Topic: Society

The Ethics of the Christmas War

The battle rages on between Americans who want to turn Christmas into a generic seasonal holiday and those who want to publicly proclaim it as a Christian holy day. Based on the Christmas season of 2005, which has seen escalations by both sides, the Christmas opponents appear to be marginally more unethical than their opponents, though not by a great margin. The real mystery is why both sides seem so determined to make the other miserable. Bulletin to all concerned: setting out to make people miserable is neither Christian, ethical, or nice.

Ever since uber-athiest Madeleine Murray O’Hair’s lawsuit got the Supreme Court to rededicate itself to ensuring that national, state and local governments did not endorse a particular religion in defiance of the Constitution’s establishment cause, there has been a tug of war over how America should celebrate Christmas. Are office Christmas parties “insensitive”? Should elevators play “Joy to the World?” Is the greeting “Merry Christmas!” offensive to someone who isn’t a Christian?

Prior to Mrs. O’Hair’s attack, the balance between religious and secular elements at Christmas time was solid. Schools included traditional Christmas carols in their annual programs without anyone seriously regarding it as pro-Christian propaganda; Bing Crosby was as likely to sing “O Holy Night” as “White Christmas” on his TV Christmas specials. Then the lawsuits started flying over public crèche displays, and otherwise rational people began causing trouble. I remember a smart and generally sensible female executive at an association I worked for in the ’80s making a huge issue out of a “Christmas elves” staff gift exchange mandated by the executive director. She was Jewish, and felt “excluded” by “Christmas elves.” So the gimmick was renamed the “holiday pixies” program. What the heck are “holiday pixies?” Unless she was one, which I doubt, how did that make her feel more “included”? Her successful Christmas protest only managed to put a sour taste in everyone’s mouth and divide the staff, just as the current nonsense is dividing the country.

Retail outlets that have aroused conservative ire by substituting “holiday” for “Christmas” are simply trying to avoid lawsuits and controversy, like my association’s hapless executive. But you can’t win this zero sum game, and the result of the tension has been to erode a source of happiness and good feelings for the whole culture. There’s a reason why 95% of the U.S., including many Jews, Muslims and agnostics, celebrate Christmas. It is a season that brings families together and encourages us to think about ethical values like love, charity, mercy, peace, caring, and forgiveness. One shouldn’t have to believe in the Christian story of the virgin birth to feel included in such a holiday, which is the holiday that Charles Dickens captured so richly in “The Christmas Carol” with barely a hint of religious dogma. The holiday that falls on Deceember 25 is, however, called Christmas, and it is celebrated on that day because that was the date set aside to celebrate the birth of Jesus of Nazareth.

Thus it is understandably annoying, if not earth-shaking, when retail stores ban all mention of the word “Christmas” and it is increasingly removed from greetings and songs. Treating a wholly positive and uplifting holiday as a taboo term that has to be excised like the word “nigger” has been from the lyrics of “Old Man River” simply defies all logic. Intentionally or not (I assume “not”), this kind of anti-Christmas conduct appears to be hostile and disrespectful to a holiday that a huge majority of Americans cherish. That makes the conduct unethical, as well as just plain dumb.

Almost as dumb, in fact, as pro-Christmas hysterics who are actually suing an elementary school that re-wrote the lyrics of “Silent Night” and removed all mention of the “holy infant.” Called “Cold in the Night,” a more insipid and inept song adaptation has seldom been heard anywhere, but “Silent Night” is in the public domain, and its lyrics can be changed at will. In fact, the familiar lyrics are themselves the result of a rewrite, because “Silent Night,” lyrics by Joseph Mohr and music by Franz Xaver Gruber, is a German song. (This fact has apparently eluded Fox News bloviator extraordinaire Bill O’Reilly, who while fulminating about “Cold in the Night” commented that it was an insult to “Irving Berlin’s lyrics.” Ah, Bill? Irving Berlin wrote “White Christmas,” a secular Christmas song. He was Jewish, you know. He wasn’t inclined to write songs about “holy infants.”)

The compromise position and the ethical position regarding Christmas in America remains where it has always been, at least since the mid-1960s. The holiday is Christmas. Calling it so doesn’t “exclude” anyone unless they choose to feel excluded, for Christmas has a unique dual identity as a religious and secular holiday that allows it to be part of anyone’s holiday season. This means that it is indeed a National Christmas Tree and not a “Holiday Tree;” it also means that Speaker Hastert’s broadcast remark as he illuminated the tree, urging Americans to “think about why we celebrate Christmas,” crossed the line into official endorsement of a religious belief. The religious and secular holidays can only co-exist if each respects the other.

As a resident of Boston for many years, I never had much interest in Saint Patrick’s Day, which the Irish and many non-Irish in that city celebrate with remarkable intensity. Should I have felt “excluded” by the parades and Irish songs? Should I have reacted angrily when someone asked why I wasn’t wearing green, or when they said, “Happy Saint Patrick’s Day”? Generally I did wear green, had a beer, and sang a verse of “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling,” which I did not insist on changing to “When Boston Mouths Are Drooling” or something else ethnically neutral, out of a sense of community and respect for my Irish friends. Why? Because I knew I was welcome to join in if I wanted. Because I didn’t want to spoil everyone’s fun.

Because trying to suppress something that does no harm and makes so many people happy, just because I don’t particularly enjoy or identify with it, is selfish, mean-spirited and wrong.

Nobody is going to win the Christmas war, but like all wars, it risks doing real damage to our culture, and to a wonderful tradition that makes life magical for children and adults alike. It is time to back off, stop being jerks, call a truce, have some eggnog, and sing “Stille Nacht.”

Merry Christmas!

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