The war on Christmas has been won… in Sweden

So my friend and colleague, Mark Nance, is spending the year in Sweden– along with his Sociologist wife, Sarah Bowen, who made the whole thing happen.  And they are both sharing all kinds of fascinating cross-cultural observations via their blog.  Really, really liked this post from Mark on how basically everything in Sweden right now is “Jul” this and “Jul” that (“Jul” being Christmas) and what this really means.

Being in Sweden for this holiday season sheds new light on it for me. Swedes says “Merry Christmas” all the time! “God Jul” (rough pronunciation, Goode Yule) is everywhere. As Sarah says, they just slap Jul on everything: Jul ost (cheese), Jul skinka (ham), Jul chips (chips), Jul öl (beer), or my favorite, Jul potatis (potatoes). Want to make your own at home? 1) Take regular potatoes. 2) Put in bag with some Christmas related pictures. 3) Label accordingly. Voila! …

It’s true that church membership in Sweden is north of 60% right now. But that’s because until 2000, every person born in Sweden was automatically registered as a member of the official state church: The Church of Sweden, an evangelical Lutheran church. The number has been dropping since the practice of automatic registration has stopped. Some surveys estimate that roughly 8% of Swedes attend church regularly.  Swedes are, all told, rather secular.

So what to make of that? Well, we know that “allowing” people to say Merry Christmas won’t make them religious. In fact, I’d say what’s happened in Sweden is the opposite. There are lots of signs of religion in Sweden: St. Lucia, Christmas, and other holidays we’ll talk about here. But for the most part they have been secularized. And that’s why the separation of Church and State has always been strong in the US: it was about protecting the church from the state, not the other way around. Anecdotally, I’ve heard conservative Christians argue that we need to do away with it: that we somehow need to affirm that the US is a Christian nation. [emphases mine] It’s not true, to begin with. There are millions and millions of Americans who aren’t Christian. And that’s their right: one that was a founding principle (if not necessarily a practice) of the United States, no less.

But also, it won’t work. It won’t ensure that everyone who celebrates Christmas does it in the spirit that you want them to. Nor does it ensure that those demanding to say Merry Christmas to every single person will themselves celebrate “the true meaning of Christmas.” Put more bluntly, we go to church to be reminded of our religious beliefs. So if we expect Target and Wal-Mart employees to remind us of our religious beliefs, maybe that’s a sign we’ve made those shrines to consumption our true places of worship. In which case, we need to worry less about what others are saying and more about what we are doing.

Amen!  And God Jul :-).

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

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