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The war on the war-on-Christmas

Posted on Dec 24, 2008 by billsimmon in atheism, Free Speech, politics | 7 Comments

I’ve been thinking about this “war on Christmas” garbage today. I think there are a couple of things going on that are resulting in this stupidity and I’d like to throw these thoughts out there for you to consider this holiday season…

First, there is an actual fight that is being waged, though it’s not against Christmas, per se, but against attempts by certain religious folks in this country to blur the line that separates church and state. The establishment clause (not to be confused with the Santa Claus) in the US Constitution has traditionally been interpreted to mean that public institutions (like public schools, government offices, post offices, police stations, etc.) cannot favor one particular religion over others. Still, occasionally a local public school or fire house somewhere will put up a Christmas tree or a nativity scene, thereby celebrating a Christian holiday, and non-Christian members of that community will (rightly) point out that, legally, public institutions ought not show that sort of religious preference. So up goes a menorah or an atheist plaque and that gets some Christians bent out of shape. Never mind that they could put their tree or nativity scene two blocks down the road at the local church and avoid a Constitutional crisis, some Christians feel entitled to force their special day down everyone’s throats in spheres both private and public.

There’s a second, more subtle dynamic going on too, however, that adds to the war-on-Christmas meme. It’s the decision on the part of many people (and organizations) to opt for “happy holidays” when wishing good cheer to others in December, rather than choosing to reference a specific holiday (like “merry Christmas”), and thereby presuming the well-wishee’s religious affiliation. This has nothing at all to do with the separation of church and state or some edict from on high demoting the status of Christmas in America. Rather, it stems from people not being assholes, generally. I could, for instance, go around telling everyone I saw on the street or in the supermarket or at the bank “have a nice day off from work, even though we all know there is no God!” but that would be wildly presumptuous of me. If I knew it was a presumptuous thing to do and chose to do it anyway, I would be kind of an asshole. Most people aren’t assholes, hence, we hear a lot of “happy holidays” out there. Stores in particular like this phrase because they have no reason to offend their non-Christian customers.

For the record, I actually think this line of reasoning is flawed, however well-meaning it is. The United States has a secular government (despite what the fundies say) and it celebrates “Christmas” on December 25th as a national holiday. We all get it off from work, regardless of our religion. The banks and post offices are closed. In this respect, saying “merry Christmas” is no different from wishing someone a happy Thanksgiving. As an atheist, I am utterly unoffended when someone says “merry Christmas” to me, and I suspect the same is true for most non-Christians. I would likewise be unoffended if someone wished me a happy Hanukkah or Kwanza or Festivus (for the rest of us) or whatever. I just don’t think an actual problem exists of people getting offended by holiday cheer… except for those who are offended by the phrase “happy holidays,” and those people are just crazy and should be mocked.

So this “war on Christmas” that Bill O’Reilly and his cohorts rail against stems from an idiotic conflation of these two distinct phenomena — public buildings belonging to everyone, not just the Christians, and a majority of people and businesses not being assholes. The two things are separate and not part of some larger conspiracy to demote the value of “Christmas” in our culture. To think otherwise is to be a numb-skull.

It’s interesting that I have never actually met a person who thinks there is a concerted “war on Christmas.” I think those people are only on TV.

And with that, I leave you with this video collage that I put together a few years ago, featuring Charles Dead or Alive performing The Nutcracker Suite.

Merry Christmas.


Charles Dead or Alive, The Nutcracker Suite from Bill Simmon on Vimeo.

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7 Comments

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  1. I agree that a lot of the war on Christmas stuff is overblown BS, but there is also the other side of it, like that guy in Charlotte who claimed the candy cane is a “religious symbol” and therefore the school should not allow the pillars out front to be decorated as such, with red and white stripes.

    Personally, I think that it is too bad that there is this movement to expunge Christmas stuff from schools. I loved that when I was a kid and I didn’t even believe in God. It was just fun.

    I think the reason that this war on Christmas stuff keeps coming up is that a lot of people see that their kids are not able to have the same fun traditions that we did as kids and it kind of sucks.

    I guess will we just have to make up for it with excessive materialism. (I kid.)

    Hope you and Emily had a merry Christmas!

  2. On December 26, 2008, billsimmon said:

    Hi Charity, thanks for commenting.

    Yes, the guy in Charlotte was rightly shouted down, but I disagree with your premise that there is any “movement to expunge Christmas stuff from schools.” What movement? The establishment clause isn’t new and I’ve been hearing about the occasional Christmas-display-at-public-school-brouhaha as long as I can remember (I attended at least a couple of schools that dealt with the issue when I was a lad). The system is working just fine. Schools can’t legally show a specific religious preference, and when they are perceived to be doing so, there is sometimes a controversy, or perhaps a legal case. Sometimes “Silent Night” has to get replaced with “Frosty the Snowman” in the school play and sometimes a menorah goes up next to the Christmas tree and sometimes jackasses complain about candy cane pillars and are ignored. There’s no “movement,” there’s just the law and a bunch of school boards and citizens acting in whatever ways they think are best for their communities.

    And I’m not too far from your age (I’m a bit older, I suspect) and I attended public schools in many states (we moved around a lot) and yes we had holiday fun around Christmas time, but my schools didn’t do Christmas-specific decorations and Jesus was certainly never part of our public school fun. I’m not sure what has changed.

    Maybe you could give some examples of the sorts of things you did as a kid that your kids can’t do now because of church/state separation issues. What exactly has changed in this regard?

  3. Another dimension to this, which has commonalities with your idea that most people just prefer not to be assholes, is the whole problem that used to be called “PC”. Rather than look to the law (establishment clause of the 1st amendment, et al.), individuals and organizations often attempt what they perceive to be diplomatic or kind gestures. For example, a local church might ask to set up a nativity scene on a public green and the selectboard, say, extends the offer to all religious ‘houses’ in town, offering equal space, time and, in effect, exposure. This seems fair and seems to avoid running afoul of the constitution. The problem is that while it may get in front of the problem (by extending an offer before any public complaints) it would leave small town, non-christian citizenry non-plussed AND disenfranchised (“dissenplussed”). Just how many non-christians in, say, Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, belong to a religious ‘house’ that has mid-winter icons of their faith? None, of course. They don’t. Even the menorah is a symbol of a minor holiday that has only been elevated by christians to a ‘jewish christmas’ for the purposes of equity – but that’s like saying “hey, why don’t you celebrate secretary’s day while we celebrate the origins of the founding principles of a major-league world religion”. Christian kids are always asking jewish kids “why don’t you get presents? channukah seems to suck.” Sure it does – in the same way that “Talk Like A Pirate Day” sucks when compared to christmas. And for us muslims, icons of human representation are strictly verboten, so what do we do, put up a big poster like a 10th grade science experiment? Fairness and equality are rarely achievable and sometimes the gestures ring empty. The important goal is not fairness everywhere. The important goal is to not favor a particular religion or opinion or move at all in the direction of laws that seem to establish a religion or religious belief (such as monotheism) or prevent the expression of such belief (such as disallowing expression of a belief in the FSM or Lizard People).

    I’d also like to point out as a matter of information that Christmas is not a national holiday. There is not such thing. It’s a holiday for federal employees by an act of Congress but only (and strictly) in its secular adn universal contexts. And states, cities and towns are under no obligation to even acknowledge the date.

  4. I just re-read my previous post and noticed that it had no concluding point. Here it is: You can’t achieve fairness, so cities and towns should avoid religion entirely. There’s nothing wrong with decorations and good cheer (egg nog, presents, wrapping paper, etc.). But no level of government should allow expressions of *religion* including public schools. It’s government, not church. If you don’t like that, don’t blame me, I didn’t invent the government schools. But if that’s where you send your kids, don’t expect the school to put up a crucifix with a bleeding jew nailed to it. And please don’t sing “Joy To The World”. It is the most offensive and demeaning song to non-christians but you’d never know it if you were raised in a pro-christian-biased community.

  5. On December 28, 2008, billsimmon said:

    Dan,

    Good points. One quibble: your distinction between “national holiday” and a “holiday for federal employees,” while technically correct, is beside the point I was making. In our culture, federally recognized holidays (New Year’s Day, MLK Day, Washington’s b-day, Independence Day, Labor Day, Columbus Day, Veteran’s Day, Thanksgiving and Christmas) are treated like (and referred to as) “national holidays” in that most people get those days off from work or are paid extra to work on those days, regardless of who the employer is. It’s been true of every W-2 employer I’ve ever had. If you look at the list, you’ll see that christmas is the only one that has any real religious significance — it’s a pretty secular list. More importantly, the distinction doesn’t affect the point I was making — that Christmas, being so widely celebrated in the US, wishing someone a “merry Christmas” (just like wishing someone a “happy Thanksgiving”) does not necessarily presume a religious affiliation on the part of the wishee.

  6. Bill,

    As long as we agree that I’m correct about the fact that federal holidays are not national holidays then I’m happy. Being called ‘technically correct’ is a weird sideways insult that means “you’re correct, but only in a way that a lawyer, doctor, engineer, business professional or somebody with a diploma might admit, but to us reg’lar folk, yer jes a nerdy sumbich.” Either that or it means “okay, you’re right, but I don’t want to concede the point”. It’s a tough row to hoe to justify the other meaning: “You’re not right, because a lot of people didn’t know there was that distinction and don’t make it themselves.”

    Of course I’m correct. In good economic times there’s not a manufacturer in town who isn’t running shifts right through christmas day. The ‘extra pay’ thing comes from union contract negotiations, not from tradition or an obligation to make labor more valued on a day that’s sacred to a second-tier regligious hackery.

    But getting back to the original point: if you wish me a ‘Merry Christmas*’, the only reason I don’t get offended is because there’s a little asterisk there. The footnote reads “*I mean ‘Christmas’ only in the sense that the word reflects the values of peace and generosity of spirit that we all share.” When a devout catholic or a born-again jesus freak says it to me, the asterisk isn’t there and if it were not for my own values of peace and generosity of spirit I would feel slighted. I really would. My internal voice says “Don’t foist your ‘Jesus is our lord and savior’ bullshit on me. As far as I’m concerned he was an intellectual lightweight who ruined the great philosophical underpinnings of the previous millenia of profound thinking.” I feel this is very strongly analogous to the tribulations of people who aren’t into dogs, having to visit somebody with a dog. There is a tension that exists that the dog-owner assumes would be assuaged if the non-dog person would just chill out a bit and accept the dog-nature.

    But there’s no establishment clause in the constitution of pet ownership. The only way the feds even get away with the christmas holiday thing is to absolutely guarantee to the courts that they really only mean it in that secular sense. The challenges to the courts (I don’t have a legal reference for you) have made this clear: Christmas _cannot_ celebrate the birth of Christ in the Federal holiday context. It might in the wink-and-nod sense, but not explicitly. A more prudent court would require more distance (not allowing ‘Christmas’ in the name of the holiday, for example).

    In conclusion, wishing somebody a Merry Christmas presumes that the wishee is either willing to cough up a clot of goodwill to gloss over the slight, of such good nature that they naturally let it pass unpolished, cut of a similar religious cloth, or that it just doesn’t matter who gets offended – like playing my music too loud at 2am.

    It’s actually an obnoxious presumption that makes an ass out of pre and umption and were it not a horrific inconvenience, I’d be fighting in court to remove it from the federal holiday list or have it renamed.

  7. “Maybe you could give some examples of the sorts of things you did as a kid that your kids can’t do now because of church/state separation issues. What exactly has changed in this regard?”

    I almost forgot I posted a comment on this!

    Well, my kids are homeschooled now, but when they were still in school, there was talk about removing all holiday decorations from Burlington schools. All of them. Did they do that? I have no idea.

    When I was a kid, there was no religious aspect to the school Christmas celebrations, but we had decorations, a tree in the classrooms, a gift exchange (bring a gift with no tag and each child gets one), and a music concert.

    When my children were in school, they had none of that.

    I am totally in support of there being no religious aspect to the school Christmas celebrations. It just seems like there is always some one that wants to take it a step further and eliminate even the secular aspects of the holiday. Perhaps “movement” was a bad choice of words, but sometimes, the person claiming that candy canes are a religious symbol gets his way and it feels like we are losing our traditions (non-religious, of course!).

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