativity scene. But of course, the Nativity scene is already about Jesus. So why is he bothering to argue that it is? I don’t know; I think this is just another of his “theories” that he felt obligated to make sure the world heard. But I do know that he still managed to screw it up.
First, he forces a similarity between the Nativity story and the resurrection story by asking us to temporarily imagine baby Jesus’s swaddling clothes empty, and then pointing out that the risen Jesus left behind an empty burial cloth—and there you go. Two “empty” linens, therefore the Nativity is really about the resurrection. (He also points out that frankincense and myrrh were burial spices to make this connection—but of course, this was only one of their many uses, so in no way were the Magi “predicting” Jesus’s death.)
But it gets even better. To appreciate the Nativity story, Cameron suggests, you have to realize the context in which it occurred. On that very night, Herod had soldiers out looking for Jesus, slaughtering every infant in their path. So really, every Nativity should have soldiers surrounding it; only in this way can you appreciate the whole story. Cameron really means it. After the protagonist has his change of heart, he moves a nutcracker (which of course looks like a soldier) closer to the family Nativity scene in his living room (as he and Cameron share a special glance).
Where do I begin? First of all, “Jesus being born in the manger” and “Herod’s slaughter of innocents” are not even in the same story. There are two Nativity stories, one in Luke and one in Matthew, and they are completely different. In Luke, the story starts in Nazareth, where the holy family lives. They travel to Bethlehem for a census (which is a historical fiction); there is no room for them at the inn, so they stay in the stable. After Jesus is born, the shepherds visit, and then the family pop by the temple in Jerusalem for Jesus’s presentation and return to Nazareth without incident—no Magi, no Herod, and no slaughter of innocents. In Matthew, the holy family already lives in Bethlehem. The night Jesus is born, he’s born—nothing else happens. The Wise Men begin their journey that night, but they don’t arrive until two years later; this is why Herod kills all the babies two years and younger after the Magi visit Herod. (This is when the holy family flees to Egypt; they move to Nazareth after Herod dies.) So not only is there no stable and manger in the version of the story in which Herod is trying to kill Jesus, even if there was, there were no soldiers out to get Jesus on the night of his birth. If you want to make your Nativity scene more historically accurate, you wouldn’t add soldiers—you would actually take the Wise Men away from it and put them across the room; they were nowhere near Jesus on the night of his birth.
And, again, this is not “pagan propaganda.” Go pick out any biblical commentary at your local library, written by a Christian, and it will tell you the same thing. In fact—skip that—and just read the stories for yourself. They’re at the beginning of Luke and Mathew. Forget what you think you know about the nativity from nativity scenes and just read them; summarize each separately, and then compare notes. You’ll see I’m right.
Buying Presents for Jesus
These are the three main points of the film, but it doesn’t stop there. Why are Christmas presents really about Jesus? Because God has been giving presents to his children at the base of trees since the beginning of time. (Cameron proves this by mentioning some biblical stories in which trees were likely nearby.) More importantly, Cameron is trying to give you a different perspective on the symbols of Christmas. And if the Christmas presents under a tree are viewed from the perspective of someone on the floor, they look like the buildings of The New Jerusalem. How could it be more obvious that, when you spend $500 on an Xbox for your son, you are really honoring Jesus?
Speaking of which…you need not worry about the materialism that surrounds the holiday. In fact, it is completely appropriate for the Christian to be materialistic during the holidays because…wait for it… because the first Christmas is when God became a material being. I’m not straw-manning—that was the argument. Despite the fact that Jesus owned nothing, and expressly called on his disciples to sell everything they own and give it to the poor, it’s completely appropriate for Christians to revel in the materialistic capitalist excess of the holidays—in honor of Jesus—because Kirk Cameron can equivocate on the word “material.”
Christmas Is Difficult to Christianize
Christmas was not originally a Christian holiday. It wasn’t even called Christmas until around the 11th century and for thousands of years before the birth of Christ people celebrated around the winter solstice. The Roman celebration of Saturnalia included feasting and drinking, and it was onto Saturnalia (and the celebration of the sun god’s birthday, on Dec. 25th) that the church tried to attach Jesus in the 300s. Again, not pagan propaganda; as Ed Mazza of the Huffington Post pointed out:
“Even the Christian Post notes on a separate page that Pope Gregory I once wrote to his missionary in England not to block traditional pagan festivals, instructing him instead to ‘adapt them to the rites of the Church, only changing the reason of them from a heathen to a Christian impulse.’”
Attempts to Christianize the holiday continued throughout the Middle Ages until the Puritans decided it was a lost cause and instead try to eliminate Christmas altogether. When Christmas made a comeback in the 1800s, efforts to Christianize it were renewed—hence the phrases “Jesus is the reason for the season” and “Keep Christ in Christmas.” But such efforts have mostly involved encouraging Christians to emphasize the holiday’s religious elements, and to deemphasize its secular elements. Again, such efforts have always largely failed; historically, the secular elements have always been the center of attention. To quote Christmas historian Steven Nissenbaum, “Christmas has always been an extremely difficult holiday to Christianize.”
But Cameron’s movie is Christmas Christianization on steroids. Instead of asking Christians to simply emphasize the holiday’s religious elements, or even fight for courthouse nativities, Cameron wants to claim every aspect of the holiday for Christianity. The film even ends with a lengthy list of things that, according to Cameron, belong exclusively to Christians: “This is our tree, that’s our St. Nicholas, these are our lights….” If Cameron was right, separation of church and state would require that we take down all Christmas decorations in all government buildings, not just nativities.
Look. It’s one thing to just ignore the pagan origins of your family Christmas traditions and enjoy them anyway. After all, it’s not like you are really inviting evil spirits into your house by putting up mistletoe, and kissing people beneath it—even though pagans started this tradition because they believed the fact that it bore fruit in winter gave it magic fertility powers. Cameron is right about one thing; Christians who avoid such traditions because “they have pagan origins” or “are not in the bible” are overreacting. And if reinterpreting the holiday’s symbols so that they remind you of Jesus helps you avoid such an overreaction, that’s fine. If a Christmas tree reminds you of a crucifix because they’re both made of wood—that’s your business. However...
- …to try to force that interpretation on all Christians, and suggest that they impose that interpretation on everyone else both secular and religious…
- …to insist that people who disagree are not only wrong, but “drank the Kool-Aid” and are “listening to the wrong people” (i.e., not Kirk Cameron)…
- …to call people idiots just because they haven’t “recognized” the same labored, round-about, equivocal, conspiratorial non-connections between secular traditions and religious stories…
- …and to think that such non-connections can rewrite history and overturn painstaking historical research…
- …and then, to produce and release a movie that stars oneself and one’s own family in which you simply articulate your own uninformed opinions and everyone just agrees with you and glorifies your brilliance in an effort to get everyone else to celebrate the holiday just like you and your family do in the name of Jesus…
…that requires a level of egomaniacal, narcissistic audacity that has to border on mental illness.
Wrap It Up
There is one thing that historical Christmas celebrations and Jesus have in common: giving to the poor. The oldest holiday traditions, even dating to before Jesus, involved social inversion—the rich giving to, looking after, and especially feeding the poor. Yet this one thing that Christmas and Christianity actually have in common receives nary a mention in Cameron’s film—besides a vague unsupported assertion, at the beginning of the film, that at Christmastime “donations” go up all over the world. (He doesn't say they should—he just mentions that they do.) Instead, Cameron calls on Christians to spend all the money they can afford on themselves.
I’ve added a bit on the movie to my book; but I wish I didn’t have to. I’ve often heard complaints about moderate Muslims not being more vocal in their condemnation of terrorist propaganda. I’d like to know why the moderate Christian voices condemning Kirk Cameron can’t be heard. Ever since Kirk Cameron tried to refute evolution with a banana, he has been an intellectual cancer on the Christian religion that needs to be purged. Instead, he’s producing movies and giving convocation addresses at Liberty University. (In fact, Liberty helped finance the film.) He’s not some fringe element of the religion; he’s about as mainstream as you can get. It’s not just Christmas that needs to be saved from Kirk Cameron—it’s Christianity itself.
Although this article was written before its release, The Myths that Stole Christmas: Seven Misconceptions that Hijacked the Holiday (and How We Can Take It Back) is now available on amazon.
Copyright © David Kyle Johnson, 2014
Teaser Image: From Saving Christmas Movie Poster