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The Twelfth Day of Christmas: A Response to Hitchens’ Essay on “Forced Merriment”

January 6, 2012
My grandmother considered herself lucky to have been born on January 6th, the twelfth day after Christmas, also known as Epiphany–a Christian feast day.  It is the day when Western Christians remember the tribute paid by the Magi to the Christ Child.  It also marks the traditional end of the Christmas season.  Some have been waiting for the holidays to end since Thanksgiving.  In Hitchens’ essay against the public celebration of Christmas (“Christopher Hitchens on Forced Merriment and the True Spirit of Christmas” published posthumously by the WSJ 12/24/11), the likeable curmudgeon raised several objections to yuletide customs and festivities.  But the basic premises–that Christmas is a fraud on believers, holds non-believers captive, results in “compulsory love,” and is unconstitutional in the public square–do not stand up to scrutiny.

1.  Is Christmas a Fraud?

Hitchens’ first assault on the season is an attempt to stir up people of faith to think that they have been duped into believing that the purpose of Christmas is to celebrate the birth of the “Dear Leader,” when in fact, it is a tribute to crass materialism and is an affront to people of faith.  He cites three reasons in support of this proposition: (1) The celebration of Christmas was banned by the Puritans, probably because it encouraged carousing; (2) The timing of Christmas is faulty: the year and month of Jesus’ birth are uncertain; and (3) Christmas customs may have pagan underpinnings.

These arguments miss the reason that believers celebrate Christmas: that God sent the gift of his Son to live on earth for a time, and to take the burden of our sins.  That is cause to celebrate!  The calendar month or year of Jesus’ birth, or whether some choose not to celebrate is irrelevant. It is also irrelevant that some of the season’s customs have pagan origins.  Jesus taught his followers to reach out to people wherever they are.  Paul, for one, opened dialogues with non-believers on common ground.  For example, in reaching out to the Athenians, he mentioned an altar with the inscription “to an unknown god” (Acts 17:23), tying it into his message.  Missionaries and preachers over the centuries have incorporated secular and pagan symbolism to reach non-believers, using it as a bridge to the Gospel.

2.  Holiday Captives?  

We are exposed to expressions of religious beliefs other than our own throughout the year, because we live in a country where many faiths are tolerated.  I am not Jewish, but the menorah in our Village Green (along with the Christmas tree) is as much a symbol of freedom as it is of the faith it represents.  I am grateful to live in a country where holiday music and symbols are permitted on private property, and to an extent, on public property.  No one who lives in America can seriously contend that it would be preferable to live in a country where the expression of all religious belief (except the state religion) is banned.  David Keyes recently opined that if “Jesus had been born in Saudi Arabia today, he’d likely be imprisoned, flogged or beheaded” (“Merry Christmas from Saudi Arabia,” WSJ, 12/29/11).

3. “Compulsory Love?”

“Compulsory love” is an oxymoron.  There is nothing compulsory about love, which springs naturally from an overflowing heart.  A gift given in the true spirit of Christmas, in gratitude for the love of God, family and friends, is never mandatory.   Whether the custom of giving to the less fortunate and exchanging gifts with family and friends during the holidays originated from pagan customs or from the example of the Magi is not relevant to the meaning ascribed to it today.  How can anyone begrudge all of the good accomplished by folks wishing to give to others during the holidays, or the joy of giving a gift to a loved one or friend?  Hitchens ignores the joyous eagerness of the repentant Scrooge to give generously. For believers, open, generous giving follows the example of God’s love for us and is the very heart of Christmas.

4. Public Religious Displays: Unconstitutional?

The notion that religious symbols are always unconstitutional when displayed on public property is simply not accurate.  While the “Christmas Wars” rage, and cases have been decided on both sides of this issue, the bottom line is that religious symbols are permitted in a variety of contexts on public property.  Appellate cases have upheld the display of nativity scenes and menorahs, particularly when displayed with other symbols of the season, such as Santa Claus and reindeer.  Even the liberal Ninth Circuit held that the City of San Diego did not violate the Establishment Clause in allowing a private group to erect a Biblical display during each holiday season in Balboa Park (Kreisner v. City of San Diego (9th Cir.1993 ) 1 F.3d 775).

May we carry the true spirit of Christmas with us in the coming months and give generously of ourselves and of our resources.

 Diane Cieslikowski Reagan

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