- - Tuesday, December 16, 2014


Someone stole Christmas in Europe, and it wasn’t the Grinch. There’s something missing, and it isn’t just the snow. Shops dependent on tourists are praying, so to speak, that the unseasonably warm weather will give way in time for a white Christmas, but the Continent’s secular obsessions have put a chill on the premier Christian holy day. The Christmas spirit in much of the old country is only what you drink.

A December sampling of city centers draws a picture of the state of the faith in the Old World. Salzburg, the Austrian city that most Westerners recognize as the backdrop to “The Sound of Music,” is fully adorned with the commercial trappings of the holiday. When night falls, the Altstadt, or Old Town, is packed with sightseers strolling along its postmedieval streets, past the birthplace of Mozart.

In the broad square adjacent to the magnificent Salzburg Cathedral, dozens of vendors have erected their annual Christmas market, where they sell Christmas tree ornaments fashioned in the shapes of reindeer and polished wooden figurines. The frosty air hums with the conversations of Salzburgers and visitors by the thousands, gathering in small groups to sip gluhwein, the hot spiced wine that announces the season. Inside the baroque cathedral, however, silent is the night in a majestic but empty cavern of worship.

In Innsbruck, the old city center is draped with strands of lights, marking a modern American influence, and large images of the season are projected on the walls of a nearby department store. A five-piece mini-orchestra perched high above the plaza on the balcony of the Goldenes Dachl, or Golden Roof, plays the Christmas carols familiar to the Western ear. Outside of the city, though, Christmas means tourists and their euros, and the traditional Alpine-style hotels nestled on the flanks of the surrounding peaks are quiet as proprietors wait nervously for the arrival of snow and skiers. The resorts have delayed their traditional early-December openings, and the ski gondolas shuttle only day hikers taking photos from the 9,000-foot summits.

The secularization of Europe is well-documented. A September Gallup poll found that in 25 European Union countries, only one in five adults attend religious services at least once a week. The empty pews are most evident in the cities. Still, though only 18 percent of Austrians attend church services regularly, a 1,000-year-old Roman Catholic church in the nation’s northwest farming hinterlands was packed with hundreds of congregants on a cold and rainy recent Sunday morning.

In the United States, where a 2011 Pew Global Attitudes survey found that fully half of the population still considers religious faith “very important,” the creep of secularization often takes the form of commercialization. Americans answering a Gallup poll in October said they planned to spend an average of $781 on Christmas this year. That figure tops the British, Europe’s biggest holiday spenders, who intend to spend an average of $553.

The exchange of gifts is an important part of the holiday cheer, but the sight of shoppers fighting over sale-priced flat-screen TV sets is a reminder that it’s easy to get caught up in the secular trappings of the season, leaving the heart as empty of the season’s true meaning as the ancient cathedrals of Europe. The true spirit of Christmas is not for sale anywhere on the main streets and the malls, but can be felt only with gratitude for the gift of the Christ child.

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