Thursday, December 23, 2010

Merry Christmas and/or Happy Holidays

Americans love war analogies.  It probably stems from our love of actual war, which I think is an actual collective sin we are committing.  So analogies between war and other non-war things are pretty unsettling and off-putting for me.  In the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, for instance, there are over 100,000 dead civilians, tens of thousands of dead combat troops, and millions of wounded.  So when we use frequent war allusions in sports and politics and the like I think we're being rather callous and glib.  If we paid more attention to our language and how we use it we might end up making different and better political choices in America.

That was all a slight tangent I started pondering as I considered this most special time of year when we can come together and debate whether or not there is a War on Christmas.  The weapons in this war are not missiles, bombs, drone attacks, and machine guns, but phrases like "Happy Holidays," the removal of nativity scenes from government-owned public places, and "X-mas."  The casualties are not human lives lost or permanent physical or psychological injuries and disfigurement, but . . . what?  I'm not sure.  Hurt pride, I guess.

What we have are some very conservative Christians who object to the de-Christianizing of Christmas.  Which makes some intuitive sense, I guess.  After all, this is a celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ.  Put aside for a moment that the holiday was started in part as a way to co-opt pre-Christian winter festivals, and that even before the supposed "War on Christmas" was launched by supposed atheists and statists we Christians did a pretty great job mucking it up on our own with our Santa Clauses and elves and red-nosed reindeers and general commercialism that has wrung any meaningful Christ-centered moisture from the public face of the Christmas cloth.  Put that aside and I can at least see a glimmer of what these staunchly pro-Christ-in-Christmas conservative Christians are getting at.

But as I've alluded to a couple of times so far I think this is a matter of public v. private observance, and I think the Defenders in the War on Christmas are on the wrong side of this one.  We live in a country that is multi-cultural, multi-religious, multi-ethnic, multi-everything.  We Americans aspire to the ideal of tolerance and civility.  We have created this pretty rare country where ethnic and religious tensions have been historically pretty low key.  Only we're moving away from that recently.  There is a very vocal contingent of Americans that are creating tension with Hispanics.  The Christian right is continuing to gain power to push its anti-differences agenda and have swept Mormons into their net.  Muslims are have seen a steady deterioration in their public standing culminating in the embarrassingly bigoted "Ground Zero Mosque" fiasco.  And the list could continue.

The backdrop of all this, of course, is that we live in an increasingly heterogeneous society, so there is more and more bumping into each other causing the inevitable building of friction.  Whereas before you could walk down the streets of most small- to mid-sized towns in America and feel pretty certain that you were only going to pass by other white Protestants, now you're bound to encounter more diversity.  Whereas before any small- to mid-sized town in America could safely put up a nativity scene on the grounds of county courthouse because everyone that would see it was Christian and no one would care or complain, now you've got many more people of different faiths and backgrounds that might not share those Christian sensitivities.

The Constitution reads, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."  There are two different things there.  The second part, known as the Free Exercise Clause, is not really at issue here.  Having public displays of Christianity on government property doesn't prohibit anyone from exercising their own religion differently.  It is that first part, known as the Establishment Clause, is a little more tricky.  Does having a nativity, something overtly Christian, on government property constitute an establishment of Christianity as the de facto government-sanctioned official religion?  Would we allow overtly Muslim scenes during Ramadan?  Jewish scenes for Passover?  Hindu, Sikh, atheist, Buddhist, Zoroastrian, Scientologist, etc. scenes at other times?  Should the government be in the business of doing anything overtly religious at all?

These are difficult legal issues that are being sorted out constantly in the courts.  But if we remove for a moment the legal issues and just focus on the human side, I think the ideas get more clear.  Christmas is a great time of year.  More volunteerism occurs, more charitable donations, more goodwill.  For Christians there is (hopefully) more of a focus on Christ, which is excellent, but for people of all faiths Christmas is becoming a time to focus on family and giving and, yes, presents and decorations and everything else.  Why would we choose to be less inclusive?  Why would we try to force only the extreme Christian view on others instead of something many more people can embrace?  What could we possibly gain by pressuring businesses and public entities to say "Merry Christmas" instead of "Happy Holidays" or something that more people can identify with?

I just don't understand when people want to force their religion on others and into the public square.  This isn't missionary work and glorifying Christ and expressing our faith, those sorts of things are done in humility and personally and one-on-one, this is about xenophobia and pride.  I think it does absolutely no good to worry about some nebulous "war" on Christmas, but it does all the good in the world to celebrate Christmas privately as a religious holiday and publicly as an all-inclusively holiday.  So, Merry Christmas and/or Happy Holidays, whichever suits you best.

1 comment:

natalie said...

This was very well said. I'm glad you have the patience to counter the rather silly attacks people make on phrases like "Happy Holidays."

From my relatives, I get joyous email forwards containing links like this:

I just sigh, delete them, and move on. Maybe I'll direct them here instead.