Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Ending Christmas as an Official American Holiday

When I was attending California State University Los Angeles in the 1990's, there was a year (I forget exactly which one) when the first day of classes for the school quarter fell on the same day as Rosh Hashanah,  the Jewish New Year and a significant holiday in the Jewish calendar.  This coincidence placed Jewish students (and faculty members) who wanted to observe the holiday at a sharp disadvantage if they intended to be absent that day.  In terms of importance,  the first session of class is one of  the most critical, probably second only to final exams. Yet this made no difference to the CSULA administration when the quarter calendar was set up for that year, no matter how upsetting this apparent insensitivity  would be to those who were affected. However, another way of looking at the matter is that the school acted correctly because a  public institution should follow a policy of neutrality in matters regarding religion including—and especially—holiday observances.

So carrying this line of thought to its logical conclusion, why then should Christmas be treated any differently?  Yet can you imagine the fuss that Christians would make if American public schools scheduled classes and private companies and government conducted business as usual on that day? One might argue that there's a difference: Christmas is a legal holiday, and Rosh Hashanah isn't.  But that's exactly my point. Christmas was enacted as an official American holiday even though it has meaning and importance only for followers of a particular  religion. Or to put it another way, Christianity is the only religion in the U.S. that gets its own federal holiday.  That is a direct violation of the establishment clause of the U.S. Constitution and is a glaring manifestation of Christian privilege in America. Yet as such, it is the elephant in the middle of the living room whose existence few Americans care to acknowledge.

For what it's worth from an historical perspective , Christmas did not become a federal holiday until 1870 through an act of Congress.  In fact the first English settlers in America, the Puritans even frowned upon celebrating that day. So to that extent, this holiday is not woven into the very fabric of  the American narrative.  But  even if it were,   Christmas is exclusionary against Americans who are not Christians.  Thus as a day of observance  it is discriminatory and hence  undeserving of government endorsement.  And incidentally, not all Christians mark this holiday on December 25.  The Eastern Orthodox Church observes it on January 6.  That leads to the question as to how Jesus could have two birth dates. This gives a whole new meaning to" "born again". But I digress.

Naturally, I would like to see Christmas disestablished as a legal holiday in the U.S., but if that ever happens, it will likely not be until many decades from now. The biggest obstacle of course would be vociferous opposition by conservative Christians whose response would no doubt be that secularists want to "outlaw" Christmas. Then there is the consideration that for most workers in both the public and private sphere,  Dec. 25 is traditionally a day off.  Wouldn't  they lose this benefit if the Christmas holiday were abolished?  Not necessarily.  A replacement holiday could be declared on some other day in December as a substitute.  Or perhaps Dec. 25 could remain as a holiday but designated with a secular name and theme.  That way, those who want to celebrate Christmas on that date could do so, but they would no longer "own" the date as a religious occasion (over the past couple years more businesses seem to have begun operating on that day anyway.)  On the other hand, this alternative may be just creating an elaborate fiction that papers over the issue without really solving it.  

However resolved,  it seems very unlikely the end of Christmas as an American legal holiday will ever come about unless those who fully support the Constitution are willing to bring the matter to light and make the effort to raise the American consciousness that this is a truly  First Amendment issue  which needs to be addressed. Despite what many fundamentalists claim, the U.S. is not a" Christian nation", but only to the extent that we do not allow followers of that faith to dominate American culture.