Salvos in the War on Christmas
'Tis the season to be debating whether Christmas is 'under siege' in our pluralist society.
I would never "slither" away from a question from someone who has characterized me as "pleasant," "well spoken," "kind," and "cordial." So, is a Christmas tree a celebration of religion? The answer is unequivocal: maybe.
I hope we can agree on a few matters. Nothing in the Christian Bible invests any religious significance to pine trees. Although some maintain that Martin Luther actually decorated an evergreen as a religious act, the historical evidence is so flimsy that the tale is almost certainly apocryphal. The early Puritans right here in America did not celebrate Christmas as any kind of holiday: with or without trees.
This year, however, certain Christian clergy have tried to answer your question for all of us by saying "yes." They have concluded that those lighted conifers are not just generically "religious" but affirmatively "Christian." How do we know this? As one example, woe unto the politician who does not characterize a needled tree in a public space as "Christmas" foliage, daring to consider it merely a "holiday" plant. When a Boston, Massachusetts bureaucrat (now rumored to be drinking eggnog in Siberian exile) put out a press release noting the then immanent lighting of a "holiday tree" in Boston Common, the Reverend Jerry Falwell issued a stern rebuke and the threat of sending some segment of his claimed 1550 "Christian" lawyers who have volunteered to "save Christmas" into town. Before any of us learned what they were supposed to do (find some "activist judge" to require a name change back to a "Christmas" tree no doubt), the Mayor of Boston corrected his staff and announced that there would be no alteration of nomenclature while he was governing Boston.
So, John, apparently there are plenty of people on your side of the ideological divide who have imbued the severed but well-lit pines with "religious" significance. I remain unpersuaded. As you properly point out, so are the few courts that have commented at all on the controversy. Clever as your initial question is, it is not the heart of the issue.
What is most important is that so many government officials have come to understand over the past decade that December is a calendar period where people of many faith traditions, including paganism, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Christianity, celebrate events of some level of significance (although not necessarily of identical value). This means that they want to be respectful of non-Christian faiths and try to be inclusive, not exclusive, when embarking on any "public" celebration of the season. Some governments go further and essentially have private parties put up whatever religious icons, symbols, or displays they choose on government land (sometimes referred to as a "limited public forums"), picking no favorites among religion or between religion and non-religion. This is certainly not "political correctness" gone amuck; it is a decent regard for the varieties of expression and belief in America, a downright positive value in the world in which most folks live.
On "Santa Claus," I did suggest on a radio show with you that if the "Santa" described in a chapter in your book allegedly (and I realize the facts are still in dispute) roamed the halls of a public elementary school asking children whether they knew the real genesis of the holiday (something he knew a lot about as the pastor of a local church in his non-Santa time), I thought parents were right to complain about this as a separation of church and state issue. Contrary to your suggestion, this does not mean that I think that every 21st-century Santa out with children on knee explaining how he might not be able to deliver on every wish (like the X-Box 360) is a promoter of religion.
Now, about this "war" on Christmas. I travel a great deal. I have been in about 10 states recently, including such diverse places as Las Vegas, Nevada, and Boise, Idaho, Los Angeles, California, and Akron, Ohio. Only those with expensive earplugs and multiple blindfolds would not know there are a lot of people celebrating something called "Christmas" and that it appears to have a fundamentally religious base with a serious encrustation of commercialism. The "war" you, the Religious Right, and your colleagues at the Fox News Channel are discussing daily is apparently a mighty flop if the evidence of celebration is the standard for success or failure.
Has any government employee ever gone a bit too far in stopping a legitimate constitutionally protected private expression of religion? I'm sure that we could all find a few. But a few isolated incidents in a nation of hundreds of thousands of public schools, municipal governments, and other governmental entities does not prove there is a campaign to abolish Christmas or to isolate its celebration to some modern-day catacombs. There is no cabal of "anti-Christmas" activists who visit some isolated island each summer, or even gather at "Starbucks," to plan how to upset people like yourself.
I must wrap up this first missive (actually to do some Christmas shopping if you must know), but in our follow-ups I'll try to set you straight on how the "myth of the Christmas war" spreads and why this false claim is actually harmful to our nation.