Holiday trouble

Another delightful holiday tradition: the ‘war on Christmas’

Tinsel distracts me. Must start a war on it.

Tinsel distracts me. Must start a war on it.

Bill O’Reilly manages to get really stirred up during the holidays. To be fair, he’s not the only person to get wound up about the so-called “war on Christmas,” but O’ Reilly’s recent cable-show riff about the inclusion of a sign with a statement from a group of atheists along with other holiday-themed displays at the Washington state Capitol in Olympia got my attention.

Somebody else pulled the sign down, then returned it. The governor of Washington, Christine Gregoire, has tried to distance herself from the atheist involved by relying on that old it’s-not-my-fault-it’s-the-law argument, saying she’s got to approve the displays no matter how she feels about them. And a whole bunch of people, including the “God hates fags” church from Wichita, Kan., some adherents of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster (also known as “Pastafarians”) and a celebrant of Seinfeld’s Festivus, want permission to add their displays to the mix.

Right here in River City things are much calmer, with the exception of a recent letter to the editor of The Sacramento Bee complaining because Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger had a “holiday tree-lighting ceremony” instead of a “Christmas tree-lighting ceremony.”

Even a secularist like me sees the point. It is a Christmas tree, or at least it has been since the 16th century. But it’s got next to zero religious significance; unlike the Yule log, it wasn’t one of the traditions co-opted by the early church in order to facilitate easier conversion of the heathens who weren’t too keen on giving up their winter party. Instead, the Germans of the late Middle Ages gave us the fully decked Christmas tree of song and tradition.

But the root of the trouble is figuring out where religious celebration ends and secular celebration begins. Courts have ruled that Santa Claus (indisputably secular now, in spite of the possibility that some of his generous characteristics come from St. Nicholas of Myra) is OK; a nativity scene (right out of the New Testament description of the birth of Jesus in a stable) is not. Unless, as the Supreme Court has noted, the crèche is part of a larger display of varying religious traditions.

Hence we have the “Christmas tree” alongside the Hannukkah menorah and the candy canes and the Santa Claus sleigh and the Festivus pole, which makes things crowded. Washington state went for this solution and found themselves with an atheist sign. Or, as California’s government has done, you can go with a “holiday tree” and keep it simple.

It has always been thus. Oliver Cromwell, who might have passed for Ebenezer Scrooge in his day, preached against Christmas’ pagan origins and trimmings, like the Christmas tree, because of perceived ties to Catholicism. Meanwhile, in Germany, good Catholics resisted things like the Christmas tree itself as a Protestant affection. The Puritans disliked Christmas so much that celebrating it was banned in Massachusetts Colony for 22 years. Even today, Christmas is a religious holiday for only some Christians; others don’t celebrate it.

And, while I roll my eyes at the annual revival of the “war on Christmas,” if it keeps up long enough, it may become a beloved holiday tradition. It doesn’t take that long for yesterday’s innovation—whether it’s the Christmas tree or the candy cane or the weirdly skeletal reindeer in the yard—to become the annual thing we don’t want to miss. The bottom line is that the first hard nip of the winter ahead and the turning of the year is good enough reason to draw close the people we care about and feed them well.

No, I don’t have a Christmas tree or a holiday tree or a Hanukkah bush (I’ve seen such a thing) or even a Festivus pole. But I have a feast and gift day, timed to take advantage of other people’s religious-slash-secular-slash-commercial holiday, and that’s cool with me.