Two Cheers for Rhode Island!

November 28, 2012

Two cheers for Rhode Island governor Lincoln Chaffee, who has stood tall against religious-Right posturing to insist that the 17-1/2 foot conifer in the state capitol will again be called the Holiday Tree, not the Christmas Tree. He stated that the more inclusive language was appropriate because the state house "is a public building...paid for by people with different religions." So far, so good ... but is even Governor Chaffee being inclusive enough?

Here's the problem. Even calling the big spruce a "holiday" tree puts the weight of government behind as assumption that everyone, no matter what their religion or abwsence thereof, ought to be celebrating *something* at this time of year. Not everyone is, of course. In some years Muslims celebrate their festival of Eid al-Adha around the time of the Christian birthday observance; this year Eid al-Adha fell late in October. Many strands of Buddhism include no recognition of the northern-hemisphere Winter Solstice as anything extraordinary. And then there are the atheists and humanists who recognize that neither Christianity's Christmas nor paganism's Winter Solstice holds special meaning for them. Even this is far from a complete list!

 The really inclusive strategy would be to do nothing -- to leave the Rhode Island state house in its natural state, without any special decoration or ceremony, during what is, let's remember, only some people's holiday season. My ears pricked up when the governor's office announced earlier this week that there would be no tree-lighting ceremony. Chaffee's office later backpedaled, chalking the announcement up to "miscommunication" and promising that there would be a lighting ceremony for the Holiday Tree.

So two cheers. No tree at all would have been better. But a Holiday Tree beats a Christmas Tree any day of the week.

So says the Anti-Claus.


#1 Daniel Kuck-Alvarez (Guest) on Wednesday November 28, 2012 at 8:53am

Yuck. No cheers. Christmas is secular. Christmas trees doubly so. Should have called it a Christmas tree.

#2 SelfAwarePatterns on Wednesday November 28, 2012 at 8:58am

I’m an atheist who cheerfully celebrates Christmas, or at least has nothing against those who do.  Of course, I ignore the religious aspects, just as most people ignore the Celtic religious aspects of Halloween.  I have nothing against those who want to take a stand on this, but in my mind, just because the original reason is bogus, doesn’t mean we can’t have fun and enjoy a holiday.

#3 Tom Flynn (Guest) on Wednesday November 28, 2012 at 10:01am

Daniel: Calling Christmas secular becomes difficult when we consider the word’s first syllable. You know, “Christ.” Sorry, the word and the festival reflect sectarian Christianity and send a message of exclusion to anyone who doesn’t regard the (alleged) birth of Christ as a pivotal historic event.
—Tom Flynn

#4 Dedalus1953 (Guest) on Wednesday November 28, 2012 at 10:13am


Do you also object, for the same reasons, the names of Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday?

I think (and I suspect you disagree) that we’re getting to the point where non-believers (are able to) accept the first syllable of “Christmas” as an historical artifact rather than an expression of belief.

On the other hand there are still a lot of folks out their who DO accept it as an article of faith, while the adherents of the Norse gods are somewhat harder to find (other than in the White Supremicist sector).

Great Caesar’s Pinstripes!  Could I be any more ambivalent?  Maybe ..

#5 Tom Flynn (Guest) on Wednesday November 28, 2012 at 11:41am

Dadalus1953: I do object to the pagan weekday names—enough to support a reasonable proposal to rename those days, not enough to write a book about it. (OTOH in my 1993 Xmas book I spill a fair bit of ink cautioning atheists and humanists against celebrating the Winter Solstice because of its pagan roots; while there aren’t many devotees of Thor out there, there is a small but growing neopagan subculture, and it merits our expending some effort to demonstrate that we nonreligious folks are not them, and vice versa.)

As far as Xmas goes, you’re right that some putative believers now hold a wholly secular understanding of that holiday. But the picture of Xmas as the celebration of Christ taking flesh remains culturally dominant, so that when unbelievers “keep Xmas” we risk being perceived as closet Christians—hence as hypocrites. Xmas isn’t the birthday of anyone we know, and I think we benefit by making that unmistakably clear.

#6 SocraticGadfly (Guest) on Wednesday November 28, 2012 at 1:33pm

I like Daedelus. Because we have government documents listing legal events by days of the week, if Tom is thoroughgoing and consistent, he should oppose them, too.

#7 Dedalus1953 (Guest) on Thursday November 29, 2012 at 5:08am

I REALLY hate these ambiguous “security questions”—I answered “Azure Blue or Cyan” for “What color is the daytime sky?” and lost a nice well-phrased comment.  Was I wrong?  I think not!!  Anyway, let me see if I can rewrite—

A lot of this discussion will ultimately boil down to our self-identity—does the “Group ID” trump the “Personal ID?”

Mr. Flynn is absolutely correct when he says that we non-believers may be thought hypocrites by some, when we celebrate the pagan aspects of Christmas.  But, many of us grew up in religious households, and, even though we left behind the faith-based aspects of the celebration with our other child-like things, we still find value in the stories, the decorations, and all the other “fun” parts of the season.

When I was growing up, the religious decorations were displayed side-by-side with the secular (Santa and Frosty in the Manger, for example), so for me, it was all a confluence of pleasant stories of (sorta kinda) equal significance.

In the final analysis, if I give that all up over concern of what others may think of me, well, to my mind, that’s giving up a little too much of who I am for the sake of some arbitrary non-believer “Group Identity” standard.

When all is said and done, I can live with being thought a hypocrite by those who think “Black Friday” is a part of the “reason for the season” and think judging me is fine and dandy.  Glass houses, beams in the eye, and all that, you know ...

I hope all y’all have a safe, healthy and happy ... um ... December!

#8 Andy Anderson (Guest) on Thursday November 29, 2012 at 11:46am

Tell you what, when Christians stop saying “It’s CHRISTmas!” and “In GOD we trust!” as a means of asserting privilege over people who don’t share those views, I’ll buy into the notion of ceremonial deism and religious expressions losing their meaning the way the days of the week have.

Until then, it’s still a problem.

#9 sam (Guest) on Friday November 30, 2012 at 1:26pm

I’m not sure how this represents any significant victory for inclusiveness since a “holiday tree” would only be inclusive of those who celebrate Christmas and those who celebrate the winter solstice as a pagan, wiccan, etc. festival.  So realistically, Chaffee has done nothing more than accommodate a few Wiccans and Pagans - what an extraordinary accomplishment.  Let’s put this whole inclusive argument aside since it’s nothing more than a smokescreen. It’s all about removing any mention of Christianity (or any religion for that matter) from the public space. If he just said that in the first place, rather than hiding behind the “inclusiveness” farce I would respect him far more.

#10 Tom Flynn (Guest) on Friday November 30, 2012 at 1:56pm

Sam, you’re right that the real goal is to remove mention of any religion from public spaces, but wrong that the concept of inclusiveness is a smokescreen. Apparent endorsements of one religion in the public square are inherently exclusive and exclusionary. A shift in language that includes Christians and neopagans is more inclusive than language that engages Christians only. But you’re right, the more desirable shift would be to avoid government endorsement of any religion by avoiding religious language altogether. As that excludes apparent endorsement of any possible tradition, it’s the most inclusive approach toward citizens of all beliefs and none. Granted, Chaffee’s approach is a half-measure (that’s why I only gave it two cheers). Still, inclusiveness is the standard by which to measure it.—Tom Flynn

#11 sam (Guest) on Friday November 30, 2012 at 3:37pm

Tom, thanks for your response.  Let me address a few of your points. 

<<A >>

Ok, but from a quantitative standpoint it’s not measurably more inclusive, since the number of neopagans in RI is likely a fraction of a percent at best. 

<< the more desirable shift would be to avoid government endorsement of any religion by avoiding religious language altogether >>

Ok, but woudnt you agree that Christmas is becoming more and more of a secular holiday and less of a religious one as the nation itself is moving away from religion?  Speaking for myself, I’m one of four siblings that were raised Catholic and two of us, including myself, are now atheists/agnostics. We still celebrate Christmas, and call it “Christmas”, but just celebrate the Santa part and not the Jesus part.  I see this trend continuing and in another 50 years or less, Christmas will become the secular equivalent of Halloween, or thereabouts.  The fact that the word “Christmas” was based on “Christ” will be mostly meaningless and incidental, and hardly considered an endorsement of Christianity.

#12 Tom Flynn (Guest) on Friday November 30, 2012 at 6:55pm


The number of pagans is small, yes. But the shift from “Christmas” to “holiday” also includes Jews, a more significant minority, and also those humanists and pagans who observe the winter solstice. But the number of people the shift includes matters less than the simple fact that the shift rebukes the traditional notion that Christianity is the only true religion. By undermining Christianity’s exclusive privileged status the change matters greatly, no matter how many or how few it includes.

I absolutely would not agree that Christmas is becoming so secular that its religious meaning can be disregarded. That’s a ploy, one that Christians have used quite successfully to gull many non-Christians into accepting a narrowly Christian view as some kind of norm. Andy Anderson (response #8 above) gets it. Christmas is a sectarian Christian holiday. Its observance privileges Christianity, and Christians profit and exploit the irony when well-meaning seculars like you fail to appreciate it. As I said in my book, “If Jesus Christ is not your savior, Christmas is not your holiday.” —Tom Flynn

#13 sam (Guest) on Friday November 30, 2012 at 7:25pm

Thanks again Tom.  I do appreciate your thoughtfulness in addressing these issues and want you to know that I did make a sincere effort to understand and appreciate your point of view, but I just don’t see things the same way. No need to beat a dead horse on issues we don’t agree on, but I would like to address a few remaining items, and I will respect your choice to respond or not.  And I would only add that this civil discourse has been a pleasant change from what I typically encounter in the blogosphere.

<< But the shift from “Christmas” to “holiday” also includes Jews >>

By altering “christmas tree” to “holiday tree”, we’re now being inclusive of Jews? I think the average Jewish person would not feel in any way “included” by a celebration involving a “holiday tree” that happens to look a heck of a lot like a christmas tree. Imagine if most of the country was Jewish, and Hanukkah was the dominant holiday. Do you think Christians would feel that a menorah referred to as “holiday candles” would be inclusive of them? Not officially “endorsing” one religion over the other is not the same thing as being “inclusive” and that’s why I contend that the “inclusive” terminology is nothing more than a soft sell for the real issue of no govt endorsement of religion, but because that’s somewhat harder language it is not used. 

“If Jesus Christ is not your savior, Christmas is not your holiday.”

So are you saying it’s an all or nothing deal?  I can’t celebrate Christmas on a secular level and not embrace the significance of the birth of Jesus Christ?  I don’t hate Christianity, I simply don’t believe in it.

#14 sam (Guest) on Friday November 30, 2012 at 9:10pm

One last point, and then I promise to stop filling up the comments section of your blog   If we reached a point where all mention of religion, God, etc. in the public domain (govt institutions, public schools, etc.) was eliminated, would this be enough?  Or would you like to see further measures taken in the private domain?

#15 jj (Guest) on Saturday December 01, 2012 at 5:53am

We need to make Newtonmas more popular.

#16 Tom Flynn (Guest) on Saturday December 01, 2012 at 8:02pm


Agreed that “Holiday Tree” might not seem that inclusive of Jews. But in the context of substituting “Happy Holidays” for “Merry Christmas,” “holiday” rhetoric is one of the best-known ways of including Jews (and anyone celebrating the winter solstice).

As for your final question, of course I’d be satisfied with removing religious symbolism from public life. Private life is just that, private, and that’s exactly where religious expression should be maximally free. I don’t care what my religious neighbor puts on his/her porch, or what the nearest church puts up on its lawn. I only object to religious symbolism in settings that suggests the state endorses a religion or that my taxes are paying for special favors toward one or another creed.

#17 Daniel Kuck-Alvarez (Guest) on Monday December 03, 2012 at 10:41am

I’m late getting back to the conversation.

I’d rather look like a hypocrite than a Scrooge.

Almost all holiday movies mention Christmas and do not put any special emphasis on the baby Jesus. Holiday songs include him more often, but still a majority of them do not mention Jesus.

As atheists/agnostics/free-thinkers, we are free to celebrate anything we want. We don’t have to give up on Christmas especially with it trending so secular.

War For Christmas!

As for inclusivity, I like that. If we push the secular aspects of Christmas, more people will feel included.

#18 Tom Flynn (Guest) on Monday December 03, 2012 at 11:36am


Sorry, pushing the secular aspects of Christmas will not make people feel included who have negative associations for Christmas. That’s a goodly number of Jews, atheists, humanists, neopagans, Muslims, Buddhists ... pretty much anyone who’s ever felt marginalized by the holiday’s cultural pushiness and its inseparable Christian aura.

I also have to say that I’d rather look like a Scrooge than a hypocrite—and I hope that if you really pondered the issue, you would too.

I think many of us secularists terribly underestimate how much “cred” we give up in the eyes of believers (even casual ones) when we shrug and go along with their holiday. I’m in my 28th year as a public Scrooge, my 31st as a public atheist, and I’ve had countless conversations with Christians that go along these lines:

Believer: “You aren’t an atheist. Nobody can really get through life without God.”

Me: “Actually, I can and I do.”

B: “Oh yeah? Well what do you on December 25. You celebrate Christmas, don’t you?”

Me: “No, I go to work.”

B: (Stunned silence—or disbelief, which I usually satisfy by reference to my book THE TROUBLE WITH CHRISTMAS.)

There often follows a sincere conversation about the arguments for and against religious belief. Often I get the feeling that these believers have been waiting to get answers to their questions about atheism—specifically, waiting to find someone they could take seriously as a “real” atheist. Boycotting Christmas seems to be an intuitive litmus test for many of these folks.

I’ve had this experience often enough through the years to suspect a great many believers are consoling themselves that they don’t have to take the challenge of atheism/humanist seriously precisely because they see so many of us being hypocrites at “helladay” time.

I don’t know how many “un-converts” I’ve made with these conversations. But I do know that the simple fact that I’ve deep-sixed Xmas opens the door to such conversations better than anything else.

Tom Flynn

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