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Austin Cline

Christmas Wars as Tribal Conflict

By December 2, 2012

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Many have wondered why religious conservatives have been making such a big deal about "Merry Christmas" the past few years. There have been complaints in the past about the lack of religion in the modern holiday, but why the insistence that nothing short of saying "Merry Christmas" is acceptable? Why treat "Happy Holidays" as offensive, as something that doesn't apply to Christians, or as a deliberate attempt to secularize Christmas?

In The Washington Post, E. J. Dionne Jr. wrote a couple of years ago:

It shouldn't be hard to acknowledge that there is prejudice in some sectors of our society against those who hold traditionalist, evangelical or fundamentalist religious views. ... But such respect cannot come at the expense of the rights of those who are not Christian. At the personal level: What in the world is "Christian" about insisting on saying "Merry Christmas" to a devout Jew or Hindu who might reasonably view the statement as a sign of disrespect? At the level of government: Is it really "Christian" for a religious majority to press its advantage over religious minorities, including nonbelievers?

The great Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr wrote that "the chief source of man's inhumanity to man seems to be the tribal limits of his sense of obligation to other men." I fear that in these Christmas debates, Christians are behaving not as Christians but as a tribe: "We will pound them if they get in the way of our customs and rituals." Tribal behavior is antithetical to the spirit of peace and good will. In this season, we ought to be taking the most expansive possible view of our obligations to others.

I think that Dionne is really on to something here when he identifies people's reactions as being more tribal than religious (with religion serving as the basis for tribal identity). Some Christians are turning the phrase "Merry Christmas" into a fetish, something that is done for its own sake instead of using it as a greeting that means something more. In the long run, such a tactic is more likely to backfire than to accomplish anything substantive.

December 23, 2007 at 9:15 am
(1) Ron says:

All together now everyone, For Austin.
We wish you a merry Christmas,We wish you a merry Christmas,We wish you a merry Christmas, and a happy new year!

December 23, 2007 at 10:54 am
(2) DeGeorgetown says:

Good job proving his point Ron.

December 23, 2007 at 4:35 pm
(3) Joseph says:

After anyone wishes me a “Merry Christmas” I always fire back with a “And a happy Solstice to you to”. However, seeing as the Solstice was yesterday, I can’t really do it anymore this year.

December 24, 2007 at 12:21 am
(4) Jesus Freak says:

I find it ammusing that Athiests spend so much time pointing fingers at Christians calling us “hypocrites”. Athiests must remember that anytime they have been involved with Christmas in any way, shape, or form, they are a hypocrite. This means an athiest must not even suck on a candy cane for that represents Christ. On Christmas Eve and Christmas day, they cannot participate in anything regarding Christmas or they are a hypocrite. They can’t even receive a Christmas gift or nod their head at someone who has wished them a Merry Christmas. Otherwise, they will be a hypocrite.
Why do you see the speck that is in your brotherís eye, but(A) do not notice the log that is in your own eye? 4Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? 5You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brotherís eye (Matt 7:3-5).

Merry Christmas!
God Bless,
Jesus Freak

December 24, 2007 at 5:32 am
(5) Patrick Quigley says:

Jesus Freak,

I suppose that when a Christian buys a calendar he is a hypocrite because the days of the week and most months reference various non-Christian gods?

Atheists aren’t like vampires who have to avoid all symbols of Christianity. Atheism is simply the lack of belief in any god; it doesn’t come loaded with any dogma telling us what art we can like, what foods we can eat, or how we can celebrate with friends and family. We are free to enjoy any elements of the world’s religions which we find pleasant and reject those which we consider harmful. You have divided the world into Man’s World and God’s World, but since we don’t believe in any gods, it’s all just part of the human experience from our point of view. As I write this, I’m sitting next to my Christmas tree which is surrounded by presents for my kids. That makes me a hypocrite in the same way that a eating a taco makes a french chef a hypocrite.

I hope you have a Merry Christmas.

December 24, 2007 at 6:02 am
(6) Austin Cline says:

I find it ammusing that Athiests spend so much time pointing fingers at Christians calling us ďhypocritesĒ.

I find it interesting that you would complain about this when the charge of hypocrisy doesn’t occur either in the article or in any comment. This suggests that you aren’t actually responding to the article, or perhaps that you’re simply reading off of a script.

Athiests must remember that anytime they have been involved with Christmas in any way, shape, or form, they are a hypocrite.

Feel free to support that allegation.

This means an athiest must not even suck on a candy cane for that represents Christ.

No, it doesn’t. Some Christians use the candy cane as a symbol for Christ, but that wasn’t why it was created.

Why do you see the speck that is in your brotherís eye, but(A) do not notice the log that is in your own eye?

Sounds like advice you should take for yourself.

December 24, 2007 at 1:34 pm
(7) Child of Thorns says:

JesusFreak, I guess when eating food suddenly represents Jesus’s flesh, any atheist is being a hypocrite by eating.

Sticking a meaning behind an object or act does not mean that all people who perform that act or use that object also put that meaning behind it.
Try and reason before jumping in and calling people hypocrites.

December 24, 2007 at 9:00 pm
(8) Ron says:

(JesusFreak, I guess when eating food suddenly represents Jesusís flesh)
I was just reading an interesting article about the history of ritual cannibalism…… google ritual cannibalism.

December 25, 2007 at 9:01 pm
(9) Paul Buchman says:

Jesus Freak:

Xians leave themselves wide open to charges of hypocrisy. That is because (1) a moral code is integral to their belief system and (2) their standard is perfection (i.e., J.C.). Obviously, no one can achieve that standard so of course you’re all hypocrites!

Atheism does not imply any particular moral code. Xians love to throw this at us but here’s the rub. Charging an atheist with hypocrisy just because s/he is an atheist is unsupportable.

I love Patrick Quigley’s analogy above. By Jesus Freak’s reasoning, Xians are indeed hypocritical for using a standard calendar or calling days Monday, Tuesday etc. This is not a crazy idea. Some Quakers call the days “First Day,” “Second Day,” etc., for this very reason.

December 26, 2008 at 8:44 pm
(10) deegee says:

Why do Xians like Jesus Freak always quote toe bible to support or justify their positions or beliefs? To me (and most if not all atheists), the bible is nothing more than a piece of fiction. It is a good piece of fiction, but still a piece of fiction.

To me, it makes as much sense to quote the bible to justify one’s positions or beliefs as it would for someone to quote “Alice in Wonderland” to justify or support one’s positions or beliefs. Whenever I see someone quoting the bible, I very easily and quickly dismiss anything they say or write (becasue they have no secular reason to support or justify their positions or views.

January 6, 2009 at 2:32 pm
(11) John Hanks says:

Trying to turn meaningless Xmas gestures into loyalty oaths. An old trick.

December 19, 2009 at 2:56 pm
(12) Dennis N says:

“Is it really “Christian” for a religious majority to press its advantage over religious minorities, including nonbelievers?”

Well, yeah. It very much is. Look at history, man.

December 19, 2009 at 11:54 pm
(13) JonJ says:

I think that this “War on Christmas” business is basically a reflection of the extremely myopic world view that these people have. They really cannot understand anything except from within their own framework of beliefs, like someone who is near-sighted and believes that everything really is that fuzzy. (I remember when I got my first pair of glasses when I was about 6, and was amazed at how sharp everything suddenly became.)

They are so wrapped up in their own Jesus story that it is just incomprehensible to them that anyone would prefer saying “Happy Holidays” to “Merry Christmas” unless Satan was making them do it :-) .

December 20, 2009 at 9:30 am
(14) AMG says:

I find it interesting that no one accused Irving Berlin of trying to suppress Christmas when he wrote “Happy Holiday” back in the 1940s. Perhaps people had more important things to worry about then.

December 20, 2009 at 11:07 am
(15) sornord says:

…a candy cane…represents Christ.

It just gets stupider and stupider!

December 20, 2009 at 2:43 pm
(16) ChuckA says:

How ’bout a “Jeebus” candy cane-like…
[cue Sesame Street's Ernie]:
“Rubber dildo, you’re the one…”

December 22, 2009 at 7:33 pm
(17) ahernphil says:

I’m afraid many of these comments reflect either narrow mindedness or ignorance. Should not Christmas be inclusive? Jesus was always inclusive and the Xmas story itself is a story of the rich and powerful as well as the poor and humble ( shepherds ) being included. The Kings were not kings but MAGI and they were astronomers probably belonging to the Zoroastrian or zoastrian religion ( non-jews ).

December 22, 2009 at 7:42 pm
(18) ahernphil says:

Just a correction. To say that the Bible is a book of fiction demonstrates ignorance . The bible represents several books ( so it is perhaps more accurate to say that it is a bound ‘library’ of books. It is made up of mythological stories, genuine history as confirmed by extra-biblical sources, and letters all of which are non-fiction. The Gospels are theological interpretations of historic events. So MERRY XMAS to EVERYONE- Christians and non-Christians; theists and atheists and anyone else I have not mentioned.

December 2, 2012 at 1:23 pm
(19) Michael Rudas says:

Actually, Ahernphil, we know that parts of the Bible are fiction (the Book of Daniel, for example), so the whole thing cannot be trustworthy. The parts that are ahistorical (Tower of Babylon, Noah’s flood) negate any possible truth it might contain.

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