Dispatches from the Creation Wars

A Secular Christmas

Jon Rowe has a wonderful post about Christmas from his secular perspective. It really is a must-read essay on the subject of how the secular and the religious co-exist and blend in American culture. As Jon puts it:

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.

Well said on all counts, I think. He also points out that Christmas is fairly controversial among Christians as well. The Puritans who settled Massachusetts actually outlawed Christmas celebrations because of the pagan roots of the holiday, while other Calvinistic denominations long refused to celebrate Christmas for the same reason. They also objected to the Catholic overtones (Christmas means, literally, “Christ’s mass”). I will take issue with Jon on one thing. He says:

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.

I think this is a mischaracterization of the ACLU view, and it is unjustifiably borrowing the language of the religious right. The ACLU does not take the position that religious should be “purged from the public square”, but merely from that portion of the public square that constitutes governmental endorsement. The public square is something much larger than that, not limited just to government action but also to private actions taken on public property, for instance. The basic secularist position, as I hold it (and I believe this is fairly universal among secularists) is that the government has no business taking any position on the truth or validity of any religious viewpoint, but that private groups and individuals should have access to the public square on equal footing.

For example, I have no problem whatsoever with allowing nativity scenes on the grounds of a courthouse, or in a public park, both of which are generally seen as a place that belongs to the people, as long as all private groups have equal access to those areas. I would be more than happy to see a collection of displays in public parks, paid for and sponsored by churches, synagogues, mosques and civic groups. Let us have an open forum where these groups can put up displays about Christmas, Hannukah, Ramadan, Kwanzaa, or for that matter a display symbolic of the power of reason and science. And by the way, this is pretty much what the courts have said, that nativity scenes are fine as long as they’re not paid for with tax dollars and as long as the same area is open to other religious groups as well.

In Polk County, Florida, they have done this. A private group put up a Christian nativity scene across the street from the courthouse, on public property, and the county commission voted to allow it to stay there, but also to open it up as a public forum where other groups could do likewise (I suspect on advice from their attorneys). In a matter of days, displays have been erected there by other groups, one honoring Zoroastrianism and another for Festivus, the fake holiday from Seinfeld (and my personal favorite). I think that’s great. If it is an open forum, let it be an open forum, like the quads often found on college campuses where one can hear every conceivable idea advocated, from communism to Christian street preaching.

There’s a deeper reason why I favor that kind of open forum. I’m one of those rare heathens who loves ritual and tradition of this type. I believe that celebrations like Christmas, Passover, Ramadan or Kwanzaa are extremely important quite apart from the question of whether what they celebrate is true or not. Such traditions reinforce important bonds between people as members of a group, but that doesn’t mean they have to be exclusive to that group. I have taken part in many such traditions, from Greek Orthodox weddings to wiccan handfastings, and I hope to take part in many more that I haven’t yet experienced (in particular, I would love to attend a Sedar meal with my Jewish friends, or an end of Eid feast with my Muslim friends). These are all opportunities for celebration, for the gathering of family and friends, and for learning about other cultures and traditions. These things are important. They’re indispensible, in my view. And regardless of my view of the theological roots of Christmas might be, when my family gathers here on Sunday (yes, a day late), I am going to love cooking dinner for them and sharing a meal with them, and watching my nieces and nephews open their gifts. For my many Christian friends, Christmas has a theological meaning. For myself, I find more than enough meaning in the love of my family and in our shared humanity.

So to my readers, I say Merry Christmas, Happy Hannukah, Joyous Kwanzaa and Happy Festivus. Whatever the historical or theological roots of your celebration, the common element in them all is the time spent with those you love. And that truly is, to borrow a phrase, the reason for the season.


  1. #1 Art
    December 25, 2004

    Ed, please stop being so reasonable and accomodating. In this day and age, that’s positively un-American.

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