12/19/2010—I have a lot of sympathy for the complaint by Catholic League President William Donohue last week that Boca Raton was discriminating against Christians by buying menorahs and displaying them in public buildings without displaying manger scenes (story here). Lawyers recognize that Boca Raton was attempting to comply with a 1989 United States Supreme Court ruling from Pittsburgh that banned a manger but allowed a Christmas tree, a menorah and a sign saluting religious liberty (Boca Raton did not want to be that serious so its sign said Seasons Greetings). Donahue pointed out that the menorah is a religious symbol. So presumably if Boca Raton wanted nonreligious symbols, it should have displayed dreidels along with the Christmas tree.
What is going on here is a cultural shift in which Christmas is increasingly becoming a “season” and a holiday independent of its origin as a celebration of the birth of Christ, the savior of all people. Many nonChristians put up Christmas trees and many nominal Christians do also, even though they don’t believe much of the Christian story anymore. We can see the shift in miniature in the difference between A Charlie Brown Christmas, which debuted in 1965 and How the Grinch Stole Christmas, which debuted the next year, 1966.
Charlie Brown is serious Christianity. The birth of the savior is central and is highlighted by Linus’ reading from the Gospel of Luke. The message is anti-commercialization of Christmas.
In contrast, the story of the Grinch, though also deriding the commercialization of Christmas, implies that the meaning of Christmas is family and friendship. There is no mention of Christ in it.
Government wants the Grinch and not Charlie Brown. Or rather, government actually wants lots of commercialization for the sake of the economy, so government wants whatever will help that along.
Secularists don’t have to worry about these trends. They are ongoing. The happy time of the Christmas season is a gift from Christianity to an increasingly nonChristian society. We should be grateful. One way to say thank-you would be to stop carping about mangers. Next year, let’s have Christmas trees and menorahs and mangers and celebrations of Kwanzaa and the Eastern Orthodox Christmas and the solstice and, at the appropriate times, Islamic, Hindu and Buddhist celebrations also in public spaces. Let’s become a culture that shares all of its celebrations and does not worry about using symbols that are too meaningful.