By: Charles Moore

Every year the debate over displaying Christian symbols in schools and on public property at Christmas heats up a little more. Some members of non-Christian religions, especially the “religion” of secular humanism, believe that items like crèche dioramas somehow represent a violation of their civil rights.

There’s something surreal about the assertion that Christ should not be acknowledged in a celebration called Christmas, and one wonders what sort of reception complaints from a Christian minority about civic observance of traditional religious holidays would get predominantly Muslim, Hindu, or Buddhist countries. The 1993 Angus Reid-Maclean’s religion poll found that 78 per cent of Canadians consider themselves “Christian.” The dominant religious culture in North America has been Christian for over 300 years, and our social observances naturally reflect that reality.

It’s true that Christians have sometimes callously disregarded the sensibilities of religious and cultural minorities, especially children, in institutional settings like school. Since Christmas is such a socio-cultural juggernaut, it’s not surprising that religious non-Christians feel marginalized by all the hoopla – even though these days very little of the public celebration has anything remotely to do with religious sensibilities, much of the commercialized Christmas extravaganza ought to offend bona fide Christians too.

It may surprise some non-Christians to learn that Christmas as we know it is far from universally revered among devout Christians. Christmas wasn’t celebrated at all by the early church, and birthday observances in general were shunned as trappings of paganism. Purely religious commemoration of the Nativity was incorporated into the Epiphany feast (January 6) sometime before AD 200, and Eastern Orthodox Christians still observe Christmas on that date. Around AD 330, the Roman Church designated December 25 as Christmas, thus coopting the pagan Mithraic sun-god’s feast and the Saturnalia.

Pagan Origins

Many Christmas traditions have pagan origins, including the tree (Roman and Egyptian tree-worship); mistletoe (Druidism); exchanging presents (Roman Saturnalia); and evergreen decorations (Teutonic-Norse paganism). There’s nothing essentially Christian about pigging out at gut-busting turkey dinners. Even the image universally recognized as Santa Claus derives from a 19th century secular poem by Clement Moore and a 1925 Coca-Cola advertisement.

In popular North American culture, commercialism has transformed Christmas into a general-purpose, secular, civic holiday and bonanza for retailers. However, it is the one time of the year that Jesus Christ is though and spoken of in somewhat reverential tones within that culture, and that base is something devout Christians ought to build on – not beat a retreat from. Must sensitivity to other religions and cultures dictate that we deny our own?

On the other hand, if we are serious about re- Christianizing Christmas, we might dispense with passive capitulation to pagan-secular adulteration of our Nativity celebration. Indeed, a case could be made for all devout Christians joining their Eastern Orthodox brothers and sisters January 6 – a date untainted by commercialism and pagan resonances – and leaving December 25 to secularism.

Religious images, religious language, and religious principles have a legitimate and indispensable role in the public square. The extreme seperationism certain radical secularist factions seek to impose on our culture is a pernicious and destructive project. Freedom of religion does not imply freedom from religion. As long as citizens in democratic societies are free to practice their religion of choice without interference, then no one’s ox is being gored by acknowledging the dominant religious culture of religious culture in public holidays.

In education, mandatory ignorance of religious traditions is stupid, counterproductive, and historically illiterate. Rather than banning the crèche from schools at Christmas, wouldn’t’ it be more sensible to display and discuss it, as well as festival symbols of other religions, in schools at appropriate times of year, not only out of respect for the minority children who may be enrolled, but as an important part of the educational experience for everyone. Acknowledgment of religion ought to be part of any worthwhile educational process.