Thursday, December 23, 2004

A Secularist Defense of Christmas:

I, as a committed secularist, don’t mind public Christmas displays, provided they are done in a way compatible with the core American principle of religious neutrality. Christmas has non-religious-Secular as well as Pagan elements to it—and the celebration of the Secular, Pagan, along with the religious-Christian and other non-Christian religious holidays is precisely the appropriate context for public Christmas displays.

And here is where the ALCU type secularists, (purge everything religious from the public square) of which, I am not one and religious conservatives fundamentally agree: Christmas cannot be secular because Christmas cannot be separated from the notion that Jesus is the savior of all mankind and thus the endorsement of Christianity. Well if that premise is true, then Christmas has no business being a federal holiday or receiving any kind of government imprimatur.

But I think Christmas can be separated from its religious message: What the Hell do Santa Claus, Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer, Christmas Trees, and the date of December 25 have to do with what’s written in the Bible? Absolutely nothing, of course. (And there are the universal messages of peace on earth and goodwill towards fellow man, that are not Christian per se).

But some on the secular side disagree. They argue everything about Christmas ultimately traces back to the religious message, hence Christmas is in no way appropriate for public endorsement or display of any element associated with it, such as a Santa or candy canes. In my First Amendment class in law school, I asked what Santa Claus has to do with orthodox Christianity? Someone replied, “Saint Nick??” (Santa was loosely based on a religious saint) meaning that because Santa had *some* connection with something religious, the religious can’t be separated from the non-religious, and since nothing religious is appropriate for public display or endorsement, it should be banned.

Still, I fail to see how Santa and Rudolph have anything to do with the birth of Christ, any more than a candy egg delivering Rabbit has anything to do with the resurrection of Jesus.

And Christian conservatives likewise argue that you can’t separate Christmas from its religious message—but Christmas should receive public endorsement because we are publicly a “Christian Nation”; thus it’s appropriate for government to endorse the underlying religious message that Jesus is savior of all mankind.

That sentiment of course conflicts with core American principle that government must remain neutral on religious matters and, as the Treaty of Tripoli put it, “the Government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion.”

Let’s flip the question. Instead of asking whether we can separate the “Christian” elements from Christmas, maybe we should be asking whether we can separate the “Pagan” elements from Christmas.

Christmas perfectly exemplifies the larger phenomenon of the unique culture that is the West which has a religious (Jerusalem) and a Secular-Pagan (Athens) origin. Culturally, the West presently is and always has been every bit as much of a Pagan society as it is Christian.

And what makes the West special is this unique combination, this tension between Athens and Jerusalem. The orthodox and the Pagan agree on some matters, vehemently disagree on others, borrow from one another and create separately and together. Indeed, this tension enabled the West to be the greatest creative force there ever was.

And what we now celebrate as “Christmas” is every bit as much of a Pagan holiday as it is a Christian one. The date of December 25 has nothing to do with when Jesus was born, but rather was borrowed from a Pagan mid-winter festival, Saturnalia.

(Hat Tip to Strange Doctrines for the article)

Whatever credal differences they might have had, a fortnight or so before the end of December would have found almost everyone preparing for a great festival, the Saturnalia, which lasted from the 17th to the 24th of December. During this period of revelry slaves changed places with their masters, and all manner of licence was permitted. The holiday concluded on December 25th with a great feast, the Brumalia, when parties were given and presents exchanged.

In the Roman calendar December 25th was called Natalis Solis Invicti, the Birthday of the Unconquered Sun. That was when the sun, three days after reaching the lowest point of its annual course through the heavens, once more began. to rise higher in the sky, the first indication that winter would come to an end and that the animal and plant life on which humanity depended for its existence would flourish anew. So everyone celebrated, and above all it was an occasion of religious rejoicing.

And it’s more than just the date of Dec. 25 that has pagan origins:

The pantomime, the Christmas tree, candles, mistletoe, holly, feasting on special kinds of meat, the mince pies and the flaming sun-shaped Christmas pudding-all were pagan in origin and symbolism, and all were anathema to the Fathers of the Church. But that is not all. Even the Christian Nativity scene is originally pagan-representing the rebirth of the Sun-god on earth, born of a virgin at midnight on the 24th of December, laid in the manger of a stable, and visited by three gift-bearing kings or magicians.

Presently some Christian Sects like the Jehovah’s Witnesses refuse to celebrate Christmas and Easter precisely because of their Pagan elements. Historically the poster boys for Calvinistic orthodox Christianity in America, the Puritans, not only did not celebrate Christmas, but outlawed the holiday because of its Paganism. (Also because “Christmas” literally means “the mass of Christ” Calvinistic sects, who see the concept of the “Mass” as heretical, thus deem Christmas as wholly inconsistent with their understanding of Christianity).

This is important, I think, because the “Christian Nation” crowd believes that government should give its imprimatur to their view of what orthodox Christianity is and that government ought not endorse Paganism. If they had their way, the James Dobsons and D. James Kennedys of the world would attempt to “purify” the public square of any messages that they view as antithetical to their faith. The religious right wants Christmas to remain a national holiday because they view it as “scoring points” for their side; yet they would absolutely cringe if we were to elevate Halloween to a federal holiday because they would view this as government endorsing Paganism and the Occult.

But the truth is Christmas is at once a religious, Secular, and Pagan holiday. And it’s precisely because this is the case that Christmas is appropriate for national celebration.

If the Calvinists of the religious right were to understand Christmas more accurately, according to its true historical origins, one could very easily imagine them changing their tune, and coming out against Christmas in the name of “purifying” heresy from Christianity and hence our “Christian Public Square.”

Regarding public displays of religious symbols: My understanding of secularism demands religious neutrality—or that government take no stand on the matter of religion and otherwise remain neutral between religions and between religion and non-religion. I don’t think this automatically means stripping the public square of religious symbols. Rather if they are displayed pursuant to a generally applicable neutral program (like first come first serve) that would allow Christian (Nativity scenes), Jewish (Menorah), Secular (Santa & Rudolph), Pagan (Christmas Trees & Mistletoe, or a renewed interest in Saturnalia), Muslim (Ramadan), Buddhist (Chinese New Year) all at once, I think that would send the overall message that government is not taking a stand favoring one particular religion over another, or favoring religion over non-religion.

This is similar to how the Supreme Court has held in Pinette, Lynch, and Allegheny. Yet, I wouldn’t focus so much on whether a “reasonable” observer would think that the displays send the message that one religion, Christmas for instance, is being endorsed, but rather that the displays are done pursuant to a generally neutral program that gives Secular, Pagan, and otherwise non-Christian religions equal rights to partake in the program (regardless of whether any particular display has the incidental effect of “aiding or appearing to endorse Christianity”).

Merry Christmas!


Anonymous said...

Thanks, Jon! I took the liberty of posting part of it at my message board, at...

...and provided a link for interested parties to come to read the full post. Jon, I hope you and family are having a fine holiday season, and I look forward to becoming even wiser by reading your excellent posts in the coming year!


Jonathan Rowe said...

My pleasure Ron. Always appreciate your feedback!