Christmas and Christianity

James Q. Wilson has an interesting essay in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal on the subject of “Christmas and Christianity.”

Americans are buying Christmas gifts at a record rate and competing to see who among us can string the most lights and decorations on their suburban homes. Lots of people send out Christmas cards that make no mention of Christmas and contain, not a personally signed note, but a printed name. Meanwhile, virtually every business firm announces to its friends and customers that they should have, not a Merry Christmas, but a Happy Holiday or enjoy Season’s Greetings.


Those who are alarmed by the extent of religious belief in this country have roused themselves to make the so-called wall of separation between church and state both higher and firmer. In insisting that we describe our late December holiday as having nothing to do with the birth of Jesus, in fighting to keep every nativity scene away from any government property, by arguing that our freedoms will be compromised by any reference to Christianity, they have succeeded only in intensifying religious beliefs among the great majority of our people who are angered by these assaults.

They would be well advised to let matters alone. We have been a free country even though “In God We Trust” is printed on our dollar bills, even though sessions of Congress begin with a prayer, and even though chaplains paid for by our tax dollars are part of our military forces. Our freedom does not depend on eliminating these acknowledgments of the power of religion; it relies instead on the fact that for many generations we have embraced a secular government operating in a religious culture. That embrace will be weakened, not strengthened, by silly attacks on religiosity, stimulating the spiritual to question the seriousness of people who profess a concern for civil liberties.

Our Christmas buying habits are a sign, not of materialism, but of ordinary commercial activity undertaken in pursuit of profound human sentiments. The Pope said that the message of the Christmas tree is that “life is evergreen.” It symbolizes giving, not simply or even chiefly material things, “but the gift of yourself.” We acknowledge the importance of family and friends and draw the ties among us a bit tighter by using gifts to highlight the value we attach to others. Most of us do not seek to enrich others with our presents but to make evident the strength of our affections.

A reasonable assessment, I think. As a non-believer, I find some of the religious pageantry around the holidays annoying–athough not as much so as the traffic, the crowds, and the delays at the airports. The hostility and intolerance of the minority for the traditions and sensibilities of the vast majority of the American population, though, is more troubling than whatever damage being wished a “Merry Christmas” is supposed to inflict.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.