America’s Relationship with Christmas: It’s Complicated

Young woman in a Santa hat carrying wrapped Christmas presents

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An argument long made against marriage equality is that marriage is a religious institution, and the U.S. government doesn’t have the right to interfere with long-held religious traditions. The problem with that  argument is that marriage is both a sacred and a secular institution. The government grants marriage licenses and provides over 1000 benefits to married couples. The U.S. government is required to provide equal protection under the law to all U.S. citizens. And that means it must, under the Constitution, provide marriage rights to same-sex couples. Whether religious institutions choose to honor such unions is entirely up to them, because the Constitution also guarantees separation of church and state.

The same dichotomy holds when it come to Christmas. In the U.S., Christmas is a Christian holiday, but it’s also a federal holiday observed by the government. The government cannot, under the Constitution, recognize a religious holiday. So in effect, the U.S. government created a secular Christmas holiday.

Secular Christmas is everywhere, beginning around Halloween. The primary purveyors of holiday cheer are TV commercials and shopping malls. American Christmas is about consumerism and gaudy displays of lights, a non-stop litany of saccharine carols streaming from radio stations ad nauseam, and tall evergreens brought indoors and decorated with Hallmark ornaments and tinsel garlands made in China.

In other words, things that have nothing to do with the birth of Christ.

The materialism of secular Christmas stands in contrast to the teachings of Jesus, who said, “If you want to be perfect, go and sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor” (Matthew 19:21).

We need a clean break between secular and sacred Christmas, not just to keep Christian traditions from being corrupted by the societal pressures that make holiday spending the cornerstone of our capitalist economy, but also to make room for non-Christians in this ubiquitous national holiday.

Quotation from Jon Stewart: How can I enjoy my Christmas when I know that somewhere a little Jewish boy isn't being forced to sing "O Little Town of Bethlehem"?In the post, All My Son Wants For Hanukkah Is Christmas, a Jewish mother writes about the difficulty of explaining to her 5-year-old son why their family doesn’t celebrate Christmas. My heart goes out to her, and to her little boy. Isn’t it incredibly unfair for a child to be surrounded by secular Christmas, which actually has nothing to do with the birth of Christ, and be told that he can’t take part because it’s the holiday of a different religion? And isn’t it unfair to put non-Christian parents in the position of having to choose between their deeply held beliefs and their child’s desire to participate in the traditions of an American federal holiday—a holiday that’s become an important part of our national culture?

It’s an impossible situation as long as we hold onto this notion that American Christmas is a Christian holiday. American Christmas, as observed by the federal government, cannot be a Christian holiday under the Constitution. It must be something different. So let’s make it different, and leave Christians like me to celebrate sacred Christmas according to our religious beliefs.

Maybe instead of celebrating the birth of Christ, American Christmas could celebrate the birth of an idea. The idea that every human deserves to be treated with dignity, that our most important calling is to love and care for our neighbors, and that those who need love most are often those who deserve it least. Because in this grand idea is the beginning of the American principle of equality under the law, the abolition of cruel and unusual punishment, and the establishment of programs like unemployment compensation and social security. Christianity is rooted in the principles of tolerance and charity—but those values belong to all of us, not a single religion.

Another advantage of separating American Christmas from Christian Christmas is that American Christmas won’t be corrupted by myopic preachers like Franklin Graham, who believes it’s better for Christian children in Iraq to be beheaded by ISIS than to convert to Islam. American Christmas won’t be subject to anyone’s maniacal misinterpretation of a 2000-year-old text. It will instead be firmly rooted in American principles of dignity, tolerance, generosity, and caring.

And if I haven’t convinced you, please enjoy this video of cats and Christmas trees instead.

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