The "Merry Christmas" wars
Carlton M. Caves
2004 December 19

The Los Angeles Times ran a story yesterday, entitled "This Season, Greetings are at Issue," which reported that "Conservative Christians nationwide have converged around the topic of Christmas, complaining that secularists and nonbelievers have tried to obliterate the holiday's religious meaning." The story revolves around the Upper Room Church of God in Christ, a conservative African-American congregation with about 3,000 members in Raleigh, North Carolina, which "ran a full-page advertisement in the Raleigh News and Observer, urging Christians to `spend their hard-earned dollars with merchants who include the greeting Merry Christmas,' " as opposed to using the the bland, secularized, Christ-free "Happy Holidays." In the days since the ad ran, the church has sent its members into shopping malls in the Raleigh area to deliver this message to merchants personally.

Is this much ado about next to nothing or a harbinger of something more important? I'm inclined to think the latter, but let's first deal specifically with the question that is exercising the good Christians in Raleigh.

I am a convert to Judaism, so Christmas Day is not a religious holiday for me. When my family and I are with my extended family on Christmas, we participate in their celebration of Christmas to the extent that we can, out of a profound respect for the beliefs of my parents and siblings and their families. On the other hand, if we're at home on Christmas Day, my kids and I consider it to be a prime opportunity for a day on the slopes, rivalled only by Super Sunday as a day for keeping the crowds down. Indeed, we hope to be skiing on Christmas this year.

I am happy to wish a heartfelt "Merry Christmas" to those who I know take the holiday seriously. I wish them well as they celebrate Christmas at home and in their churches with a joyous observance of Jesus's birth and with contemplation of the holiday's deep religious meaning and its universal message of "Peace on Earth. Good will to men." With people I don't know, however, it's hard to tell whether they celebrate Christmas as a religious holiday, so I find it safer to wish them "Happy Holidays" and leave it at that. When someone wishes me a "Merry Christmas," how should I take it? It can't mean that I should put Christ at the center of my Christmas, since I'm not a Christian. Unless the greeting is meant as a command---that I should become a Christian and start having a Christ-centered religious holiday---it must be just a generic holiday greeting, bereft of any religious significance.

Here we come to the heart of the problem. Businesses and other nonreligious institutions deal with all sorts of people. They deal with Christians who take the holiday's religious significance seriously and with those who don't and with non-Christians as well. To force these institutions to use the greeting "Merry Christmas" is to rob the greeting of any religious content, to take the Christ right out of it by making it a generic holiday greeting. Those who are serious about putting Christ back into Christmas should be asking merchants and others not to use "Merry Christmas" as a general-purpose greeting.

All this, of course, is just one manifestation of a more general problem with having Christmas Day as a national holiday in a country where there are all sorts of religious beliefs, including none, and where the First Amendment to the Constitution declares that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

Christmas is a national holiday partly because it is a major religious holiday of the country's dominant religion, but that certainly can't be the whole story, because Easter, which is arguably a more important religious holiday, is not a national holiday. You don't have to look far to find the rest of the story. Christmas became a national holiday because it involved the exchange of gifts, which is now by far the biggest part of the celebration. Take a holiday of the dominant religion, add gift exchange as a major part of the celebration, and---presto!---the modern market economy responds to deliver the gifts and to pump up demand for even more gifts year after year. Anybody, whether or not they attribute any religious significance to Christmas, can participate in the gift exchange, and the consumer economy not only encourages them to do so, it really requires them to participate, for Christmas has become the great engine of the consumer economy.

Christ was taken out of Christmas when holiday gift exchange came into contact with the market economy, producing an explosive reaction that has nothing to do with the holiday's religious significance. That's why it's so ironic that the good Christians in Raleigh think that putting Christ back into Christmas involves changing the practices of merchants. If conservative Christians were serious about putting Christ back into Christmas, they would campaign to stop the gift exchange and to decommission Christmas as a public holiday. Then Christmas would only be celebrated by those who are serious about its religious significance. They would celebrate it in their homes and sanctuaries in much the same way we Jews observe Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Witness Easter, which is not a national holiday and which retains its profound religious significance precisely because it offers nothing to the nonbeliever except a little Easter Egg hunting, hardly enough to make it a major force in the national economy.

This discussion so far has been deliberately begging the larger question, of which the Christmas wars are just a revealing symptom. Why are fundamentalist Christians engaged in campaigns to force the larger society to acknowledge and give public sanction to their belief structure? Why do they have such an embattled sense of victimhood? They live in a country where they are free to practice their faith in any way they choose. Why aren't they satisfied with their ability to celebrate Christmas as a joyous and solemn religious holiday in their own homes and churches? What more do they want? Their persistent sense of grievance against the larger society is the great puzzle of the religious right. I'm going to take a stab at identifying its source.

Fundamentalism is a simple sort of bargain: renounce independent thinking, and receive in return a set of absolute, comforting, and timeless formulas for answering all questions and addressing all situations. Sustaining this belief structure requires an insular existence within tightly knit religious communities. Fundamentalist Christians are isolated because they choose to be isolated. They see threats and dangers in the external world because social and scientific currents within the larger society do indeed undermine their belief structure. They claim to have a monopoly on truth, an exclusive pipeline to God, yet this apparent certainty is belied by their actions, which reveal an insecurity that can never be wholly assuaged without a total conversion of the rest of society. Every person who stubbornly remains outside the fold is a potential threat to their claimed monopoly on truth. Thus the main way they relieve their insecurity is through active proselytizing, which provides validation through the comforting spectacle of new converts adopting their beliefs and practices. Short of converting everyone, however, they demand explicit sanction of their beliefs by the larger society.

This is a peculiarly adolescent way of addressing insecurity. Adolescents and young adults typically seek validation of their actions and beliefs through persuading peers to adopt the same actions and beliefs. Those of us who are sufficiently introspective generally make peace with ourselves as adults, accepting that others are different and that we all have value partly because we are different. We internalize our reward system, not needing so much validation from others, although it is generally welcome when it comes. We know that our beliefs have merit even if others disagree, and we believe that our actions have value even if---and partly because---others do different things. In their core beliefs fundamentalists never get past the adolescent style of validation through imitation. They continue to need others to adopt their beliefs as a validation of those beliefs.

The larger question thus turns out to be very much larger and will be one of the defining questions of the 21st Century, both in America and in the world: Can fundamentalist religions be weaned away from their claims to a monopoly on truth and an exclusive road to God? Can we bring all religions to the happy state where each, while believing that it has the right stuff for its own adherents, acknowledges that other religions are equally valid and have the right stuff for their adherents? One of the proudest accomplishments of America is the religious freedom enshrined in our Constitution, which has led to the enviable situation where all religions tolerate the existence of their fellow religions. Perhaps in this Century we can take the next step beyond tolerance, to having every religion acknowledge the validity of all the others.

2004 December 21

For those who think I am making a mountain out a mole hill with this essay, here's the right-wing perspective, direct from the Fox's mouth, in this case, Bill O'Reilly's. In his December 7 "Talking Points" Memo, entitled Christmas Under Siege: The Big Picture, O'Reilly concludes, " 'Talking Points' is convinced that the USA cannot defeat terrorism and any other evil without a strong, traditional foundation that clearly defines right from wrong. The struggle today is not about Christmas, but about the spirit of our country." There you have it. Forget about "Peace on Earth. Good will to men." The Christmas wars really are about war. I've started saluting when I wish someone a "Merry Christmas," to ensure my greeting has the martial character necessary to keep our country strong.

   Index to CMC commentaries