Since I’ve given up watching the chattering class on cable news and the network Sunday talk shows, I don’t know what phony controversies they are currently stirring up. If one of them is the old "war on Christmas," don’t buy it.
Christmas is a Christian holiday, but you don’t have to repent of your sins and be baptized to enjoy it. The Christmas tree and the exchange of gifts are not part of the religious aspects of the holiday. Anybody who wants to can have a Christmas tree and exchange gifts. Even Santa Claus is today only remotely connected to St. Nicholas, the patron saint of Russia.
Sextus Julius Africanus designated Dec. 25 as Christmas in 221 A.D. It was celebrated in Rome by 336 A.D. During medieval times, when Europe was known as Christendom, it was a very popular holiday, and new religious services were written for it.
The exchange of gifts began in the 15th century, and yule logs, cakes and fir trees were adopted from German and Celtic cultures. The modern decorated tree was adopted by German Lutherans and brought to North America by early German settlers. It was popularized in 19th-century England by Queen Victoria’s consort, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg.
When the Protestant Reformation began, St. Nicholas was largely dropped from the season except in Holland, where he was known as Sinterklaas. Dutch settlers brought him to New York, where he was Americanized as Santa Claus.
So what is there to war about? Christmas is a holiday that has a religious part and a secular part. Take your choice. I remember reading an article by the daughter of Jack Benny, the great Jewish comedian. She said they always had a Christmas tree, and that she and her siblings joined the other children in singing Christmas carols.
Today, some try to keep Christmas carols out of public schools, as if singing a song were some great polemic in favor of Christianity. That’s nonsense, of course. Much of the world’s great art has been inspired by the world’s various religions. A faith so shaky as to be disturbed by a song is hardly a faith.
As for secularizing public education, that simply cheats the students of good education. Even in today’s secular times, religion plays an important part in the lives of people all over the world. One cannot know history without knowing the role the various religions have played in it.
The First Amendment, as is clear from the statements of the people who wrote it and ratified it, was designed to protect religion from government, not vice versa. When Tom Jefferson wrote in a letter to some Baptists about the "wall of separation between church and state," he was merely reiterating that there would never be a U.S.-government-sponsored church.
One has to remember that when Jefferson was growing up, the Anglican Church was the official church of Virginia, and Virginians of all faiths were taxed to support it. His argument was that nobody should be compelled to support a belief he did not share. I would hope that all Americans would agree with that, but I also recognize that it in no way even implies hostility toward religion.
Singing songs or hearing prayers, whether by a preacher, a rabbi, a priest or an imam, cannot be construed by any reasonable person as compelling the listener to support a particular religion.
So, ignore all the hypersensitive soreheads, and have yourself a merry Christmas, whatever your faith or lack thereof. Nothing in the world is wrong with beauty, good food, good will and good fellowship. When I look at my Christmas tree, I feel no mysterious urge to become a pagan or a Lutheran. I just enjoy the beauty.
Charley Reese [send him mail] has been a journalist for 49 years.