When I was a kid, Christmas was a big deal for my working-class family. We weren’t especially well off, but my parents employed thrifty strategies to ensure a memorable holiday. Chiefly, they spent an entire year saving money in a Christmas Club account at a local credit union so they could buy presents for their brood of nine children.
I recall the downtown streets of our western Pennsylvania city being decorated with lights, garlands and fake snow (or often the real stuff), creating a festive appearance. Santa Claus held court at a five-story “soup to nuts” department store along the main drag.
In our insular, largely Christian community, it was easy to assume that everyone loved Christmas and everyone celebrated it. But of course, not everybody did. Our town, then with a population exceeding 60,000, had non-Christians and non-believers. But they were small in number, so it was natural to believe that all residents had the Christmas spirit.
Much had changed by the time I became an adult. No one bothered to decorate downtown anymore because most of the shops there had been shuttered, killed off by a large mall on the outskirts of town. The department store where you could buy a skillet on one floor and socks on the next closed in 1980. The city was caught in an economic downturn that it never really shook off.
Over the years, as I’ve had occasions to fend off Religious Right claims of a “war on Christmas,” I’ve thought back on those childhood days. It’s part of my attempt to understand why some people on the right feel so strongly about this issue that they have the need to police what language we use to describe the holiday season. To most of us, it doesn’t really matter if a clerk in a store says “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas,” but to the Religious Right, it’s practically a federal offense.
I’ve concluded that a lot of these people have fallen into a nostalgia trap. They are seduced by fond memories of days gone by and “how it used to be.” In their view, it was always better back then. They seem to believe that by controlling the language people use to describe the December holidays and insisting that only certain symbols (religious ones) be used, they can conjure up an America that no longer exists.
It’s not that simple – and they overlook the fact that the America they pine for wasn’t so great for everybody.
The “back-in-my-day” America could be a place marked by racial and religious discrimination. It was a place where LGBTQ Americans dared not venture out of the closet. It turned a blind eye to the rights of women.
It was an America marked by a type of stifling conformity. It could be a place where the right to dissent, though enshrined in the Constitution, was more theoretical than real.
Gradually, people began to change that America. They changed it by demanding the rights the Constitution said they ought to have. They changed it by marching, demonstrating and speaking out. They changed it by proudly being who they were – black, feminist, gay, Latino, atheist and so on.
What some scholars call the “culture wars” were usually just efforts by people who had historically been marginalized to tell their stories, to leave the sidelines and officially join the American experiment.
It was a painful process but a necessary one. And as it played out, it’s not surprising that even Christmas got a second look. No one tried to stop the holiday from being celebrated, they merely pointed out that some people mark other religious holidays or take part in none at all in December, and it’s inappropriate for the government to take sides.
When I’ve argued about this issue in the media with Religious Right activists, it quickly becomes apparent that there’s more going on here than a dispute over what type of decorations are appropriate for city hall. I’m convinced that for some people, the “war on Christmas” is a stand-in for a way of saying, “The country is changing, and I am not comfortable with that.”
If the change is simply more diversity and more choices for Americans when it comes to religion, we need to celebrate that. It’s a threat only to those who believe their faith should legally triumph over others.
Whatever holiday you celebrate this month, I wish you a pleasant one. And if you don’t celebrate any at all, I can still extend good wishes to you. Religious freedom buttressed by a church-state wall gives us the choice to celebrate or not as our consciences see fit. That’s the greatest gift of all.
Rob Boston is interim executive director-communications for Americans United for Separation of Church and State.