Brad Hirschfield Live: Should we fight Christmas before celebrating Thanksgiving?

Nov 21, 2012

The struggle over how, if at all, Christmas should be celebrated in public spaces is off to an unusually early start this year.

It's not even Thanksgiving, and the battle has been joined in a community famous for its Christmas displays.

Is there really a war on Christmas? Is there a war on public displays of any faith at all?

How have the most extreme elements of both religious and atheist communities high jacked a valuable question, and why is that bad for all of us, regardless of what we think about this one issue?

Brad Hirschfield will live chat with readers at 11 a.m. ET about this topic.

Submit questions and opinions for Brad to respond to now.

Follow @OnFaith and @BradHirschfield on Twitter

For more information spirituality, ethics and related topics, visit On Faith

Well, it's holiday time.  That means that in addition to family gatherings, gift giving, and so many other time-honored tradtions, we can look forward to a more recent seasonal traditon: culture wars over religion in our public spaces and in our public cutlure.  This year, the opening salvos in the battle were fired in Santa Monica. CA.


A second judge has now upheld Santa Monica's right to reject all unsupervised public displays, including both the Christmas displays which have been featured for decades, or the more recent displays sponsored by a local athiest group.


What to do?  You tell me.


Let's get started!

This issue is the creation of a small but vocal minority among Christianity who want society to treat their religion as the norm or the default. I've heard stories from store cashiers about customers who get all huffy when the cashiers wish Happy Holidays: "What's wrong with Merry Christmas?" These customers aren't insisting on a right to wish a merry Christmas to others, a right they already have. Instead, they're insisting on a right to have a merry Christmas wished to them. I've even heard the claim that "we celebrate Christmas" in the US. No we don't, only some of us do. These cashiers are doing the right thing by making no assumptions about the religious beliefs of customers, but the gripers essentially want minority religions to be marginalized and otherized. This isn't about religion versus atheism, and framing the issue that way minimizes religious minorities. While sectarian displays don't belong at official government buildings like courthouses, public parks should be open to any sect's holiday display as long as the groups themselves are the ones putting these up. I would love to see a town square with a Nativity sharing space with a menorah, a star and crescent, a Buddha, a Hindu pranava, One is a matter of government neutrality and the other is a matter of inclusiveness.

About some things you wrote, you are correct, about others, not so much. 


For starters, the issue is NOT only the "creation of a small but vocal minority" of Christians.  In fact, this has become contentious because  parties on both sides, unlike you based on your last words, actually wished that those who disagreed with them would dispear, or at least not be so visible.  In  fact, were both sides more like you, and open to the full inclusion of others, then this would not be such a big issue at all.


The fact is, we all like to feel included, and we all have different ways of feeling that.  The person in the story you relate simply wants to be affirmed by others, whcih is actually a sign of how much they care about that other person even when they are simply their cashier!  And I hope that you are exactly like the person you decry -- sensitive about the same encounter because you want to be affirmed in the notion that we don't celebrate Christimas!


As it so often is, we find most objectionable in others, that which is closest to ourselves.  Thank you for that reminder.

Examples: It's not politically correct to say "Merry Christmas" anymore lest you offend someone. It's not "Christmas," but "Xmas." Many businesses have been forced to say "Happy holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas." And on and on. Wake up, people! Christmas is the Superbowl of religious celebration in this country. It's not an attempt to convert anybody to Christianity, so leave us be. We can't allow a band of extremists (atheists and multiculturalists) -- which are an infinitesimal part of the population -- to dictate how we can celebrate and display our sacred beliefs.

Go slow, and this is coming from someone not unsympathetic to what you wrote.


First, one can say whateer they want.  what has changed, is the presumption that all people are cool with haering "Merry Christmas".  Welcome to our increasingly diverse culture.  Personally, I like hearing well wishes in the name of any tradtion, even if it is not my own, and think that all people would do better to feel likewise.  So feel free to wish this rabbi a very merry Christmas, and don't freal out if some are not totally on our page.


Nobody is being forced to do anything, unless you refer to the boycotts mounted by some Christian groups against those businesses which use "happy holidays" instead of "merry Christimas".  In that case, teh coercion is coming from religious folks! 


Finally, you may want to consider how often you refer to "we" and "they" in your own comment.  I think if all of us thought in terms of a wider "we", we all would be a great deal calmer and happier during this season of joy.

Christmas is either a secular holiday or a religious one. It can't be both. If it's a secular shopping holiday, then go that way and remove any religious references and go forward. But if it's a religious holiday, it NO government (local, state, fed) should observe it. Having it observed as a Federal holiday makes this mess. And it's insulting to those of us who are not Christian. Why shouldn't Yom Kippur or Vesak or Ramadan be observed by the Federal government? Stop gov't observance of the holiday first and foremost and you have answered one question: it's a religious holiday and therefore should not have any celebration in public spaces.

Actually, it CAN be both, and it is.  Why?  because the essence of a holiday lies in the hearts of those who celebrate it, and clearly christimas works on many different levels for many different people.  I am Jewish and I love Christmas, but as a cultural phenomenon in America.


If it is easier for you, think about Thanksgiving.  It is clearly sometimes secular, sometimes relgious, and sometimes both -- depending upon who is observing it and how they do so.  Actually, the fact that we manage that process better with T'giving than we do with Christmas, is one of the reasons we share it so much better.

Mr. Hirschfield, I really don't understand the mindset behind the alleged "war on Christmas." I believe that the public displays are fine; its not as if there's crusaders pressganging people of different faiths or of no faith to convert to Christianity. It is simply an expression of spirituality just as art is an expression of the artist's thoughts, beliefs, or passions. I do believe certain stations like to broadcast the "war" in a trumped up style to garner more viewer ratings. Its disgusting and imposes itself upon a season when Christians should be celebrating the birth of their Savior. What do you think?

I think that you have identified the ugly side of marketing fake victimization in order to sell more stuff on air.  No, there is no large-scale war on Christmas, and your easy acceptance of displays even if you do not toally agree with them is a perfefct example of that fact.


That said, there are people who have made war on Christmas.  They actively pursue actions, legal and otherwise, to undermine and denigrate the celebration of the holiday.  They are angry athiests who are crusaders in their own right, and every bit as dangerous as those who beleive that until we all celebrate Christmas, we are a bad nation.  Onbe side wants only Christmas, and the other wants no Christmas at all.  We do best when we reject both options and work for the greatest possible expression of all views and faiths.

Yes. But do you think that the shopping centers and store chains are going to listen to you? This whole commercial thing really has nothing to do with Christmas.

While I appreciate the whole anti-commercial "thing", why does gift giving have nothing to do with Christmas.  In fact, the bringing of gifts is a part of teh story dating back to the manger!


Of course, people should not measure themselves or be defined by the stuff they recieve or even the stuff whicht they give, but that doesn't mean that both giving and getting stuff are not wonderful expressions of the love which lies at the heart of the Chrsitmas story.

I have lived in several countries around the world and seen how local commercial and pop culture celebrate any number of "religious" holidays, whether it be Christmas, Idul Fitri, or for that matter, Hindu or Buddhist holidays. In my experience, the displays and commercialism in the U.S. are neither the most garish, nor obviously, are they the most subtle. But our arguments over this are the worst. To this, I say to both sides, "Get over yourselves. Live and let live."

With your conclusion, I agree.  But let's take a moment to understand why are arguments are the worst, especially as it is a functuion of a reality worthy of celebration.


We are the most culturally and relgious diverse nation in teh world -- certainly among those in which there is public celebration of any relgion, and maybe altogether.  America is an unprecedented experiment in the integration of multiple relgions and cultures, so of course we fight about such things.  Now we "simply" have to get better about how we do it! 

Are there people whose efforts to remove religion from the public eye are overzealous? Of course. But an organized "war on Christmas?" It's a revealing phrase that, to me, says as much about the person using it and their discomfort in a shifting society as it does about the situation.

I think tneh key phrase in your comment is "as much".  In fact, you are totally correct.  There is organized hostility to christmas in general, and to it's public celebration in particular, and there is also a class of people who love to play the victim card, and make more of that hostility than actually exists.


What unites these sides is that each looks to exacerbate the conflict, rather than solve it.  Why?  because the conflict defines them, it's how they know who they are.  The culture warriors are not just in love with their own culture, but in love with a vision of themselves as warriors battling other cultures. 


And while I am not sure you intended it, that analysis applies to both sides because both sides are experiencing shifts in how people celebrate who they are. 

I understand the need to be sensitive to all religions, but I wish we could do as my rather large and religiously diverse group of friends does: We all wish each other a Happy Whatever Season We Celebrate. I'm Christian, and I send all of my friends (Jews, Muslims, athiests, deists alike) Christmas cards and I wish them Merry Christmas. I've been wished Happy Hanukkah, Happy Solstice, etc. My non-Christian friends are grateful that I am remembering them during a season that has religious importance to me, and I am grateful to be remembered in the context of their religious traditions. No offense necessary. How people can take a wonderful, joyous season of peace for nearly all religions and cultures in this country and turn it into a problem is beyond me.

You offer sage advice.  People should offer the blessing appropriate to the celebration which they themselves observe.  In other words, all of us should use the tradtion we love to bless those we love, whatever tradition happens to animate our respective lives.  You clearly love BOTH your tradition and the people in your life, and must live that way all of the time, which is why you can do what you do.  We could all take a lesson from you.

Rabbi, I'm Jewish--and even more so having grown up in Brooklyn--but I must admit I love the **trappings** of Christmas. The store windows, the Rockefeller Center tree, all the songs (most of which were written by Jews, anyway). It's a good, peaceful time. But I also like lighting Hannukah candles with my family. I don't celebrate Christmas, and frankly, even though I'm 53, I've only seen about half a dozen personal Christmas trees in people's homes in my life. But I like the spirit of it, even though I don't directly participate. My wife and I have a Jewish in-joke about Christmas ads--they usually closely follow Shmini Atzeret.

One cannot be "more" Jewish or "less" Jewish, but I get your point.  You mean that you were raised in a thickly Jewish culture.  In fact, I think that the security in your own Jewishness which you feel, is why you can love the "trappings" of Christmas, and I think it's beautiful that you are able to do so.  In fact, I am right there with you!


In fact, a good test of the comfort one has with the tradition they claim, is the degree of comfort they have among those who claim a different culture.  Something for the culture warriors on both sides to consider....

Of course there's no war on Christmas. Is Christmas losing? Are people being prevented from practicing their beliefs? Not in the slightest. What I object to is having their beliefs rammed down my throat. And the poster who decried the use of "Xmas" might want to find out where that term comes from. Unless education is contrary to his religious beliefs.

You decry having things "rammed down your throat" and then use your comment to do some ramming of your own!  Is that REALLY the way you want to go?


And if your were to take yourself more seriously, and also practice a bit of the compassionI am sure your value, you would appreciate that in fact, in some ways, Christmas is "losing".  what I mean, is that a smaller percentage of the population celebrates Christmas -- certainly as a relgious event -- and that is both complicated and painful for some people.  while they may not always deal with that as well as they might, is your response really helpful?  We both know the answer.

I am baffled. Why must we fight this every year? It's simple - we are a diverse society, and we are a secular society. We have religious citizens, but not a religious government. Hence, government should be secular and citizens should practice whatever religion or non-religion they wish to. You do as you feel is right. I will do as I feel is right. As long as it is legal within the secular framework of our society and does not infringe on another person's right to practice or not practice his or her religion as he or she sees fit, it's all good. Look, government involvement in religion is bad for religion. We should not be attempting to turn our beautiful free society into a theocracy of any kind. Sincerely, a Baptist

You stand in the oldest tradtion of your church in your plea that we not become a theocracy, as you surely know, and I could not agree more!  But we fight about this because there has alays been a tension between supporting secularity, and assuring that we do not privelege any specific relgious tradition.  I think you gloss over that disticntion, and in doing so miss the reason we are still having this fight.


Finally, your claim that all people should do whatever they think is right, is one I doubt your truly hold.  Such a radically individulaist and self-referential view would lead to a war of all against all. Hardly something anyone would like.

I don't really think any one cares about whether or not someone says Merry Christmas to them, or whether their neighbor or local church puts up a Christmas display; regardless of their religion... this atheist certainly doesn't mind, and I usually wish people "Merry Christmas", not "Happy Holidays." However, in a country that very explicitly has a separation of church and state; is it so wrong to ask that our public schools, courthouses, and other government entities remain religion neutral? How is it that Christians can't separate the two? If you and I don't mind being wished "Merry Christmas," how is it Christians are left trembling by the thought that someone might wish them "Happy Holidays?" The latter is more inclusive of all the religions that see this time of year as a special occasion, and should hardly be offensive to Christians. Basically, this is all manufactured outrage over something that doesn't really happen. Meanwhile, I'll look forward to tomorrow's celebration of the one holiday that seems to capture the original spirit of Christmas. Maybe if everyone could keep in mind the things they are thankful for in their lives we could realize how meaningless this "war on Christmas" is.

A teacher of mine used to say that when you compare the best of your group with the worst of the other group, you will always win, but it's not a fair competition.  SOME, not all all Christians are disturbed by the shift from Merry Christmas to Happy Holidays, and SOME secualrists are disturbed by the reverse.


When you speak of the sacred tradtion of church-state separation, I am with you 100%!  That is not the same however, as relgious neutrality, if by neutral one means ignoring all faith and faith claims.  Not favoring any religion in particular is not necessarily the same as favoring the absence of all religion.

I say it and it's not because I'm trying not to offend anyone. It's because I want to INCLUDE everyone. And I don't recall ever seeing anyone get huffy about being wished Merry Christmas when they weren't a Christian, but I hear a whooooole lot of Christians get bent out of shape over Happy Holidays.

Give it up!  There is no such thing as including everyone, and you would do well to admit.  Those who yearn to hear you wish them a merry christmas will not be satisfied, just as those who would be disturbed by your use of those words would be if you used them.


In a diverse culture, the challenge lies NOT is finding the magic response which satisfies everybody.  It lies in appreciating who is left out by whatever response we offer, and trying to address that in some other way.

I so disagree with this. Clearly it works for the person who posted it, and it resonates with you as well, so fine--do this. But I think a more inclusive statement would be that everyone should treat others with respect. Perhaps that plays out as respectfully wishing someone Merry Christmas, and not minding being wished Happy Hanukah. But if I, a devout Christian, would feel more respectful in wishing my Jewish friends Happy Hanukah (because that it what I wish for them to have), or others Happy Holidays (if I am not certain they celebrate Christmas), I don't think it is very respectful of you to tell me that is not acceptable to you. I strive in all my communications to be respectful to others. Why must I, in order for my communications to be deemed by you to be respectful, conform to a standard which seems concerned more with myself than with others?

I have no problem with your way of doing it either, as long as you don't insist that yours is a more respectful way.  In fact, what greater respect for someone could you have than to graciously accpet their well wishes, in whatever form they come?

I also like hearing well wishes in the name of any tradition, even if it is not my own. The holiday season (or any holiday season) is a time for all of us to be a little kinder, a little more understanding, a little more outward looking than inward reaching. If we can't do it all year long, a renewed focus at Christmas time may help extend our kindness through the year. If someone wishes me "happy holidays" or "Merry Christmas" or "Happy Hanukkah" or "Shubh Diwali," I am happy to return the greeting. Everyone needs to lighten up.

"Lighten up" indeed!  Does anyone think it's an accident that all of these holidays place the use of light at the center of their respective celebrations?  It's the coldest, darkest time of the year, and we all need a little more light and warmth.  While these tradtions are all quite different in many important ways, let's not forget that each is trying to bring that light and warmth, and celebrate it's vailability even when it's really cold and dark.

Hi Rabbi, your kind description of enjoying well wishes no matter the religious/cultural background reminds me of my good friend who is Orthodox but also from Rome. She loves Christmas because it reminds her of happy times at home, up to and including the Papal address on Christmas day. I'm firmly agnostic, but I'll admit that I'm culturally Christian due to my upbringing. Basically I joke that I like the pagan-based Christian holidays, like Christmas and Easter. I wish people their appropriate seasons greetings if I know them, and happy holidays for the rest. Actually, I say happy holidays to include the whole season from Thanksgiving to New Years. Diwali too! For those who get upset about a cheerful "happy holidays" - stop being such a Grinch! Remember that the season is about being thankful and showing goodwill towards all. If you want strangers to greet you a particular way, then do us a favor and wear a sign so we can know what to say to you. Otherwise, I'm not going to presume.

Than ks for your words, and even more for the description of your friend. 


I think your last words are key.  If we presumed less, and asked more, we would solve so many of these issues.  Of course, that would mean comforting those who feel the pressure of a shifting and diversiying culture, not simply relling them to "get over it", and cerrtainly not engage in teh ugly mockery which defines so many of the athiest holiday displays.  It would also involve those who want only Christmas to appreciate that in their desire for uniformity, they are hurting people in exactly those ways which contradict the spirit of the holiday.

Well, our time is at hand and my hands are tired!  I wish you all a wonderful, restful, delicious, and dare I say blessed, Thanksgiving.


Thanks as always for your thoughtful questions and comments.  And don;t forget that we can continue this conversation when you find me on facebook and follow me on twitter @bradhirschfield.


'Til next week,


In This Chat
Brad Hirschfield
Rabbi Brad Hirschfield is an author, radio and TV talk show host, and President of CLAL-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. His On Faith blog, For God's Sake, explores the uses and abuses of religion in politics and pop culture. He wrote "You Don't Have To Be Wrong For Me To Be Right: Finding Faith Without Fanaticism." Named as one of the nation's 50 most influential rabbis in Newsweek, and one of the top 30 "Preachers and Teachers" by, he is the creator of the popular series, Building Bridges, airing on Bridges TV, and co-host of the weekly radio show, Hirschfield and Kula: Intelligent Talk Radio. For more information see
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