For some reason the Jehovah’s Witnesses like to work my neighborhood. It’s not uncommon for me to come home at night and see a copy of the Watchtower or Awake! crammed under the doormat.
A recent copy of Awake! contained several articles attacking Halloween, a holiday the Witnesses really don’t seem to like. They’re not big fans of Christmas either. In fact, I don’t know if there’s any holiday they enjoy. Devout Witnesses aren’t even supposed to celebrate their own birthdays.
The Witnesses are wasting their time with me. Putting aside their idiosyncratic theology, I could never be part of a religion that frowned so much on fun and celebration.
But their recent literature drop did me one favor: it caused me to stop and think about holidays, specifically how Americans celebrate them now and might do so in the future—and why some people are so threatened by those changes.
This can be a dicey topic for humanists and advocates of church-state separation. Christmas has undeniable Christian connections, but it also has significant secular elements—think snowmen, candy canes, and fruitcake—not to mention Pagan roots. What to do about it? Is it permissible for government to get involved in Christmas at all?
For years now, the Fox News Channel and other right-wing media have been carping about a so-called “war on Christmas.” The implication is that some nefarious force—usually described as a cabal of radical nonbelievers—is seeking to drive the holiday from public life.
The reality, of course, is more nuanced. Christmas is pretty ubiquitous. Trees, Santa figures, elves, tinsel, and so on often start appearing in stores not long after the leftover Halloween candy is put on deep discount.
Some Americans (Christians among them) object to the emphasis on commercialization and money. Others say they don’t celebrate the holiday at all and are weary of the “Christmas creep” that occurs every year.
Then there is a third category, one that a lot of humanists I have talked to over the years fall into: people who celebrate Christmas, but not in a manner approved of by fundamentalist Christians.
Many humanists grew up celebrating Christmas because they were raised in some variant of Christianity. As adults, they see no reason to let it go, so they retain the features they like (family visits, gift giving, parties, etc.) and discard the rest (midnight church services, hymns, prayers, and nativity scenes).
It’s this picking and choosing that so infuriates the religious right. They get so worked up by it that every fall they morph into a force that I call the “Christmas Police.” Religious right groups are certain there’s only one way to celebrate Christmas—theirs—and they don’t want to hear about people who dare to cherry pick. We’re doing it wrong!
Religious right groups take this matter very seriously. Every year, the American Family Association actually enlists people to pore over holiday sales circulars and catalogs produced by retailers and tally up how many times the word “Christmas” is used as opposed to more generic terms like “holiday” or “season.”
From this data, the AFA produces a “Naughty & Nice” list so upstanding Christians will know where to shop. AFA supporters are also instructed to harass any hapless store clerk who dares utter “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” at the checkout.
It all sounds just a tad obsessive. And furthermore it’s silly. Giant box retailers, after all, are hardly the place to go for a spiritual Christmas experience. Who cares what words they’re using? Most of us just want to know what the prices are like.
Humanists, of course, know their history and understand that Christmas was originally a celebration from the classical Pagan era that was given a quick Christian varnish during the time of Constantine the Great. Although we’re not classical Pagans any more than we are Christians, humanists recognize that a winter celebration—when it’s dark and cold in half of the world—fills some human need. If nothing else, it breaks up the monotony and gets people out of the house.
Whether the Christmas Police like it or not, Christmas is now a holiday with significant secular aspects. Government can acknowledge these, but it’s supposed to leave promotion of the religious side where it belongs—with the churches.
That’s never enough for the Christmas Police. Thus, to them, a nativity scene, which would look just right nestled in some greenery in front of a church, must instead be transplanted to the sterile, marble steps of city hall.
At that point, it’s no longer about celebration. By insisting that the government display the crèche or acknowledge other religious activities, the religious right changes the debate in a profound way. The state is being asked to endorse and promote a specific interpretation of Christmas, and it just happens to be the one favored by conservative Christians. That’s a constitutional no-no.
To the Christmas Police, the government’s refusal to embrace its interpretation of Christmas amounts to a “war” on the holiday. Never mind that people are still free to attend services at the church of their choice, decorate their living space as they see fit, pray as much as they like, and so on.
Deep inside themselves, religious right leaders know that Americans aren’t going to stop celebrating Christmas and that there is no “war.” (Have you been to the mall lately?) Rather, what’s really bothering them is that people are celebrating the holiday in a manner that the religious right does not approve of. And the possibility exists that even more people may do this, especially if fundamentalism begins to lose its grip on the nation and the “nones” keep growing in number. That’s what’s keeping the Christmas Police awake at night.
Humanists are a special threat because so many of us are old hands at celebrating Christmas in a non-religious way. That “have-it-your-way” holiday style is our signature, and it really torques off the religious right.
Humanists are leading the way—perhaps brandishing a “Festivus Pole”—and more and more Americans are taking notice and saying, “You mean I can have all the fun with none of the dogma? Sign me up!” It’s a real threat as far as the Christmas Police are concerned. We’ve spiked the wassail bowl with the forbidden fruit of doubt; one delicious sip and there’s no turning back.
The right to celebrate Christmas in a way that is meaningful for you (or not celebrate it at all) is an extension of the right of conscience as codified in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Just as you can read the Bible as a religious tome or as a book of ancient stories and myth, you can infuse Christmas with as much or as little religious content as your conscience dictates.
At the end of the day, that’s what’s really bothering the Christmas Police. It’s not that there’s a war on Christmas, it’s that some people decline to celebrate it as a 24/7 Jesus-a-thon. To them I say, “Get over it.” And to the American Family Association I’d like to add a hearty, “Happy Holidays!”