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Church, State, and Christmas

If you mosey over to this post at For The Sake Of Science, there is an interesting point being made. His claim is that christmas is a secular holiday is quite correct and it begs a few questions that should be considered.

I don’t know if he is correct in saying that Christmas has become a non-religious holiday for most people, but one thing that is too often overlooked when it comes to most holidays is that there is a difference between the religious customs of a holiday and the secular customs that happen to go with them. A few examples:

1. Christmas Trees. I’ve read the bible, both for religious purposes and for academic ones in college school*. Despite both academic and religious study,  I have yet to discover where the christmas tree came from. I suspect that is because it has nothing to do with Christianity. The tree has acquired some christian symbolism, but that doesn’t make it a religious object. Contrary to popular belief christmas trees did not originate with some pagan peoples far back in antiquity, they somehow developed in the 14th and 15th centuries, a thousand years after paganism had almost gone extinct in Europe.

Simply put, christmas trees have no really serious religious connections. Any connections that they did have, as a symbol of eternal life for example, have long since faded away. In fact, despite  being a practicing catholic, I never get a tree. It’s mostly that I don’t want to bother with the mess and having no great religious significance, there is little incentive for me to practice the custom.

2. Music. Including caroling. Even though many of the songs associated with Christmas are party religious in nature, caroling has at various times been condemned by churches. But, (sigh) , every year lawsuits pop up because some public schools have or allow choruses to sing things like ‘Silent Night’ and “God Rest You Merry Gentlemen’. It’s insanity. In what way does permitting students to sing christmas songs qualify as government endorsement? The majority of these songs are beautiful and it isn’t uncommon for choruses to sing songs that align with a certain part of the year.

3. Presents.Although it’s pretty clear that presents were originally adopted as a custom to commemorate the gifts the 3 magi brought Jesus, as we practice it today it has almost nothing to do with the original religious version of the practice.

4. Nativity Scenes. This one might come as a surprise, but I’m not impressed by the argument that the only purpose is a religious one. I would think that some atheists would consider the fact that the birth of Jesus is the reason for Christmas. How people celebrate the holiday may have nothing to do with that, but that doesn’t change anything. Nativity scenes have religious value for Christians, for everyone else I would think they would have the same significance that flags do on the Fourth of July and turkeys do on Thanksgiving. For Christs Sake (ha!), they actually depict the reason the holiday exists, that remains true no matter how you celebrate the holiday and no matter what your religion is**.

The list could go on and on. Often the only difference between how Christians and non-Christians celebrate the holiday is that non-Christians probably don’t attend a church service, or even consider doing so. As I said in a comment on another blog:

I think you are right that there are so many secular aspects to Christmas these days that it is almost universally celebrated. But that begs the question of why christmas trees, nativity scenes, and their like face lawsuits. It wouldn’t be Christmas without nativity scenes, lights, and carols. My Jewish neighbor even has a giant inflatable nativity scene on his lawn.

I just don’t buy it that only some of the popular traditions amount to 1st amendment issues, while others don’t.

I still don’t buy it. Surely there are some real violations of the first amendment out there, ones that don’t have to do with a holiday that is celebrated by almost everyone with traditions that go back hundreds or even thousands of years. There is a world of difference between allowing a nativity at city hall near Christmas and allowing someone to erect a giant sign filled with biblical quotes at a random time of year.

* I recommend the ‘New American Bible’ to those seeking a reference piece. It’s a catholic bible, but most versions have a huge number of footnotes providing everything from alternate translations to alternate interpretations. Some pages have more footnotes than biblical text. Get yours today.

* My Jewish neighbor erects an inflatable nativity every year, he understands that some religious customs can have, at the very least, traditional value to the non-religious or those of another religion.

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