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Happy Holidays? The Separation of Church and State and the Politics of Season's Greetings in the United States
In recent years, Americans come to a heated debate every time the holiday season comes around. In one camp, there are those who decry the public utterance of "Merry Christmas" as politically incorrect and insensitive to otherwise religious non-Christians and atheists alike. In lieu of this traditional holiday greeting, "Happy Holidays" has been heavily promoted as a politically sensitive umbrella term alternative. Opponents on the more extreme end of the debate view this movement as a direct attack on Christmas and, by extension, Christian values. Common rhetoric from this side of the debate invokes freedom of speech infringement. However, I would argue that this is a non-issue unworthy of the politically charged scrutiny and backlash it receives.
As Regards the Perceived Attack on Christian Values
Christmas as typically celebrated in the United States is not as Christian as it is ostensibly promoted to be. Iconic symbols of Christmas popular in the Western world such as Christmas trees, wreaths, mistletoe, and yule logs have their origin in pre-Christian pagan celebrations of the Northern European Scandinavian and Germanic peoples. December 25th has commonly been celebrated by ancient peoples as the shortest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere, marking the gradual approach of the coming spring. Northern European pagans lived tenuously in a climate where winter was a particularly long, cold, and barren season for people who depend so heavily on tillage of the land and animal husbandry for survival.
As such, harboring spruce trees and branches in their homesteads over the winter, as modern Westerners do with Christmas trees and wreaths, was symbolic of the approaching spring that would bring winter reprieve. Modern Westerners associate the 25th of December with the birth of Jesus Christ, but in fact, there is currently no evidence which definitively dates the day or even year of Christ's birth. Scandinavian and other Northern Germanic peoples were the last in Europe to be converted to and adopt Christianity, which meant that their pagan traditions had a unique influence on contemporary Europe. As such, the pagan solstice celebration was gleaned over as a Christian holiday during the Christianization of Northern Europe and the 25th of December was appropriated as the birth date of Jesus Christ. As noted above, other choice pagan traditions have also played a role in the evolution of modern Christmas celebrations. I argue that the astoundingly non-Christian origins of modern Christmas traditions weakens the assertion that promoting "Happy Holidays" over "Merry Christmas" works as an affront to Christian values because modern Christmas traditions themselves, as many Puritans argue, work to undermine Christian values.
There is Arguably Far More than One Christmas Holiday
Despite the pagan origins of modern Christmas traditions, the fact remains that it is still ostensibly a Christian holiday. However, it is illogical for Christians to take offence when the utterance of "Merry Christmas" is decried as politically incorrect because Christmas itself is made up of several distinct days of celebration. In addition to Christmas Day, Christmas Eve is a veritable holiday in its own right, as well as the four days of Advent leading up to Christmas, the Twelve Days of Christmas, the Twelfth Night, and the Feast of Epiphany. Thus, "Happy Holidays" may simply be interpreted to encompass a plethora of Christmas holiday celebrations.
Breakdown of Religious Affiliation in the United States as of 2008
For the Sake of Inclusivity
Major proponents of "Happy Holidays" argue that there are a considerable number of people in the United States who do not observe Christmas. For them, "Happy Holidays" is not meant only to encompass the various days of Christmas celebration, but also those of other religions which happen during the same holiday season such as Hanukkah and Kwanzaa, as well as secular holidays such as New Year's (Day and Eve) and Thanksgiving. Furthermore, proponents also wish often to take the sensibilities of atheists, agnostics, and humanists into account who are reasonably wary of religious sentiment in public settings. However, as outlined in the chart above, the vast majority of Americans are Christians who presumably celebrate Christmas. The tension, then, clearly stems from friction between the ideal of political correctness toward the minority and the perceived threat to the long-standing traditions of the majority. The question, then, is whether political correctness for the sake of the minority is worth inconveniencing the majority. The answer demands thorough consideration of the justifiable rights of the minority and the extent to which the majority is "inconvenienced" in this matter.
Freedom of Speech and the Separation of Church and State
The separation of church and state as outlined (but interestingly not so named) in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution has consistently resulted in modern controversies regarding the presence of religious (particularly Christian) sentiment, language, and iconography in public and government sectors, such as schools and public government buildings.
The Constitution explicitly demands the government remain neutral as regards the matter of religion and forbids the promotion of any particular religious doctrine: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." As such, it seems logical that policy discourage the promotion of Christmas, a Christian holiday, to the general public through the medium of political and, increasingly more importantly, corporate rhetoric. However, the censorship of "Merry Christmas" seems to undermine freedom of religious exercise (as noted in the above quotation) and America's constitutional virtue of free speech. Clearly this is a nuanced issue with many layers. It is the right of any given citizen to wish "Merry Christmas" to anyone else in the general public as in accordance with freedom of speech. It is however a stretch to conflate this with freedom of religious expression. As I have outlined above, modern Christmas traditions may be ostensibly Christian, but their historical roots are overwhelmingly pagan. There is still, however, the matter of governmental and corporate expressions of season's greetings. I maintain that government officials and customer service representatives are bound by the tenets of political correctness to the point of catering to the needs of the minority, which incidentally does not logically infringe on the needs of the majority, for whom Christmas is also considered under the diplomatic umbrella of "Happy Holidays". In summary, regular citizens have the right to express season's greetings from a Christian perspective and non-Christians have the right to expect a religion-neutral greeting from government and customer service representatives.