By John Compere
Our American winter holiday season begins and ends with secular holidays (Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day). In between are various secular, sectarian, ethnic, cultural and regional celebrations. They are merging, yet different, American holiday traditions.
Our winter holidays become the season of peace and goodwill when they are inclusive of all traditions and not exclusive for any one tradition.
Peace and goodwill are also the principles proclaimed by one of the popular songs of the holiday season. There will be “peace on Earth and goodwill to men,” women and children when we respect other traditions and reject the badwill of those who arrogantly claim their tradition is the exclusive reason for the season.
The inclusive secular celebration for all choosing to participate can involve Santa Claus, elves, Rudolph and other flying reindeer, sleighs with bells, gift giving, snowmen/women, fireplace stockings, decorative trees, poinsettias, mistletoe, holly, eggnog, candy canes, caroling, the Grinch, holiday cheer and much more.
The exclusive sectarian celebrations are for those practicing a particular religion. Christianity, for example, commemorates the fictitious birth date of a Jewish figure from the ancient Middle East. Christian biblical scripture also blesses and encourages peacemaking (Matthew 5:9; Romans 14:19; James 3:18). It is important to note that less than 50 percent of Americans belong to a church, synagogue or mosque (Gallup poll).
“Season’s greetings” and “Happy holidays” refer to the entire festive period and all traditions. “Merry Christmas” refers to one day (Dec. 25) and one tradition. The word “Christmas” comes from Greek, Latin and Hebrew translations of “Christ’s mass,” which is an exclusive ritual of one religious denomination.
American colonists (Puritans, Congregationalists, Quakers, Methodists, Baptists, et. al.) opposed celebrating Christmas because it was a sectarian ceremony of the Roman Catholic Church. Southern states were the first to begin celebrating Dec. 25 with feasting, drinking, dancing, gambling, hunting, fishing and socializing. It later became an American public holiday at the initiation of banks and businesses and is our biggest commercial holiday.
Yuletide celebrations and decorated trees originated with pagan winter festivals of Germanic people in early Europe. Neither are mentioned in religious scripture.
Saint Nicholas was a gift giver to children and a fourth-century Eastern Orthodox bishop in Asia. His Dec. 6 festival day was a European holiday dedicated to children. He was recreated in America as our secular Santa Claus and the date changed to Dec. 25, becoming the genesis for our secular gift-giving tradition.
The day, month or year of Jesus’ birth is not known. It was celebrated at different times for 300 years until a fourth-century Catholic pope arbitrarily set it on Dec. 25 to compete with the popular pagan winter solstice festival celebrated throughout Europe. There is not just one birth story, but three contradictory birth versions (Matthew 1-2; Luke 1-2; Revelation 12). All were compiled from oral stories (hearsay) and written in ancient Greek by different anonymous and non-eyewitness authors long after Jesus reportedly lived. They cannot be reconciled when compared.
The term “Xmas” is not sacrilegious, does not replace Christ with an English “X” and does not remove Christ from Christmas. Those who claim otherwise display ignorance of Christian history. “Xmas” originated in the early Christian church as an acceptable abbreviation for Christmas because the New Testament was written in ancient Greek and its letter for Christ was “X.” The Greek letter “X” is deeply rooted in Christianity and has been used as a sacred Christ symbol for centuries.
The historic facts about our winter holiday season provide an important perspective. “Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored,” as English philosopher and writer Aldous Huxley perceptively penned.
Respect for all Americans and their traditions fosters peace and goodwill. Peacemakers and Goodwillers care about others, welcome different holiday traditions, keep personal beliefs in perspective and accept human diversity. Peacebreakers and Badwillers do not. More respectful inclusiveness and less disrespectful exclusiveness will ensure peace and goodwill for all during this winter holiday season.
“So many gods, so many creeds,
So many paths that wind and wind,
While just the art of being kind
Is all this sad world needs.”
— Ella Wheeler Wilson
FFRF Member John Compere is a retired lawyer, retired judge and Texas rancher.