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Face-off: Christmas in public places

By Paqui Toscano & Zach Jarrell

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A conservative view
from Zach Jarrell

Merry Christmas! That’s right. I said, “Merry Christmas.” I’m writing for a public school newspaper and I said, “Merry Christmas.”

Some people may find this offensive, but I really don’t care. I am a Christian, and I believe that as a Christian, I should be able to celebrate my holiday without worrying about offending those around me. The government should not be able to stop me from expressing myself. Even the governor of Rhode Island is now calling a Christmas tree a “Holiday tree.” I don’t know if I’ve ever heard of a Kwanzaa or a Hanukah Tree, but if they exist, please tell me.

As it is now, Christmas has become very much of a secular holiday. Many things have been done that have caused the original meaning to be lost. For example, look at Santa. Where in the Christmas story of the Bible is Santa? Nowhere. He was added to the holiday much later.  I will concede the fact that he was based on Saint Nicholas, but in most people’s minds, Santa is now just a big guy in a red suit who brings gifts for good children.

Now I don’t mean to say Santa is the devil for invading the Christmas story, but he has caused many people to lose sight of what Christmas is. And even he has now been banned from Stockton, Calif., school district, along with poinsettias. What has a poinsettia ever done to anyone? It’s a flower.

Let’s also look at department stores. Christmas is when department stores make the most money. People go everywhere to buy things on everyone’s lists. And while people buy, buy, buy, the stores rake in the money. I’m a huge fan of capitalism and if people are willing to buy, let the stores make as much money as they want, but I don’t think they are remembering the true story behind Christmas. Christmas has begun to create more stress than happiness. So if Christmas is such a secular holiday now, why do people care when a government puts up a Christmas tree?

One of my other big beefs is when people get mad at the sight of a Nativity scene, and God forbid if the government puts one up. Cities and towns around the nation are now being forced to take down Nativity scenes due to only one complaint. In Santa Monica, Calif., the Nativity scene that has been a tradition for more than 60 years is drawing complaints from some atheists, who aren’t even residents, causing city officials to take it down.

In Henderson County, Texas, atheist groups are demanding that the government take down the Nativity scene in front of the courthouse. One person or group should not be able to dictate what the city does and does not do. If they really feel that strongly about it, then make a petition saying the government cannot put up a Nativity scene or anything else in reference to Christianity. If you have enough people on your side, then you can get the issue on the ballot and let the people vote. This is called democracy and it’s what our country is based on. We got rid of the rule of one more than 200 years ago.

And so you know I’m not one-sided, if the government puts up a menorah or a kinara, let them. I don’t care. The government is not telling me what to celebrate. They have not established a religion; therefore, they are still within the bounds of the First Amendment.

This brings me to the meat of the situation. The First Amendment in no way says that the government and the church cannot interact. All the First Amendment says is that the government cannot establish a public religion. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines establish as “to institute (as a law) permanently by enactment or agreement.” Nowhere is there a law saying people must worship the plastic Baby Jesus.

In fact, the government is actually prohibiting some people from practicing their religion.  Teachers in public schools are not allowed to pray. Some judges have been forced to take the Ten Commandments down from their courtrooms. Now tell me how that is religious freedom.

Our Founding Fathers would not be for this. “If ‘Thou shalt not covet,’ and ‘Thou shalt not steal,’ were not commandments of Heaven, they must be made inviolable precepts in every society before it can be civilized or made free,” said our second president, John Adams. Signer of the Constitution and Supreme Court Justice James Wilson once said: “[L]aw, natural or revealed, made for men or for nations, flows from the same Divine source: it is the law of God … . Human law must rest its authority ultimately upon the authority of that law which is Divine … . Far from being rivals or enemies, religion and law are twin sisters, friends, and mutual assistants. Indeed, these two sciences run into each other.”

If there is no religion, where do we get morals? There is no such thing as a universal morality. Natural law is to do what gets you ahead. If that takes murder and theft, then there’s nothing stopping you. All morals come from religion; therefore, laws like those prohibiting murder and theft are coming from a religious standpoint. Our country is based on Christianity.  That’s the simple fact of the matter. The more we stray from our Judeo-Christian base, the more we stray from the original intent of our country. The less we incorporate religion into our laws, the less law we can actually have.

Incorporating religion into law is a requirement for a country to have a moral base. To say religion and politics are two separate things is pure and utter stupidity. They are one in the same. Laws are based on morals, and morals have to come from somewhere. There is no such thing as a universal morality. In the wise words of Stanley Hudson from The Office, “Christmas is Christmas is Christmas is Christmas. Just give me plain-old-Baby-Jesus-lying-in-a-manger Christmas.”

A liberal view
from Paqui Toscano

I go to church every Sunday. I sing the hymns every Sunday and pray every day. I have been confirmed and play Christian music as I get ready to come to school in the morning. I consider myself a devout Christian.

I also am a huge proponent of strict separation of church and state. My fellow Flyer writer, and other conservatives, would have you believe that these two things are mutually exclusive. I, however, vehemently disagree.

The concept of separation of church and state is tricky enough as it is, let alone when Christmas season comes around – what is “constitutional” and “unconstitutional” becomes even more complicated. In what ways can cities, school teachers, principals, presidents, mayors and other officials reference Christmas? What can be displayed? More importantly, what can’t? These are the questions that plague our society when it comes to Christmas.

My feeling: little reference to Christmas can be made by government officials.

Since I’m essentially talking about a debate regarding the separation of church and state, it would remiss to not at least mention the Establishment and Free Exercise clauses of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Together, these two clauses read, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” These few words have been the cause of so much debate.

In the past, the Supreme Court has used the Establishment clause to strike down praying in public schools, the display of standalone statues of the Ten Commandments, and Nativity scenes with a clearly ecclesiastical message. I could not agree with their decisions more. Although strict constructionists may and do argue that the original intent of the framers was to prevent Congress from establishing a national religion, and thus, all other entanglements of church and state are completely constitutionally permissible, their logical fails to include basic common sense.

Teachers or principles who try to promote religion; judges who display the Ten Commandments in their Courtroom; crosses on government-owed property – what do conservatives think that this is doing?

It is by all accounts and purposes establishing a state-sanctioned religion. At the very least, this is clear promotion of a certain religion by the state. It is government action respecting a particular religion, thus, also trying to exert governmental influence on non-Christian citizens, in turn violating their right to practice their religion freely. Judges, government officials, teachers and principals who depend so much on religious texts are not following the rules of the school or Constitutional guidelines, which is one of the surest ways I know of fostering despotic command.

When it comes to Christmas, most “pious” conservative, Christians argue that because Christmas has become such a secularized holiday, that the normal rules governing separation of church and state don’t apply. To these people I ask, what happened to your faith? The word Christmas has “Christ” in it. How much more ecclesiastical can you get? To say that the word Christmas and celebration of Christmas doesn’t have religious value is a slam against Christianity.

With that being said, the next question is, how many references to Christianity can government officials or government employees, teachers, principals, mayors, presidents, judges, congressmen, and other state officials make? To start with, I say Christmas tree lightings with the mayor and Nativity scenes on government-owned property are definitely out.

To have a government-sponsored Christmas tree lighting is the very religious entanglement that the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment is trying to protect against. These are entanglements that can lead to state-sanctioned religions, if only unofficially. Now, that’s not to say that you can’t have a holiday tree lighting – that’s a perfectly acceptable secular version of the once inherently ecclesiastical in nature tradition. Those people who come that are Christian can assume that the tree before them is a Christmas tree – and since they’re Christian they can even call it that. Those in the audience who aren’t – well, they can just take in the moment and interpret the ceremony as a way to usher in the holiday season.

As far as Nativity scenes – they’re a definite no. No person in his right mind can argue that a Nativity scene can be interpreted as just a woman with a baby and a husband with some animals, and oh, what a pretty little display. It just simply doesn’t work like that. Nativity scenes, by their very nature, are religious. They depict a specific scene from the Bible and promote a very clearly ecclesiastical message. They must come down – there are no two ways about it.

Too often people ask, “Well, what if we put a menorah up, too?”

“Interesting question,” I reply, as I secretly think how that doesn’t solve anything. So now we have a menorah and a Nativity scene. It’s not an issue, necessarily, of what religions are included; it’s a matter of what religions are excluded. So if a Muslim comes up and wants to display a religious symbol, will the city also allow that? And a Hindu? And Buddhist? And a Sikh? Before you know it, the once-simple display is now a disorganized, fragmented display of random icons that no longer hold meaning. And of course you also have the atheists who don’t believe in anything – what do you do for them? If you really want to put something up, put Santa and his reindeer. I think that is secular enough, don’t you?

Within the school, things get even trickier. Holidaytrees in classrooms are OK; Santa is OK, without a doubt. (Who wants their classroom to not at least spread a little bit of the “holiday” joy?) Heck, if classes want to even put up something that says Merry Christmas, assuming that there are no Nativity scenes, I’m OK with that, too, since this specific classroom is a much more controlled setting than a public government square.

Here’s my rule of thumb – if you know people celebrate Christmas, say “Merry Christmas” to them. If you don’t, say “Happy Holidays.” In a way, people are getting too wrapped up in this whole idea of political correctness; on the other hand, it’s important in a civilized and accepting society to be cognizant of the fact that there are other religions besides yours out there. That’s why employees in stores should say “Happy Holidays,” unless the customer says to them first “Merry Christmas.” However, it’s important to note that store owners can tell their employees to say whatever they want – there are no Constitutional restrictions on non-government-owned property. The same applies for private citizens, teachers or government officials when they’re not at work – the First Amendment’s freedom of speech clause reigns supreme then.

The issue of holiday concerts may also come up – these are not, in my opinion, a violation of the Establishment clause. Often very religious messages are present in the music we play at Fairmont; however, it’s important to note that these songs or musical pieces are not being played for their religious value; they’re being performed for their performance value. As long as the focus of the piece is on performance and not the ecclesiastical message that the piece may project, than by all means play on. (I could never support a Constitutional doctrine that doesn’t letFairmont perform holiday concerts.)

I want to make it very clear that I am not trying to be a Scrooge – I like Christmas just as much as the next person. And I certainly don’t want schools to become places that are immune to the inherent happiness of the holiday season. But I also am not willing to let government-regulated places become puppets to promote religion as well – that cannot happen in a democracy. Too often people say that to support separation of church and state is to not be a Christian. Don’t ever fall into this trap, though. Jesus said to evangelize; I don’t remember anything about forcing people into believing something in the Bible.

That being said, Happy Holidays (and Merry Christmas, if you’re Christian). Enjoy your break.


14 Responses to “Face-off: Christmas in public places”

  1. Mary Kate MacLean on December 14th, 2011 7:58 am

    Might I wager a question? What on Earth is a “holiday” tree? As far as I know, the only holiday in America that involves any kind of tree is Christmas. In fact, the only other holiday with a tree I’ve heard of is in Carnaval in Peru. There may be more, but certainly not on December 25. Anyone in their right mind sees a tree decorated and thinks “Christmas tree,” especially if it has a star or angel on top. So, in order to avoid insulting anyone, I suggest that we drop the whole concept of any holiday! Instead we can have “festive coniferous trees” all winter. And even better, so if any moron thinks: tree … winter … Christmas! and is then insulted by the government’s obvious and insensitive preference toward a popular holiday, we can have “festive deciduous trees” all summer and fall! But so we don’t leave out our arid neighbors, “festive cacti!” “Festive bushes!” Oh, wait, not that last one. Someone might mistake it for the Burning Bush in Exodus and get insulted. Sorry.

  2. Dakota Miller on December 16th, 2011 7:14 am

    Mary Kate –

    One tree of sorts you may not have heard of is the Yule Tree. Back before the age of Christianization in Europe, the main religion for a lot of people was Druidism – you may know it now as Paganism, or Wicca, or a variety of things generally described as a “heathen” religion.

    This tradition was to decorate the evergreen trees that did not die like most other trees, and were considered sacred to the druids with all the things they wanted to see in the coming year – this year because of the Winter Solstice, which falls on the 22nd or 23rd of December each and every year. A quick Google search can confirm that.

    As a matter of fact, the modern tradition of bringing a tree to your home and decorating it spawns mostly from the traditions of pagan Scandanavia, in which the people would bring a tree inside of their home to give the tree elementals they found to be sacred guardians of the forest a warm place to stay in the arctic winters.

    While a lot of the traditions have lost their meaning (although the glass ornaments are of German origin, and don’t neccesarily have any meaning pertaining to the tree’s pagan origins), there are still many pagans who celebrate by decorating their Yule Trees – often with ornaments (such as birds, popcorn, pinecones, etcetera) that symbolize much in the pagan tradition.

    So while I do think that a lot of people see “Christmas Tree” when they see a big old pine tree covered in stuff, some people don’t. In fact, especially with a star on top – the stars, sun, and moon were some of the most sacred things to the Pagans.

    I hope that you enjoyed this little brief history lesson! (If you didn’t know, I’m agreeing with Paqui on this one.)

    A very, very happy Solstice to you! Or Yuletide, if you’d prefer.

    Maybe I should just stick to Happy Holidays…

  3. Mary Kate MacLean on December 17th, 2011 7:27 pm

    Don’t worry, Dakota, I’ve recently actually given an abbreviated version of that speech to one of my friends earlier this week. It just didn’t fit in with my sarcastic comment very well, as you can imagine. But it is an interesting history lesson. I, however, prefer to maintain the Christian sentiment on the hijacked date (and trees) of Christmas.

    Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

  4. Sarah Bennett on December 14th, 2011 9:38 pm

    You took the words right out of my mouth. I thoroughly agree with everything you say (except the part about stupidity was a bit rude). But anyway, you have my support!

    While I see where you’re coming from (mostly), I think that Nativity scenes or any other holiday decorations are just another way of expressing your opinion/beliefs. How is it unconstitutional to do that? Ease up, bro, and just enjoy whatever dang holiday you celebrate!

    Good job to both of you, Friends! Merry Christmas! (or whatever…)

  5. Paula Bennett on December 14th, 2011 10:01 pm

    Paqui – How can you say that the 1st Amendment only “reigns” when not on government property or a government-sanctioned activity? The 1st Amendment applies 24 hours per day. You are right. Jesus called me to evangelize. I will do that wherever and whenever I can, even though I am a public school teacher. I follow God’s law above all else (Matt. 28:19-20). Thank you for your opinion, but I will continue to answer students’ questions about the Bible (yes, they ask me) and I will continue to tell the history of Christmas (found in Luke) at Christmas time. THAT is constitutional, AND Jesus CALLED me to do it.

    Zach – It is interesting what you said about laws having a religious base. I never though of it that way … morals coming from religion and laws coming from morals … not sure I agree. I will have to think on that. Most other stuff, you are right on! Well-spoken.

  6. Paqui Toscano on December 19th, 2011 2:07 pm

    Mrs. Bennett:

    Thank you so much for taking the time to read Zach and my column! I really appreciate it! That being said, I want to just mention a few things. First, I just want to casually remind you that there are other components to the First Amendment that I think you may be overlooking besides just the Free Speech Clause. You can’t simplify the Constitution by saying that the Freedom of Speech Clause trumps the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses in all instances. Secondly, by your standard, should a doctor who works in a federal hospital or a hospital receiving federal funds be able to advocate abortions or try to make arrangements for such a procedure for his or her patients? Under the Reagan and Bush administrations, these doctors weren’t allowed to do so (the Global Gag Rule). Check it out on the Internet and the Supreme Court’s decision in Rust v. Sullivan (1991) for further verification. All I’m saying is by your standards, this gag rule is unconstitutional, too. Think about it — if teachers (government employees) have full reign to advocate whatever religious or political message they want to, why can’t federal doctors be able to do so as well? The answer is quite simple — when you agree to take a job for the government (i.e. the military, teaching, government doctors, etc.), there are certain restrictions on certain rights that you accept in order to preserve the rights of those you serve.

    Thank you again,

  7. Chanse Holsten on December 15th, 2011 1:36 pm

    I have to agree completely with Paqui. There are so many opportunities for Christians to celebrate Christmas in church and in their homes, and there is no need for cities to put up Nativity sets, especially when most Christians I know put one up in their own yard or their own home. I’m glad you are proud of your religious beliefs, but to put them on display in diverse cities with diverse religious beliefs is just rude. Celebrate your holiday, enjoy the season, but just don’t expect the rest of us to be too happy to hear about your religious ideals and see your symbols plastered all over our cities.

  8. Hannah K on December 20th, 2011 1:53 pm

    We need a “Like” button for these things. While I do think that people are too easily offended (generally speaking), to have symbols of Christmas in public places isn’t fair if other holidays and religions aren’t equally represented.

  9. Jilly Hall on December 16th, 2011 9:44 am

    Paqui, I couldn’t agree more! There are many times and places for people to celebrate “Christmas.” I’m Catholic, but I don’t think it is okay to rub your ideas into someone else’s face. Christmas in public places is exactly that. Instead of saying “Merry Christmas,” honestly, just say “Happy Holidays!” What is the real difference anyway? If you celebrate Christmas, you’ll translate it as “Merry Christmas,” and if you don’t, you’ll translate it another way.

    So, Happy Holidays.

  10. Brian on December 16th, 2011 11:06 am

    Both views are completely controversal; neither can be right. A debate like this will never end because (not being offensive) there’s one radical to another. I mean, you can’t completely disregard a person’s religion and its holidays/worships during these seasons, but on the other hand, when most of the holiday demographic is a certain believer, then it is the right for a store or other establishment to show what they believe in. Saying Merry Christmas or Happy Hanukah shouldn’t be viewed as slanderous but as a good tiding to you, and the knowledge to know they are just wishing you well.

  11. Noelle Loberg on December 18th, 2011 11:58 am

    While I agree that Nativity scenes are an obvious symbol to a certain religious holiday, I’m not sure the lights that wind around our trees and houses count towards a specific holiday. Although Christians may have adopted the custom of tree lighting and setting out scenes that portray things that happened in the Bible, I believe people may have adopted the tree lighting simply for the fun of it. So when we set up our tree, I’m not really setting my heart to a religious standing, however, simply enjoying the yearly tradition. I like to see a pine tree with beautiful ornaments (some homemade and others store-bought), and I like to grace it with lights.

    If I drive by the hospital with lit-up trees and possibly an angel or two here and there, I’m not insulted just because I am not Christian. Since Christmas is a Christian holiday, the decorations are expected. However, if I say ‘Happy Holidays’ don’t get insulted just because I didn’t use the word Christmas. I don’t care honestly if you’re Christian. And I don’t care that I’m not. I’m not insulted when you say Merry Christmas to me, so why should you be insulted if I don’t?

  12. Hannah K on December 20th, 2011 1:56 pm

    I’d like to respond to Mrs Bennett’s comment — very respectfully — about teaching elementary school kids about Christianity. It’s great to be passionate about your opinions, but I simply don’t agree with a public school teacher using classtime to talk to students about any single religion. If they have a question, then sure, answer it. But lessons about religion should be left to parents or private school teachers. If you really feel the need to preach in class, at least expose the kids to all kinds of belief systems instead of just filling their heads with yours.

  13. Corinn Herrick on January 1st, 2012 8:36 pm

    Haha — this is a little bit late, but it’s break still and this is a bit of a pet peeve of mine. So here goes:

    First of all, coming from personal experience, there is absolutely NOTHING wrong with saying “Merry Christmas.” Usually if someone wishes me a Merry Christmas, I just smile at them and say “you, too.” Typically such statements are made in good faith and there is no way for someone I’ve never met to know that I don’t happen to celebrate the holiday. Sometimes a friend will wish me “Merry Christmas” and then realize 5 minutes into the conversation that I’m not Christian and be really worried that they’ve somehow offended me by their greeting. If you’re ever in a similar position with someone, don’t worry about it! I don’t know many non-Christians who are really offended by a harmless holiday greeting. I am always very grateful when someone wishes me a Happy Chanukah because I appreciate their thoughtfulness, but in the end, it is the thought that counts more than the actual words.

    I do think government-sponsored Nativity scenes take it a bit too far, however. Nativity scenes are not secular symbols like Christmas trees and they alienate those who are not Christian. Personally, I feel especially uncomfortable when I see Nativity scenes in classrooms. In the same way, Holiday Concerts in schools that play religious music (i.e., Silent Night or other more religious Christmas songs) step over the line.

    Religious expression is a vital part of human existence and all should be able to fully and freely share their beliefs with the world. However, we must all be careful not to infringe on others’ rights to the same practice. Government officials can put up a Nativity scene in their own yards instead of in public places. Holiday concerts can have secular songs (like Jingle Bells or Walking in a Winter Wonderland), like the Fairmont music programs did this year or can feature songs from other cultures besides American Christmas music to educate the student body on other cultures. So long as we are sensible as a community and as a nation, there is no reason for anyone to feel offended or ostracized. Be sensitive, be respectful, but most of all, enjoy the season! :)

  14. Caroline on January 19th, 2012 8:34 am

    Good job, Paqui! I can’t agree more. While I don’t particularly mind if somebody says “Merry Christmas” to me, I try not to say it to others I know are not Christian. On that note, I’M SORRY, CORINN! I didn’t mean to say “Merry Christmas” to you right before break. I was tired and not thinking.

    As for government-sanctioned religious displays, such as Nativity scenes, crosses, and the Ten Commandments, I agree with Corinn’s view that they just are too prominently one religion. I don’t have anything against Christianity; I just don’t believe that the government should or may prefer one religion over another. While some believe that not allowing government workers to express their religion is “unconstitutional due to freedom of religion,” they should realize that nobody is suppressing their right to pray or go to church. We’re just asking them to show some tact to others and worship when they aren’t in a position of power.

    Now, some questions for you, Mrs. Bennett. You say you’re fine with advocating Christian ideals to your classroom of young, impressionable children. Would you be OK if your children had an elementary school teacher who was a neo-atheist and bashed on Christianity? Would you still consider that freedom of religion? And have you ever considered the feelings of any non-Christian students you have? Humans can be very cruel; your actions could be causing bullying to your non-Christian students. Any differences between the majority and minority can lead to prejudice; just look at the blatant racism that sadly still thrives across the planet.

    And a question for Zach: You say a person’s morals come from their religion. Yet, I don’t see that a lot in reality. It’s not the agnostics or atheists who wage crusades or force women to cover their faces their whole life or commit hate crimes against homosexuals or bomb towers to make religions points. And don’t argue that these criminals were not real Christians or Muslims or Jews or pagans. If that argument were valid, then Churches, Temples, and Mosques could never accept responsibility for any crimes their employees commit because these employees “weren’t really Christian/Jewish/Muslim/whatever.” And yes, I know these criminals were radicals. That doesn’t change the fact that their religion was a driving force that caused them to do what they did.

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Face-off: Christmas in public places