Who Are Our Bedfellows?

December 24, 2008

You can get a pretty good pie fight going even among secular humanists by comparing attitudes on the holidays. Me, I’ve been Yule-free for 24 years now, and I’ve been emphatic in praising initiatives to tone down holiday symbolism in public places as America grows more diverse. I was the one you heard cheering when all the holiday finery was briefly removed from Seattle’s Sea-Tac Airport two years ago. And I’ve been raising the same cheers for UNC-Chapel Hill, where the main libraries opted not to display their Christmas trees in deference to the campus’s growing non-Christian population. I’m all for this sort of reform, and I hope (and expect) to see lots more in future years. I recognize that’s a controversial position among humanists, quite a few of whom view stuff like this as political correctness run amok. “Why waste effort being concerned with non-Christians taking offense at Christmas?” they say. “The holiday’s so secular it hardly even serves as an emblem of Christianity anymore.”

I’m not so sure. In my book The Trouble with Christmas (full disclosure: it makes an excellent holiday gift!) I note the “paradox of Christmas”: Though very few of the things we do at Xmas time are uniquely Christian—hell, probably 95% of the modern holiday’s elements are either pre-Christian (pagan) or post-Christian (commercial)—nonetheless the little Christian sliver at the holiday’s core manages to throw a Christian aura around the whole festival. Call it guilt by association if you must. But in practice, it means that all the symbols of the holiday, even Santa, Rudolf, or Frosty, take on a Christian frisson just by being part of this cultural juggernaut that’s also, kinda sorta, about the birth of a mythical savior. Americans from Jewish or Christian backgrounds (which includes many atheists and humanists) know very well which symbols have secular roots and which don’t. So it’s easy for us to overlook how different everything can appear to immigrants, foreign students, and others who hail from non-Judaeo-Christian cultures. Their skills at playing our “sacred or secular” game may vary widely ... with the result that to many of them, a Christmas tree is just as effective as a nativity scene in providing an uncomfortable reminder of Christianity’s unjust dominance in this culture. I urge nonreligious Americans whatever their background to recognize this, and to press hard for turning down the voltage on all kinds of Yuletide displays in public.

The other reason to think twice about declaring that Xmas is already too secular to fret over is ... think who that places you alongside. Over the last couple of years I’ve lost count of how many conservative pundits have pounded the table over the “sad, sad” way Christmas has lost its Christian essence. Most times, they use this a platform for a “Keep Christ in Christmas” message. Other times, they argue that because the holiday’s Christian identity is already so muddled, nobody ought to get upset about a holiday display on the courthouse steps. Any time secular humanists find themselves making the same argument as theocon windbags, they might want to take a hard look at the argument they’re making.