Christmas is the only religious holiday that is also a legal federal holiday. And that’s fitting, I guess, because Christmas is for everybody. It’s especially fruitful for retailers, some of whom do a third of their annual business during the period between Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Christmas has a dichotomous nature: There is the secular side which includes Santa Claus, Christmas trees, mistletoe, and the buying and giving of presents. It has a religious side which includes special church services, nativity scenes, and the yearly obligatory chant by some Christians to “put Christ back into Christmas.”
Even the season’s music has multiple personalities. On the secular side there are “Jingle Bells,” “I’ll be Home for Christmas,” and “White Christmas.” On the religious side there are Christmas hymns like “Silent Night,” “Away in a Manger,” and “O Holy Night.”
Most of the time, the sectarian and secular personalities of Christmas get along just fine. Some people create holiday-themed music CD mixes with both religious and non-religious songs on them. People go through the hustle and bustle of shopping and gift giving and also attend midnight mass.
But sometimes the two themes of Christmas clash. Sometimes those clashes make headlines, as was the case when an atheist organization put up a placard next to a nativity scene in the Washington State Capitol building. The wording was fairly innocuous, extolling everyone to let reason prevail. And most people have let reason prevail. They understand that in a country that is based on certain basic freedoms, two of which are religion and speech, that differing religious viewpoints should be tolerated.
But others haven’t gotten the message. News commentator Bill O’Reilly, for example, has publicly condemned the atheists’ placard. He believes it is inappropriate to put up a sign promoting secular reason next to a Christian display, even if both are on public property. Has he even read the Constitution?
Christians do not own the month of December. For over a century in this country Christians have had carte blanche access to public grounds for the display of their religious symbols. Until quite recently, the nativity scene has been the default decoration, not only in church yards, but at courthouses, in parks, and on the lawns of other public buildings.
And now when people who put reason and logic above magic and mysticism want equal time, those like O’Reilly accuse them of trying to take over the season.
Christmas is for everybody, not just Christians. It is celebrated by Christians as Jesus’ birthday, but that isn’t when Jesus was born. Nobody knows when Jesus was born. Most scholars believe it was in the late spring. We celebrate it on December 25 because the early church appropriated the already-flourishing pagan holiday of Saturnalia back in the fourth century. They even took over some of the original holiday’s customs.
To their credit, most Christians simply don’t react to billboards and placards that proclaim reason over religion. They accept that, in a free country, differing viewpoints should have equal time, or space on courthouse lawns. And, thankfully, people who espouse a worldview of humanity and reason are gaining attention. That attention will eventually lead to acceptance.
And just as homosexuality is now widely accepted, with notable exceptions, as an alternate lifestyle, maybe one day humanism will be not only tolerated, but accepted as equal to the belief that having blind faith in an unseen force will grant you eternal existence.