December has begun! Let us all celebrate that 2013 is almost over, the solstice will be upon us shortly, and that kwanzaa will soon be celebrated worldwide! In addition, small groups of oppressed Christians will be observing one of their most ancient and sacred holidays, Christmas, in secret, in order to avoid persecution.
With the beginning of December inevitably comes the “War on Christmas” rhetoric, about how us dirty libruls are ruining everything that is pure and good about society, demanding that people say “happy holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” like G-d-fearing Americans. Here we are, getting all morally indignant about innocent manger displays, Christmas trees in public buildings, and the other trappings of good tidings and cheer.
The claim is that liberal thought police and the politically correct among us are out to get Christmas.
Using the term “war” implies a systematic and highly organized effort to suppress and ultimately eliminate Christmas celebrations. In the case of those who firmly believe that there is a “war” on Christmas, it also implies a certain amount of oppression and martyrdom: “they” are cast as dominant social forces who make it impossible to practice the Christian faith and who ruin everything the holiday stands for.
But what does Christmas really stand for? The reason the date of 25 December was originally chosen was with the goal of suppressing pagan solstice celebrations in Rome and other parts of the Empire; people already had perfectly good religious holidays in the later days of December and as the Romans attempted to force Christianity onto their subjects, they needed to come up with a way of both creating an alternative holiday, and easing subjects into Christian doctrine. It took almost 300 years after the birth and death of Christ to settle on 25 December and in fact not all Christians celebrate the birth of Christ on that date today.
(These are the kinds of things you talk about when your dinner table is crowded with theologians, classicists, and historians.)
Greens, lights, and sacred songs? All adapted from pagan tradition. Gift-giving was also a traditional part of winter festivals, and it fit in well with the Christian mythos of the Three Wise Men and their gifts for the baby Jesus. (What a baby wanted with myrrh, I don’t know, and don’t even get me started on the frankincense.)
Christmas in itself, in other words, is a holiday skillfully adapted from other faiths, built up and evolved over the course of centuries into something of its own right. It’s celebrated with midnight masses by some Christians, with acts of service and charity by many, with decorations and gifts and all the trappings that have also turned it into a highly commercial holiday – one reason some sects of Christianity do not celebrate it.
For many conservative Christians, it’s become an inalienable symbol of Christianity, entangled very much with their Christian identity. And this is where the idea of a war on Christmas and the oppression of Christians comes in.
In order to be oppressed, you have to belong to a group that lacks privilege and power in society. Christians as a whole meet neither of these categories (though some Christian sects within the US definitely are marginalized and an argument could be made that they’re oppressed both within Christianity and the United States in general). Since its colonization and founding, the United States has been dominated by Christianity, a religion written right into its founding documents, despite claims that the church and state are separated: the Christian G-d is on our money, and trapping of Christianity including Christian ideals about morals, faith, and society lie at the heart of our legal code and culture.
While the United States is ostensibly a secular nation, it is one with strong Christian overtones. Christians are hardly a demographic, social, or cultural minority in the United States and many occupy positions of considerable power and privilege. Christianity is considered to be the default; if someone’s religion is unknown, that individual is presumed to be Christian.
Christianity is also often deemed to be “right,” as seen in the vilification of other religions or confusion about how people can have an ethical code without being adherents to Christianity.
There was a time when Christians did have to hold services and observe holidays in secret because they would be persecuted, and those were not pleasant days for the nascent religion. In the early years of Christianity in the Roman Empire, Christians struggled to practice their faith and many fought and died for it. In other regions of the world today, Christians can find themselves persecuted for following the teachings of Christ.
But not in the United States, which is where the rhetoric about the War on Christmas burns hottest. What, exactly, are conservatives complaining about?
They protest that people of other faiths along with atheists object to blatant displays of Christian symbolism and nothing else on public land, paid for with public funds; cities that erect Christmas trees, for example, and make no effort to include other faiths in their holiday displays (or, for that matter, to reconsider having any religious displays at all, if church and state are truly separate). They object to the fact that the President often eats a special dinner during Hanukkah with honored Jewish guests. They dislike the idea that saying “Happy Holidays” is a more polite greeting than “Merry Christmas” unless you know that someone is Christian (and, for some atheists, being told “happy holidays” repeatedly is rather grating).
There seems to be an overarching belief among them that pushing for the recognition that Christmas is not the only thing that happens in December will lead to global catastrophe and the collapse of Christianity as we know it.
Is there really a “War on Christmas”? Many Christians certainly aren’t convinced. It’s one of the most accommodated holidays in the United States, given not just the privilege of a federal holiday but typically multiple days off surrounding Christmas day. Most businesses hand out (and are expected to hand out) bonuses to employees. Some workplaces provide a whole week of time off. Those of us who aren’t celebrants and are inconvenienced by irregular working hours, peculiar schedules, and the like are told we’re grinches when we attempt to protest. The airwaves and print are filled with obnoxious Christmas advertising, Christmas songs ring out everywhere, scores of trees die for the cause, and everything around us is drenched in multicolored lights, ornaments, and more.
This doesn’t look like an embattled minority struggling to survive in a hostile landscape to me. It looks like a dominant social group doing very, very well for itself.