Christmas in the Rear-View Mirror

This issue is no different from any other: we can let our emotions get the best of us and lead us to rash conclusions.

I am not saying there was no reason for Christians to get feisty over what the militant secularists are doing to Christmas. It was good to see people getting their hackles up on this issue. Fox Network talk-show hosts Bill O’Reilly and John Gibson took the lead in focusing the country’s attention on the drive to secularize Christmas. Gibson’s book, The War on Christmas, which chronicled court cases against things like Christmas trees and Nativity scenes on the village green and Christmas carols at public school assemblies, became a New York Times’s best-seller. Other talk-show hosts took up the gauntlet, going to great pains to use the phrase “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays” and “Have a Nice Holiday.”

It wasn’t just people in the media who decided that enough was enough. As I made my daily rounds in late December, I heard “Merry Christmas” being repeated in diners and other public settings in what was close to a defiant manner, as if people were making the point that no one was going to browbeat them into submersing Christmas into some nondescript winter festival. I was encouraged by this reaction, but also saddened just a bit. It was a more gracious world when the phrase “Merry Christmas” flowed from people in an effortless and natural manner, as if the last thing in the world that they would imagine was anyone taking offense at their expression of good will.

Who are the people who are pushing this drive against Christmas? Some are our adversaries: there is no other way to say it. There are militant atheists, agnostics and certain members of minority religions such as Judaism and Islam who will not be satisfied until Christianity is transformed into some quirky belief practiced only in private settings. That is what they mean by the separation of church and state. We have no choice but to speak out resolutely against them with all the tools at our disposal — at the ballot box, in the courts, through pressure groups, lobbying, letters to the editors of our newspapers and our politicians.

The secularizers of Christmas have the right to speak out resolutely for an interpretation of the First Amendment that would change the country in this manner, to take into account “the growing diversity of the American people,” as they phrase it. But we have a right to oppose them with equal vigor. Loving our enemies as ourselves does not require that we give in to their unjust and unreasonable demands.

But here’s where things get nettlesome. If the forces aligned for a secularization of Christmas were limited to militant ACLU-types, their drive would be of little consequence. There are too few of them. The problem is that there are many “nice” people — friends, neighbors and colleagues — who are on board the effort to turn Christmas into nothing more than a winter holiday.

What’s their motivation — the friendly guy around the water cooler you talk to about baseball and the Seinfeld re-runs and who always votes Republican; the woman from the accounting department who dresses as conservatively as Aunt Bea on the old Andy Griffith show and who gives you recipes for meat loaf and recommendations for little-known restaurants that she and her husband found over the weekend? Why can’t these good folks let us enjoy Christmas the way Americans have in the past?

I submit that their motivation is not rooted in any hostility toward us. In fact, what they are looking for is a way to feel less alienated from American society as a whole. They are asking us to open ourselves more fully to them. These people feel fully a part of American society all year long — except at Christmas. Then they become outsiders from the country as a whole.

It is important to come to grips with how alienated non-Christians can feel at Christmas. This is the biggest American holiday, and they are not a part of it. They must explain to their children why Santa Claus is not coming to their house, why they are not fully involved in the month-long festivities in the department stores and on television — everything from Scrooge to Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer; why they joined with their classmates in the celebrations of Halloween and Thanksgiving, but must keep themselves apart on Christmas, why all the Christmas carols about a Savior being born in Bethlehem and bringing peace and joy to the world have nothing to do with them.

On Christmas day, they must watch as network television and local radio stations stop their normal programming, as offices and government buildings close and everyone else in the neighborhood gathers for family dinners in an atmosphere of gift-giving and good will that is more pronounced than at any other time of the year.

American Jews have tried to use Chanukkah to fill this void. But it doesn’t work, not fully. Indeed, it may increase the sense of alienation. The Web site “Judaism 101,” run by observant Jews, understands what is taking place. It states that

Chanukkah is probably one of the best-known Jewish holidays, not because of any great religious significance, but because of its proximity to Christmas. Many non-Jews (and even many assimilated Jews!) think of this holiday as the Jewish Christmas, adopting many of the Christmas customs, such as elaborate gift-giving and decoration. It is bitterly ironic that this holiday, which has its roots in a revolution against assimilation and the suppression of Jewish religion, has become the most assimilated, secular holiday on our calendar.

I hope no one is misreading me. I am not hinting that Christians should acquiesce in the secularizing of Christmas in order to accommodate the sense of alienation that our non-Christian friends and neighbors feel at this time of the year. Indeed, it seems to me that it would be reasonable for non-Christians to respond to the public display of Christmas joy by their Christian neighbors with graciousness and forbearance; that they should not object to some manifestation in the public square of the fact that over 90% of their neighbors are celebrating a day that is central to their religious beliefs. It would be different if there were some record in this country of Christmas revelry degenerating into ugly displays of religious bigotry. But that is not what mangers and Christmas carols and gift-giving are all about. Quite the contrary: they bring out the best in us.

My point is only that we should not misread what the “war on Christmas” is all about; that there is a difference between the ACLU-types and our neighbors and friends who are groping for some way to feel less left out in all the merry-making that is part of our lives at Christmas and feel that the widespread acceptance of terms like “Happy Holiday” and “Holiday tree” will help in that effort. While we have no obligation to give in to them in this regard, neither should we create caricatures of them as some malevolent force out to destroy our religious freedom. Doing that is neither fair nor accurate.

James Fitzpatrick's novel, The Dead Sea Conspiracy: Teilhard de Chardin and the New American Church, is available from our online store. You can email Mr. Fitzpatrick at

(This article originally appeared in The Wanderer and is reprinted with permission. To subscribe call 651-224-5733.)

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