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Religious vs. Secular Christmas - Is Christmas a Religious or Secular Holiday?

Government Cannot Support a Religious Holiday, However Popular

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Americans all over the country in all walks of life look forward to getting a day off on December 25, a day which has traditionally (and almost certainly erroneously) been celebrated as the birth day of Jesus Christ, savior for all Christians. What's wrong with that? Nothing, really — except possibly the fact that it is a holiday which is legally recognized/mandated by our government. It certainly appears as though our government has taken the stance of officially endorsing a holy day of one particular religion.

That, of course, would be unacceptable. Such privileging of one religion cannot possibly survive even superficial scrutiny for acceptability under the principle of church/state separation. There is but one recourse for those who wish to maintain the status quo, and I'm sure you've already guessed what it is: declare Christmas to be a secular holiday.

 

Christmas as a Religious Holiday

If Christmas is not secular but is instead considered a religious holiday, then it is necessary for our government to treat it like every other holiday in every other religion. Some Christians may get uptight over the idea of not automatically having Christmas off from work, faced now with the prospect of actually having to use one of their own vacation or personal days in order to be home with their families.

I can sympathize with this reaction, but what they fail to realize is that this is exactly the situation which has always faced the members of other religions. The status quo has traditionally been one of privileging Christians at the expense of other religions — and since that privileging has persisted for so long, too many Christians have come to expect it as their right. A disturbingly similar situation has existed with every other case of Christianity losing its special, officially sanctioned status: school prayer, bible reading in school, etc. If our government treats Christian holidays like it treats other religious holidays, I won't be upset.

 

Declaring Christmas a Secular Holiday

Now, what if the Supreme Court were to declare Christmas a secular and not religious holiday? I'm not entirely sure that they have that power, considering how important Christmas is to the Christian religion. If Christmas is declared a secular holiday, to whom will that be binding? To society? To the courts? To Christians? I have often seen signs at Christmas time declaring "Jesus is the Reason for the Season" — these people certainly won't agree that Christmas is secular, and if they don't, why should anyone else? Why not let them have it as their holiday? Why should the rest of society co-opt it and decide that it is no longer religious?

Such a court decision should be offensive to devout, practicing Christians. Evangelical Christians have been complaining long and loud — and in general without justification — that our secular society has become anti-Christian. In this instance, if Christmas were declared to be "secular," they might actually have a point.

On the other hand, Christmas as a secular holiday would put one more nail in the coffin of the pretentious and presumptuous assertion that America is a Christian nation, based upon Christian values and celebrating a Christian life. Most people have begun to realize that this is not the case, but many refuse to face facts, hoping instead to keep America in a perpetual state of 1950s idealism.

If Christmas is declared a religious holiday, then fundamentalists lose because their holiday will be treated just like any other Christian holiday. If Christmas is declared a secular holiday, then fundamentalists lose again because our courts will grant recognition to the fact that American society has moved beyond our history of Protestant Christian domination to a more multicultural and multireligious society where holidays which are celebrated on a national level are secular in nature.

 

Related Court Cases

Bridenbaugh v. O'Bannon (1993)
According to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, a government is permitted to give employees a religious holiday off as a paid vacation day, but only if the government can provide a legitimate secular purpose for choosing that day instead of any other day.

Ganulin v. United States (1999)
Is it constitutional for the United States government to recognize Christmas as an official paid holiday? Richard Ganulin, an atheist lawyer, argued that it isn't and filed suit, but a U.S. District Court ruled against him.

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