Society’s Love-Hate Relationship with Christmas

December 19, 2005

Indiana Writers Group column for Dec. 21 and thereafter
735 words

by Andrea Neal

INDIANAPOLIS — If you could create a superholiday, what would it be? That was the “question of the week” posed recently by an Indy entertainment magazine that surveys staff members on trends and topics in the news.

The answers were predictably self-centered from the mostly 30-something respondents. “Combine Oktoberfest and Halloween. Trick or treat for beer,” joked one. “It would be a 31-day weekend spent celebrating ourselves. I think I’d call it January,” said another. One participant suggested “a holiday for agnostics called ‘I don’t know.’ ” Nobody mentioned Christmas, Easter or any other religious celebration.

Their objective, in all fairness, was to generate laughs, not dinner table conversation.

But the question has stuck in my mind as I have pondered the headlines of the 2005 holiday season. America has a superholiday now and it’s Christmas. (One-fifth of retail industry sales – 19.9 percent – occur during this season, making it the most important period of the year for that industry.)

But for a variety of reasons, most having to do with four decades of confusing jurisprudence from the U.S. Supreme Court, our culture is all mixed up about how to handle Christmas, both in the public square and private sector.

Conservatives accuse liberals of trying to take Christ out of Christmas. Liberals say conservatives are insensitive to people of different faiths.   

At Florida Gulf Coast University, a choir director pulled a song from its winter concert because it mentioned the word Christmas.  

In Washington D.C., House Speaker Dennis Hastert declared the Capitol holiday tree was once again a Christmas tree, after about a decade of going by its secular label.   

In the Georgia Legislature, a lawmaker filed a bill to protect public workers and public school students from being punished if they say "Merry Christmas" to each other, instead of "Happy Holidays.

And at Target, for the second year in a row, there were no bell ringers raising money for the Salvation Army.

Our schizophrenia over Christmas stems, in part, from genuine desire not to offend folks who don’t celebrate Jesus’ birthday as something special.   

But most of the blame can be laid at the steps of the Supreme Court, which in 1971 devised a highly subjective three-part test called the Lemon test for determining when some government practice violates the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause, which says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”   

The court has determined, for example, that a manger scene can’t be placed by itself on the town square, but will pass constitutional muster if accompanied by a plastic menagerie of candy canes, reindeer, Santa’s sleigh and a “Season’s Greetings” banner.

Our schizophrenia isn’t limited to Christmas. It extends to just about any reference to God or Christ in a non-church setting. Just last year, the Supreme Court prohibited framed displays of the Ten Commandments at two Kentucky courthouses while approving a 6-foot-tall granite monument on the grounds of the Texas Capitol. Talk about confusing.

Closer to home, consider U.S. District Judge David Hamilton’s recent ruling that preachers who are invited to give invocations at the Indiana General Assembly be instructed to “refrain from using Christ’s name or title.” You can pray, just don’t be religious about it.

On the face of it, Hamilton’s ruling was pure judicial activism – a judge trying to set the rules for another branch of government, and restricting the free speech of Christian pastors to boot. A careful reading of Hamilton’s opinion shows it was the only possible decision in light of confusing Supreme Court precedents.

The high court has allowed prayer to open legislative sessions. But, as Hamilton pointed out in a footnote, “the practice of any form of legislative prayer would probably not survive scrutiny” under the Lemon test. All of this was Hamilton’s polite way of telling the court, “Your precedents conflict.”

House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, announced last week that the state would appeal Hamilton’s decision. Far from being a waste of taxpayer resources, as some have suggested, this is a wise move that could eventually put the issue back before the Supreme Court. It’s high time that the justices cleaned up the mess caused by the Lemon test.

In the meantime, maybe all of us could lower our voices and practice the love we believe Christmas represents. No court decision, no choir director, no retail store policy can keep Christmas from being a super holy day for those who believe.

Andrea Neal, former editorial page editor of the Indianapolis Star, is adjunct scholar and columnist with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation. Contact her at


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