A Holly Jolly War

Well, Thanksgiving has come and gone yet again.

Damn! Where does the time go?

I don’t know, but apparently it has in fact been a year since the last time someone in the US began crying about the fate of Christmas. This holiday jewel seems to raise its head in this country shortly after Thanksgiving without fail, and this year is no exception. Senator Chris Buttars wants Utah’s Legislature to declare its opposition to the “war on Christmas”. He’s sponsoring a resolution encouraging retailers to embrace Christmas in their promotions rather than the generic “holidays”.

This is nothing new. Every year, a handful of good Christians get a spiny, crawly, pinchy bug up their asses when the word “Christmas” is removed from greeting cards, decorations, and the odd party title. They soil themselves with indignation when government offices use an inclusive phrase like “Happy Holidays” instead of the more Christian-centric “Merry Christmas”. They loose paranoid assertions that Christmas is being secularized, or worse that there is a war on Christmas, lamenting that Christ is being systematically removed from the season.

It’s becoming more and more difficult to tune them out. Their incessant babbling has somehow disabled my higher Ignore functions — and damn it, I have a lot of holiday parties to attend.

You know, it would be one thing if they actually knew when Mary delivered the little baby Jesus onto the hay. At least that way, the holiday could commemorate a recorded event, like D-Day or Al Roker’s birthday. I could almost get behind that. Almost.

But the reality is, no one knows the actual date, if there even was one, and those involved with church doctrine even fight amongst themselves about when the kid came into the world. The date for Christmas Day was set arbitrarily — or as some speculate, derived from Saturnalia, the Roman heathens’ wintertime celebration — yet they get all twitchy and whiny when an entire season does not focus solely on their god-baby.

The US government has been a hair’s breadth from being a Christian theocracy during the Bush administration. Sensible people constantly have to speak out so fundamentalist representatives don’t force their children to learn the creation myth as a science. Religious folk have pointed at billboards and signs on buses showing support for a minority viewpoint as examples of hate speech. And now this! Are they so insecure in their faith that they need everyone else to affirm it 100% of the time? Does Jesus’ name have to be on everything in their myopic little world?

As I said, the date for Christmas was set arbitrarily, and since this vocal collection of Christians has got nothing factual on which to base the name of the season, they point instead to tradition; insisting that Christmas pageantry has always been deeply ingrained in American culture. Some go as far as to say that the nation was founded on principles of Christianity, and therefore removing references to Christ from the time period between Thanksgiving Day and New Years Day is an attack on the American way of life.

Jesus Christ Almighty, is there one action that a person can take these days without someone calling him or her unpatriotic? How about if I stand on the corner blinking? Do the terrorists win?

Forget for a minute the innocuousness of saying “Happy Holidays” or “Season’s Greetings” instead of “Merry Christmas”. It’s such a mundane, inane, silly, and inconsequential thing that it makes my hair hurt. But when anyone tries to reinvent history to further an agenda, my other body parts not only hurt, but they begin to spasm.

To say Christmas as we know it is a longstanding American tradition is a dubious assertion at best, and most probably, absolutely wrong. Take the following as evidence:

For preventing disorders, arising in several places within this jurisdiction by reason of some still observing such festivals as were superstitiously kept in other communities, to the great dishonor of God and offense of others: it is therefore ordered by this court and the authority thereof that whosoever shall be found observing any such day as Christmas or the like, either by forbearing of labor, feasting, or any other way, upon any such account as aforesaid, every such person so offending shall pay for every such offence five shilling as a fine to the county.

– From the records of the General Court, Massachusetts Bay Colony, May 11, 1659.

Examining the Puritan mindset, we see that Christmas wasn’t that important to them. In fact, it seems it was even criminal.

And we also see that Christmas was hardly a chief concern of the Pilgrims.

At anchor in Plymouth harbor; Christmas Day, but not observed by these colonists, they being opposed to all saints’ days….A large party went ashore this morning to fell timber and begin building. They began to erect the first house about twenty feet square for their common use, to receive them and their goods….No man rested all that day.

– Ship’s log of the Mayflower.

The Pilgrims got off the ship on Christmas Day and they worked. It doesn’t seem like it was all that important to them either.

“But wait,” you say. “Maybe Christmas became more important around the time the new nation was conceived.”

Nope. Sorry.

The founding fathers of the United States, where some of them may have been Christian, adhered to differing spiritual philosophies; many were deists and even some were atheists. I know folks in the Bible Belt don’t like to hear that, and they will deny it until Gabriel blows his horn, or until Jesus rides a golden surfboard into the halftime show at the Super Bowl, or until someone tells me to have a blessed day and I actually have one. And that’s fine, as long as they keep their ignorance to themselves. But the next time they want to force feed the whole world their mythology, I suggest they pick up a book and learn a little bit before they open their self-righteous cake holes.

The founding fathers, despite their personal spiritual backgrounds, conceived some brilliant secular ideas. And they believed in them so much that they even wrote them into law. And you know what? Anyone can read those laws. They’re contained in a document we Americans call the Constitution. And if you look at the very first amendment to the Constitution, it says that it’s a pretty good idea to have a separation of church and state.

So given that, either this country was not founded on Christian principles, or the framers of Constitution were idiots, and should have turned the nation over to the church and had themselves some Christmas wassail.

Which is it?

Well before you answer, consider this as well: Christmas wasn’t recognized by the federal government as a national holiday until 1870.

Were the founding fathers still around in 1870? Do we consider resolutions passed a hundred years after our nation was born to be the foundations upon which our country was built? Roe v. Wade was decided almost two hundred years after our nation was born. Is that also part of the foundations upon which our country was built?

Stop lying. Stop telling me the country was founded on Christian principles. Hell, Christmas isn’t even based on Christian traditions.

As pagans were converted in Europe, many of their traditions were adopted by the conquering Christians. For example, pagans in Scandinavia, along with Jews, already celebrated something at that time of the year, so they just went on as usual once converted, and soon those bits and pieces became Christmas traditions. Christianity borrowed repeatedly from other sources for its Christmas celebration. Christmas as we know it in America was on uncertain ground for a long time.

Even the Christmas tree had a rough start in the US:

The Christmas tree first made its appearance in America in the middle of the 18th century, thanks to German immigrants. But a hundred years later it was still rare. In 1851 a Cleveland, Ohio reverend who had recently emigrated from Germany put up a Christmas tree in his local church. He was roundly condemned. Nobody before had ever put up a Christmas tree in an American church. Victorians in the latter half of the 19th century slowly began adopting the German tradition, but the Christmas tree remained controversial. In the 1880s the New York Times editorialized against the Christmas tree. When Teddy Roosevelt became president he denounced the practice of cutting down trees for Christmas. Good conservationist that he was, he declared the practice a waste of timber.

So the whole idea of Christmas being an American tradition ingrained in our culture from the outset just doesn’t hold water. It has always been a work in progress, and saying “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” is just part of that progress.

And removing Christ from the season is not going to hurt the Christian church. There will always be other endeavors in which to insert Christ’s name, and plenty of people to do it. History bears that out over and over again.

Look, if you want to focus on the birth of a baby during the holidays, fine. Knock yourself out. You have that right. But if you feel that something you think you started has been taken from you and perverted, that Christmas is becoming secularized, you’re just going to have to get over it.

The holiday is public now. It’s not just a few farmers in a church anymore. It’s national. It’s big business. There is a more diverse shareholder base, it is publicly owned, and the public is not solely Christian. It can experiment with Christmas all it wants.

Hey, the good news is, if there’s more to be gained from having a baby at the center of the holiday, that trend will return. Free enterprise will see to that.

So stop whining and complaining that there’a war on Christmas or that it has been stolen, and enjoy your days off from work. Sleep in. Get drunk. Eat too much food. Play with your kids. Say your prayers, if that’s what you do. Just remember, there is no war on Christmas. Christmas hasn’t been stolen — it’s been improved.

Sam Ogden

Sam Ogden is a writer, beach bum, and songwriter living in Houston, Texas, but he may be found scratching himself at many points across the globe. Follow him on Twitter @SamOgden

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  1. So, the war on Christmas is as imaginary as the best friend of the people who believe in that war.

    Anyway, Christmas stopped being are religious holiday a long time ago. It is really a commercial holiday. I find it amusing that the fundies are so concerned about preserving a holiday that has become focused on greed.

    Oh, and why are they not concerned about putting the MASS back in Christmas?

  2. I love how “we no longer have a monopoly on winter holidays in the U.S.” somehow becomes “war on Christmas.” As though every time I say “happy holidays,” I’m firing mortars at the North Pole, or tying Santa to a tree and beating him with a lit menorah. Meanwhile, the faux-pine branches, ornaments and Christmas musak are appearing in most public places before Halloween. Grr.

  3. [claps hands] You’ve pretty much outlined why I find Christmas so frustrating and stressful and why I don’t like it. It’s not that I’m a Scrooge, it’s not that I’m a stick in the mud atheist, it’s that I don’t like it taking up 1/6 of my life (i.e., November 1 to December 31 EVERY YEAR) and then being accused of being “at war” with the people who do celebrate it just because I think that’s excessive.

  4. How about if I stand on the corner blinking? Do the terrorists win?

    Well of course they do. Not only does it show fear but you are obviously transmitting secret messages that alert the terrorists to locations that still honor christ by using christmas so that the terrorists can then sneak in after hours and change all of the signs to read “Happy Holidays”.


  5. Christmas has always been a secular holiday for me because that’s how I grew up with it, so the whole “war on Christmas” thing has always bugged the hell out of me. I don’t force you to spend time with my family and you don’t force me to go to church and sing hosannas. Bleh.

  6. To borrow the words of Krusty the Clown: “Have a Merry Christmas, a Happy Hanukkah, a Krazy Kwanza, a Tip-Top Tet and a Very Solemn Ramadan!”

    Hmmm… I think Happy Holidays is much easier to say.

  7. Here, here, equal time for Hanukkah zombie, and Kwanzaabot!

    @Kimbo Jones: exactly I’ve been saying the samething for twentyfour years.

    Last year when a coworker made a snide comment about someone else saying “Happy Holidays” I quoted I think it was George Carlin that said “Happy kill a tree for Christ day!”

  8. Oh, Chris Buttars. Is there no ridiculousness that you won’t get behind? To those us us here in Utah, Buttars is an endless source of entertainment/horror/frustration. Glad to see you make the news on yet another inanity, Chris! Keep it up! Maybe you’ll be a national senator one day! [shudders in horror at the very thought]

    As for the war on X-mas… I really really want to get all fired up about it, talk about how ridiculous it all is. And it is ridiculous… But I just fond myself not caring.

  9. It seems like not everybody who wants to use “Merry Christmas” is a Christian. Some people simply do not like using “Happy Holidays” because of an aversion to political correctness. I too am averse to political correctness in various forms, but in recognition of the fact that we have clients who are of various views on this issue (the “Merry Christmas” v. “Happy Holidays” debate), my firm sends the annual “Happy Thanksgiving” card instead and avoids it altogether.

  10. “The War on Christmas” sounds like something Rush Limbaugh would machinate.

    Where have people been protesting or maligning Christmas? It seems to me that the ones waging war are the ones who are saying there’s a war against it, imaginary as that war it.

    Most of the people I’ve known are either not religious or only somewhat religious. We celebrate the holiday more for the passing of the winter solstice and shortest days of the year than anything else. That’s enough reason for me to be all for a celebration.

  11. @Sam Ogden:

    That PROVES you’re working with The Terrorists!

    1) The best encryption methods are the ones that make the encrypted message look random
    2) Your blinking appears random
    3) Nobody encrypts anything unless it’s to send it to The Terrorists
    4) You’re transmitting messages to The Terrorists.

  12. Having spent far too many years with my butt in a pew watching horrible, vapid Christmas Pageants, I’m thinking there’s an ulterior motive here.

    Sure the scripting of the average church pageant is awful. Sure the acting is nonexistent. At best the music is an off-key rip-off of Handel. But if you convince churchgoers that attending these offenses against entertainment is somehow a subversive, rebellious act against the atheist hordes, well then they can get all indignant and proud about participating in Christmas traditions.

    Too Cynical?

  13. I live in West Jordan, Utah, and this guy is my representative. Puke. I really don’t get the idea that if someone, somewhere disagrees with you, then you’re being persecuted. If Wal-Mart decides to say Happy Holidays, then Christmas is under attack. Gimme a break. Is it really so horrible to acknowledge the fact that not everyone celebrates the same holidays, and to try to be considerate?

    The persecution complex is huge here in Utah. The irony runs thick when my Mormon neighbors talk about how they’re being “singled out” and “having their right to free speech taken away” by Prop 8 opponents, for example. They keep using that phrase, “free speech”. I don’t think it means what they think it means.

    Here’s an idea. Instead of passing resolutions encouraging the use of “Merry Christmas” because this is allegedly a “Christian nation”, why don’t we try making no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof?

  14. @Saganist:

    I’d be interested in hearing about some of the other bits of contraversy Buttars is involved in.

    By the way . . . .

    They keep using that phrase, “free speech”. I don’t think it means what they think it means.

    Is that a hat tip to “The Princess Bride”?

  15. @Sam Ogden:
    Where to start? Buttars wrote a bill (which was defeated) that would have added taught criticism of evolution and brought “divine design” (Buttars’ own terminology) into the public school science classroom.

    Buttars was instrumental in the passage of Prop. 3, which defined marriage 1 man, 1 woman, plus has worked tirelessly against gay rights.

    Plus as an added bonus, he’s a horrible racist, saying that Brown v. Board of Education was “wrong to begin with” and state that he didn’t know of any legislation that was ever biased against a minority group.

    Once, in describing a bill he didn’t like, Buttars said “this baby is black. It is a dark, ugly thing.” Then, for extra irony, when he started getting criticized by outraged masses for saying that, he said he was the target of a “hate lynch mob.”

    He’s a real cutie.

  16. @Saganist:
    Saganist, you should come to the first Salt Lake City Skeptics in the Pub on the 17th at Piper Down!

    I’m pimping this thing everywhere I go, and so far we have about 20 who have RSVPed saying they’ll come!

    No guest speaker this time around, but I have someone cool on track for March and a potential VERY special guest slated for February. Come join us!

  17. During the Christmas season I thank god for my mp3 player so on those rare occasions when I do visit a store I can screen out the awful music. While grocery shopping last weekend I was rocking out to the SGU and Dan Savage. My holidays are much merrier now.

  18. “a spiny, crawly, pinchy bug up their ass”? Ooooo!
    “my body parts begin to spasm”?
    Oh My!
    Sammy, you kinky little devil you!
    I didnt know you had it in you…
    Sorry, but it was there, I had to use it :o)

  19. @Knurl:

    “The War on Christmas” sounds like something Rush Limbaugh would machinate.

    You’re not far off. I’m pretty sure the conservative pundits on Fox News coined the phrase 3 or 4 years ago.

  20. I get really aggravated about this, because I don’t buy the argument that ” Xmas trees and Santa are secular.” Bullshit.

    My university–a STATE institution–puts up holiday lights. and we have one of the largest Muslim populations in the US, and 10% international students enrolled.

    It makes me really annoyed that we are forcing christian holidays on everyone (and paying big light bills to boot, when a 20% budget cut is expected in 2009, and we have raised tuition 3 times in 3 years.)


  21. @davew: Totally agreed. This is my first year in south Florida, and they started the music BEFORE THANKSGIVING!!!!! WTF?!!!!! In Phoenix it wasn’t this bad. I ignore the commercial bullshit, but it caught me off guard.

  22. @greenishblu: Thanks, I’ve got it on my calendar now! And subscribed to the blog feed too. I didn’t know there were other skeptics in Utah! I actually have some ex-Mormon and closeted-skeptic Mormon friends who I’m sure would also love to show up, so I’ll pass it on.

    Re Buttars, there were “Go Chris!” signs plastered all over my neighborhood the week before the election. It was pretty sickening. I’m amazed at how consistently embarrassing Utah’s legislative representatives are.

    @Sam Ogden: Yeah, I just watched The Princess Bride a few days ago because it had been nearly six months since I saw it last. If all my conversations didn’t consist mostly of Princess Bride quotes before then, they sure do now.

  23. @Knurl: They started the music here on 1 November. I went and did some last minute Halloween things for my costume, and it was actually difficult to find candy and costume bits because they had been taken down and replace with Christmas candy and decorations. 1 NOV!

  24. I was happier at the end of this last election than any previous election I have participated in. Barack won. I actually voted for a winning state legislature candidate.

    But Buttar’s close win brought me down a bit. The man is a serious joke and makes me more embarassed than usual to be living in Utah.

    Luckily, I live in Holladay where at least we elect Democrats. I did wish I could move to West Jordan, just for election day, just to vote against that yahoo.

    Thanks for describing Buttar’s ridiculousness. Now I don’t have to. The less I think about it the better.

    There’s one thing that makes it hard for Buttars to be like a Texas rep. Around here the school board doesn’t agree with his ‘both sides oughtta be properly taught’ nonsense.

  25. @bug_girl: The SUNY College I graduated from was definitely secular (population today 10,000+). It also had a large international population as well as a large non-christian population. The college did put up colorful lights. But through the student activity fee, everybody had a chance to “do their own thing”. Yes, the college footed the bill for the lights.

    Something to consider, maybe, is that all known cultures have had a festival this time of year (winter). It’s not a bad idea at all. Even in south Florida the short days get to you. In western NY I really did do quite badly this time of year.

    Decorations such as a wreath, tree, lights, have nothing to do with the church. Sam pointed out where the tree came from. I can tell you for sure that when you’ve got a few feet of snow outside that a tree inside boosts how you feel. And as I said in a previous comment, I never knew anyone (except my parents) that took the religious angle seriously.

  26. Saganist:

    Chris Butters, he can fuss.

    Fuss, fuss … I think he likes to scream at us.

    Probably he means no harm.

    … He is very short on charm.

    It actually wasn’t until I started reading American blogs that I realised that Christmas was still considered a religious thing in many parts of the world. In New Zealand the whole thing has become pretty thoroughly secular. Most of my family are atheists and we celebrate every year (and as I’ve noted before we don’t discuss religion in family groupings). The trappings of Christmas just seem traditional rather than particularly Christian to me. Of course I realise this is not true for other people and no doubt I would feel differently if I lived in a less secular country.

  27. It’s Yule. As a kid I was always perplexed by the use of conifers and pork in celebration of the birth of a middle-eastern-born jew. Solstice is something to celebrate. Up with Yule!

  28. @Kimbo Jones: It was the same here in New Orleans. The very day after Halloween, all the stores had Christmas decorations up and music playing. It’s all very grating.

    I say, go ahead and keep Christ in Christmas. It’s why I don’t celebrate.

  29. The day before Thanksgiving, I spent 12 hours in an alcove in a hotel hallway. (No, not because I’m homeless, jerkface. This was work!) Less than two feet above my head was a speaker. From this speaker came hours upon hours of Lawrence Welk-ish Christmas music. I never heard the same version of a given song twice, but after about the 15th rendition of Little Drummer Boy, I was at my breaking point.

    BUT THEN, about 8 hours into this, suddenly it was smooth jazz Christmas song…

    The more I think back on this event, the more I wish to rescind my comment above I DO care about the war on Christmas, and want to enlist.

  30. I don’t really care about the christian theme, the same way I’m not bothered if a party is zombie themed or viking themed (I have good costumes for both). I guess maybe it’s a British thing where we get exposed to religion at a young age, but no one tends to care too much. In fact, a religious kid is more likely to be mocked than an atheist. Frankly, our work christmas party will feature myself (atheist) and my friend (muslim) dressed as two of the three kings and dancing to reggae, while drinking lots of free booze. I’ll be drinking, he won’t obviously, but it means someone can guide me into town when we all move to a club.

  31. Eh…I just despise the whole winter holiday nonsense. My reason is twofold:
    My first Christmas was when I was 8. My grandparents were Jehovah’s Witnesses and they lived with us. In deference, we had a Witness household. My grandma died when I was 8 so my mom took advantage of the situation and we had Christmas. (Yes, my mom and grandma hated one another. Not that it was obvious.)
    I got to do all the usual crap for many years and then my interest waned. I always hated the music, didn’t like to decorate and never had money to buy gifts and hated being made to feel bad for being poor. (I was trying to live on $30 a week when I first moved out.)

    #2 explanation: I have worked in retail since I was 16. If you were prone to take up drinking as a hobby before because of your crappy job, the holidays push you right over the edge.
    I’ve seen some of the most appalling behavior from co-workers to customers and vice versa. Supposedly, this is a time of goodwill and kindness, right? Not so effin’ much.

    So that’s soured me on the whole shebang.

    P.S. to Senator Buttars: I am on the front line in the war on Christmas. I do not offer any holiday greeting and now that I work for a small company, there’s no holiday music played during my shifts. Just NPR and Eurovision.
    I’m so evil, I subject people to bad European pop music. Be grateful that I leave the black/death/thrash metal at home.

  32. I like what parts of Christmas I choose to partake in with my friends and family. Being bothered by anything outside that seems a waste of time and energy. Kinda like being bothered by Halloween trick or treating…, who cares and fine if you want to, I don’t. And I don’t do stores and shopping much for the holidays except food and alcohol.

    Small bone to pick with Sam regarding his assertion that just because the Puritans and many early European immigrants and settlers didn’t celebrate Christmas, ergo Christmas celebrations are not historically American. Christmas traditions in European countries go back many centuries and of course many are often descendent of pagan religious practices. However as people emigrated to the US they brought their traditions with them that their families had been practicing for countless generations in the old country. Folk didn’t tell the Puritans about their holiday celebrations back in the 1600’s because they knew the nasty wack jobs might put them in the stocks for having some fun. And lets be real about how much celebrating most Americans could afford in the preindustrial economy. Mass media and advertisement has made Christmas what it is now.

    One thing to remember about many “Christian” feast days and celebrations historically was that it was an opportunity for regular folk to have some fun and loosen up a bit with the church turning a blind eye. So perhaps we could make Christmas a remembrance of common folk having a rousing good time and thumbing their noses at the uptight, anal celibate priests. And now we can celebrate the freedom to have good cheer and a feast whenever we can afford it.

  33. I can’t resist:

    Anyone wishing to wish Senator Buttars a “Happy Holidays” or “Merry Squidmas” can send their Season’s Greetings cards to:

    Chris and Helen Buttars
    9241 Lisa Ave
    West Jordan, UT 84088-8535

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