Fighting an imaginary war

See? I did it ... you happy now? Merry frickin' Christmas!

See? I did it … you happy now? Merry frickin’ Christmas!

Is there a war on Christmas? If you live in the United States in 2013, no.

No, really.

If there was a war here, though, Christmas would clearly be winning, considering that, in some stores, Christmas merchandise starts making its way onto the floor before all the Independence Day fireworks fade. But the overbearing consumerist bent of the season, destructive though it is, is not why we’re here.

So why do some pundits swear there is a war? To manufacture drama … and politics, which is one of my biggest pet peeves; something nonpolitical in origin being used to further political aims is at best disingenuous. For the logical among us, that means the happy can be hard to find.

My first Christmas, and my grandma made me a santa-mobile ... I was very disappointed that it wasn't a car.

My first Christmas, and my grandma made me a Santa-mobile … I was very disappointed that it wasn’t a car.

When you’re a kid in America, you tend to learn at an early age that Christmas means scary visits with Santa at the mall, lots of toys, and the occasional boxes of socks or underwear from Grandma (every kid’s dream!).

Depending on your family’s religious or nonreligious leanings, you’ll perhaps eventually hear the Christmas story from the Bible, or that many trappings of the Christmas celebration originate in long-standing pagan rites.

Both have points that are equally valid, but few people seem willing to accept both.

This amounts not to war, but a difference in philosophy and beliefs.

Where we run into a problem is misunderstanding of the First Amendment combined with what seems to be an unwillingness to accept the “other” … anyone whose worldview doesn’t mesh with one’s beliefs. Then the opening of public spaces to religions (or lack of same) other than our own, or a retail worker saying “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas,” apparently amounts to persecution, and the personal attacks begin.

Life-size creche in front of unknown Capital building. Image from American Center for Law and Justice.

Life-size creche in front of unknown Capitol building. Image from American Center for Law and Justice.

Evangelical writer and blogger Rachel Held Evans recently came up with a nice little flow chart to determine if one is being persecuted. If the answer to “Did someone threaten your life, safety, civil liberties or right to worship?” is yes, you’re led to a box that says “You are being persecuted.” If your answer to the question is no, you are then asked “Did someone wish you a happy holiday?” Yes or no, the outcome is “You are not being persecuted.”

Besides the research-theory goodness that is flow charts, Evans’ blog entry, which has attracted more than 700 comments so far, illustrates very clearly how much this issue has been blown out of proportion, yet gives me hope that reality is finally making an appearance. Yes, religious persecution of a sort has existed on this continent, but that was primarily under the Puritans: the original Scrooges.

A typical  Puritan family household in the 16th Century, free of such abominations as Christmas. Image from History for Kids.

A typical Puritan family household in the 16th Century, free of such abominations as Christmas. I sense a hootenanny any time now. Image from History for Kids.

They were especially harsh on the subject of Christmas, which in England was celebrated with much gaiety; they also contended that nothing in scripture warranted the celebration of Jesus’ birth, and that the observance was nothing more than repackaging of  the pagan Saturnalia festival. According to the New York Times:

When the Puritans rebelled against King Charles I, inciting the English Revolution, the popular celebration of Christmas was on their hit list. Victorious against the king, in 1647, the Puritan government actually canceled Christmas. Not only were traditional expressions of merriment strictly forbidden, but shops were also ordered to stay open, churches were shut down and ministers arrested for preaching on Christmas Day.
The Puritans who made their way to this continent shared those sentiments, says the Times, and the colonies officially didn’t observe Christmas; the Massachusetts Bay colony went so far as to outlaw Christmas for a time, fining offenders five shillings.

No Noel for you!! Image from Northern Michigan Reformation Society.

No Noel for you!! Image from Northern Michigan Reformation Society.

Even after the Revolution and the spread of other faiths and celebrations by others not subscribing to Puritan piety, their war on Christmas continued till it was recognized as an official federal holiday in 1870.

I have no doubt that exposure to those Puritanical ideals motivated that part of the First Amendment prohibiting laws pertaining to the establishment of religion (basically outlawing government-sponsored religion) and ensuring the free exercise of religion, whatever that religion may be.
Elsewhere, the “war” in a few areas has been much more serious. Throughout the Soviet regime’s seven decades, it’s estimated that up to 20 million people were killed in its various anti-religion campaigns. After the Russian Revolution, an article in Pacific Standard Magazine notes, Communist leaders did their best to suppress religion and Christmas festivities: Christmas trees could not be sold, soldiers destroyed churches and claimed their assets, Christmas decorations were removed, and  Dec. 25 and 26 were renamed “Days of Industrialization.” Just trips off the tongue, doesn’t it?

In Saudi Arabia, where Islam is the official religion, religious police crack down regularly on those who dare observe the holiday, and last December raided a house and detained more than 40 people for a supposed plot to celebrate Christmas. The host, reported to be an Asian diplomat, and two Muslim guests were reported to be very intoxicated; no word on the inebriation level on the 41 Christians at the gathering.

Here in the U.S. where we have no official religion (thank you, Constitution writers, for recognizing the folly of that), but where 78 percent of Americans consider themselves to be Christian, we don’t really see anything that reaches the level of actual persecution. Some might blame political correctness for the movement of religious displays out of public spaces paid for by taxpayers unless all religious stripes can participate. Others understand the realities of a multicultural world where religious and political beliefs vary widely and that making taxpayers pay to advance one religion is questionable at best.

Some might say that saying “Happy Holidays” or Season’s Greetings” is tantamount to sacrilege and that workers in the local big-box store should greet people only with “Merry Christmas.”

Happy Christmas, painted by Johansen Viggo

Happy Christmas, painted by Johansen Viggo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Others recognize that although 94 percent of Americans (including about 80 percent of the nonreligious)  celebrate Christmas, other holidays important to other religions and cultures are celebrated in December as well.

There is no war on Christmas here, and liberals and conservatives who observe the holiday celebrate just the same (though I imagine one of those groups shouts much more).

Getting angry about word choice or that more people are being given a seat at the table is not what this season is about. Nor is it about the hottest game and the biggest pile of toys. In the wake of rampant commercialism and political grandstanding, we’ve lost track of why we celebrate.

When there are so many terrible things happening in the world, obsessing over something such as this is little more than silly. Plus, that needless roiling anger keeps your blood pressure so high that it’s impossible to let go, calm down and let yourself be happy, at least long enough to get  through half a family dinner without clobbering Uncle Al with Junior’s new baseball bat for daring to bring a cake to potluck inscribed with “Warm Wishes.” Allowing the idea that there are other belief systems out there and being willing to co-exist peacefully with them likely won’t kill you (Uncle Al, though, should still watch out … he’s looking shifty).

But then, that’s just my opinion. Happy Holidays, y’all.

And if I don’t see you before then, Happy Chocolate-Covered Anything Day! (Gifts, as always, are welcome on that day.)

Did someone say chocolate?

Did someone say chocolate?


5 thoughts on “Fighting an imaginary war

  1. Thank you for this thoughtful and well-researched piece. It’s a good point that you make about the way our “persecution complex” trivializes actual cases of persecution, such as the example from Saudi Arabia.


    • Thank you, Nat! The whole “War on Christmas” has irritated me for a while. Yesterday as I was headed back to my office, I passed by the TVs and saw that Fox News was reporting the latest skirmish: A girl in Portland being told she couldn’t sell mistletoe (she didn’t have a permit to sell at the market) … oh, the horror! When people are being jailed or killed for their beliefs, THAT’s persecution. For people who so love to parse every statement (usually devoid any context) from their opponents, you’d think these odd literalists would see the inanity of their argument.


  2. RIGHT ON! Excellent article, and history lesson. Political correctness is a self defeating philosophy. It defies logic and reason. It is counter productive and halts real progress. Respecting (not the same as agreeing) diversity is what leads to lasting peace.


  3. Pingback: I wish I may … | Serenity is a fuzzy belly

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