It’s Christmas Eve. Some Americans will observe today and tomorrow by attending religious services, while others are celebrating in a mostly secular fashion. Some are celebrating other holidays. Still others aren’t making note of the season at all.
What could be better than to have the right to choose for yourself?
It wasn’t always that way. Some of the early settlers in America were theocrats who were vociferously anti-Christmas. The Puritans of Massachusetts banned its celebration. A 1659 statue of the Massachusetts General Court read, “[B]y reason of some still observing such festivals as were superstitiously kept in other countries to the great dishonor of God and offence of others...whosoever shall be found observing any such day as Christmas and the like, either by forbearing labor, feasting, or any other way...shall pay for every such offence, five shillings a fine.”
It’s 360 years later, and now we have the opposite problem: Some people yearn for the government to take on the job of compelling everyone to celebrate Christmas as a religious holiday. President Donald Trump has even claimed to have saved Christmas from alleged fanatical secularists determined to drive it from public life.
But this so-called “war on Christmas,” while popular in the fevered dreams of Christian nationalists, has no connection to reality.
The problem is, members of the Religious Right have a bad habit of looking for Christmas in the wrong places. They complained because city halls and courthouses were not festooned with nativity scenes. They wailed because public school concerts included “Frosty the Snowman” instead of hymns. They even had the temerity to whine when clerks in big-box stores said, “Happy Holidays” as they rang up purchases.
The Religious Right did a strange thing: Instead of laboring to put more crèches where they belong by nestling them among the greenery of church lawns, Christian nationalists advocated putting them on the cold, marble steps of city halls.
They sought religious experiences in public schools – the last place that can provide an authentic one. The Religious Right did this, even though hundreds of churches threw open their doors and heartily welcomed anyone seeking to connect with God during the holidays.
But worst of all, Christian nationalists, having realized their groups could make money, gain attention and divide Americans by posing as the defenders of Christmas, launched crude invective against anyone who dared to point out that government should not be in the business of promoting the religious aspects of the holiday. Religious Right groups sought to link their narrow version of the Christian faith with government – an act of exclusion that makes a mockery of the very season of peace and goodwill they so claim to cherish.
If you celebrate Christmas, then we at Americans United wish you a very merry holiday. If you’re celebrating another holiday, we say all the best to you and yours. If you’re not celebrating at all, we extend our wishes for a good day. We’re thankful that you and all other Americans have the power to choose – remembering that years ago, people did not enjoy that right. They had instead a “general court” consisting of government officials who worked hand-in-hand with ministers to determine which mode of religious expression was right for all and pleasing to God.
Eventually, more enlightened thinkers came along and put a stop to all of that. What they gave us – complete religious freedom resting on the wall of separation between church and state – is the greatest gift of all. And best of all, unlike a gadget that breaks in a month or a sweater that doesn't quite fit, it’s one we can enjoy forever – as long as we protect it.
P.S. This is a time when we think about giving so we hope you’ll take advantage of AU’s special program: Through Dec. 31, your gift will be matched dollar for dollar. It’s a great way to help Americans United keep alive the separation of religion and government, the vital principle that makes it possible for you to decide when, where, how and whether you’ll worship at this time of year – and indeed all year.