SYNDICATED COLUMN: The War of Christmas

Time to Take Religion Out of the Calendar

We are a secular nation. We enjoy the constitutional right to exercise any religion—or none whatsoever. So why is Christmas a federal holiday?

The U.S. has no national religion. Yet Christians get special consideration. Aside from Christmas, they also get the quasi-Christian holiday of Thanksgiving. Financial markets are closed on both of those, plus Good Friday.

Devotees of other faiths must ask their employers for time off. Jews aren’t supposed to work on Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, the first and second days of Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret, Simchat Torah, Shavu’ot, or the first, second, seventh and eighth days of Passover. They have to take up to 13 days off from work each year, more than most employers offer.

The message to Jews and other non-Christians is plain: you are second-class citizens. Separation of church and state is a fraud. You wanna practice your faith? Do it on your own time.

You might think that the government’s official embrace of Christmas is a cultural relic of America’s puritan past. But you’d be mistaken. For nearly 100 years, Christmas was not on the calendar of federal holidays. On December 25, 1789, the first Christmas under the new U.S. constitution, Congress was in session. Ulysses Grant made it a federal holiday in 1870.

At first (and second and third) glance, the Christmas federal holiday seems like a clear violation of the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution. In 1999, however, a federal district court judge in Ohio rejected a lawsuit challenging the special status of Christmas. The court ruled that “the establishment of Christmas Day as a legal public holiday does…not have the effect of endorsing religion in general or Christianity in particular.”

Legal reasoning gave way to the simplest calculus: we do stuff because we can.

Right-wing commentators such as Bill O’Reilly have accused liberals of waging a “war on Christmas.” Actually, there’s a war of Christmas: Christians use the holiday as a bludgeon against the rest of us. (Sort of how the “war on terrorism” is really a “war of terror.”) Christmas’ designation as a federal holiday is the most brazen and thus most offensive manifestation of Christian hegemony in America.

The Christian Right’s “war on Christmas” meme would be laughable if it didn’t work; they’re the majority, they’re in charge, but somehow they’re victims. The smallest concession to common decency and sensitivity—e.g. not displaying nativity scenes on government property—is portrayed as an attack on innocent Christians. Not subtle. But clever: the dominant majority gets to claim victimhood. Anything short than total domination isn’t good enough.

This has nothing to do with suppressing Christianity. I am touched, not offended, when a person of faith says that he or she is praying for me, or wishes me a “Merry Christmas.” Individual and/or private displays of religiosity are fine.

Official expressions of a specific religion, however, are disgusting and inherently repressive. Public-school teachers should not wish their students a Merry Christmas. Presidents should not end speeches by saying “God Bless America.” Our currency should not read “In God We Trust.” Courts should not use Bibles to swear in witnesses. Government officials and employees who wear their Christianity on their sleeves reinforce the majority and subjugate the minority. Notice, it’s always Christians. When’s the last time a TSA screener wished you a blessed Ramadan?

A country should live up to its stated principles. Everyone who wants to honor Christmas, whether in its religious or its consumerist contexts, is free to do so. Go to midnight mass. Festoon your roof with plastic Santas. But the government shouldn’t make it easier on Christians to celebrate one of their religious holidays than it does members of other faiths.

There are only two fair courses of action:

First, remove Christmas from the list of federal holidays. But replace it with something secular! Preferably in March or April. There’s a long gap there.

Alternatively, add holidays for other religions. Of course, this could get complicated. How many holidays for each religion? Some faiths are more festive than others. How far down the list of major American religions do we go? The Zoroastrian holiday of Navruz? Shall we make room for new religions like Scientology?

After every sect gets its day in court there might not be a single day left in the year to work.

I say: the more days off, the merrier. Er, better.

(Ted Rall is the author of “The Anti-American Manifesto.” His website is tedrall.com.)

COPYRIGHT 2010 TED RALL

9 thoughts on “SYNDICATED COLUMN: The War of Christmas

  1. Bravo Ted, I’ve been waiting for more columns on your take on religion since it seems to be a major rallying point for the right

    Albert, not that I mean to give you tactical advice, but wouldn’t it work better for the Left in the US if instead of antagonizing religion, it coexisted with it or co-opted it? It worked well in Latin America.

  2. Bravo Ted, I’ve been waiting for more columns on your take on religion since it seems to be a major rallying point for the right. One thing missing from your article and possibly the most important thing to do to combat violations of the church/state separation is to end tax exemption for all religions. The reason why they have so much power in the US is because they have amassed billions in untaxed money. With less money to throw around (besides adding to the treasury) they will have less to spend on influencing politics.

    Also, the term “holiday” is short for “holy day”, a secular day can’t be holy. We need to label days like Independence Day, Earth Day, Labor Day, MLK Day, etc “specialdays” instead of “holidays.” Just throwing it out there.

  3. Wow, grinchy, grinchy. Looks like the four or so wars in Asia are finally over, so “progressives” can concentrate on the “culture war.” Here’s my third option: no federal holidays at all. If TCS wants to give all their employees a break on every Parsi festivity, more power to them (they actually do that back in India). But federal tax-feeders don’t get to officially sit on their butts for nothing (like they do the rest of the year) on the tax-victim’s money. How about that secular arrangement?
    BTW, Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all y’all commies.

  4. I hate Christmas as much as any living person could, but come on! We supposedly live in a democracy. If the majority of people want a holiday on December 25, it should be so.

    Christmas is just a mashup of various European winter solstice celebrations as it is. We have to call it something. Do proper names violate the establishment clause? Should Los Angeles change its name to something more secular?

  5. While I agree with much of this essay, I am afraid I must protest your take on Thanksgiving. I in no way see Thanksgiving as even a quasi Christian holiday, I honestly feel that it is a true secular national holiday. Sure the story and histories that give rise to it have all been so far twisted away from the true history as to be near complete works of fiction (e.x. the original had no turkey, the meat course was eel.) But I think it (with all the mythology that has reshaped it) has become as secularly American as the 4th of July, except without all the overtones of Nationalism and such.

  6. Three-fourths of Americans identify as Christians; getting Christianity out of American politics will require a monumental amount of legal work by an alliance of people who either aren’t Christian or are Christian and think that the separation of church and state is a real thing. …demographics wise I don’t think the country is ready yet.

    Both Thanksgiving and Christmas can be easily changed into secular (although still Eurocentric) affairs. Thanksgiving (+Black Friday + Cyber Monday?) can be Turkey Days, a holiday celebrating gluttony and greed, firstly by chowing down on massive amounts of food while watching some pigskin on the telly, and followed by a day of spending money we don’t have on stuff made overseas that we don’t need. Christmas can be Santa Day, a holiday distilled to what people like about the holiday in the first place: gift giving.

    Although I do think that Santa Day should be repurposed into a summer holiday. Whoever came up with the great idea of making the biggest holiday (and thus travel day) occur during the winter never had to wait in an airport for snow delays.

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