THE WAR OF CHRISTMAS

by Ted Rall

NEW YORK-We are a secular nation. We enjoy the constitutional right to exercise any religion-or none whatsoever. So why is Christmas a federal holiday?

The U.S. has no national religion. Yet Christians get special consideration. Aside from Christmas, they also get the quasi-Christian holiday of Thanksgiving. Financial markets are closed on both of those, plus Good Friday.

Devotees of other faiths must ask their employers for time off. Jews aren't supposed to work on Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, the first and second days of Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret, Simchat Torah, Shavu'ot, or the first, second, seventh and eighth days of Passover. They have to take up to 13 days off from work each year, more than most employers offer.

The message to Jews and other non-Christians is plain: you are second-class citizens. Separation of church and state is a fraud. You wanna practice your faith? Do it on your own time.

You might think that the government's official embrace of Christmas is a cultural relic of America's puritan past. But you'd be mistaken. For nearly 100 years, Christmas was not on the calendar of federal holidays. On December 25, 1789, the first Christmas under the new U.S. constitution, Congress was in session. Ulysses Grant made it a federal holiday in 1870.

At first (and second and third) glance, the Christmas federal holiday seems like a clear violation of the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution. In 1999, however, a federal district court judge in Ohio rejected a lawsuit challenging the special status of Christmas. The court ruled that "the establishment of Christmas Day as a legal public holiday does...not have the effect of endorsing religion in general or Christianity in particular."

Legal reasoning gave way to the simplest calculus: we do stuff because we can.

Right-wing commentators such as Bill O'Reilly have accused liberals of waging a "war on Christmas." Actually, there's a war of Christmas: Christians use the holiday as a bludgeon against the rest of us. (Sort of how the "war on terrorism" is really a "war of terror.") Christmas' designation as a federal holiday is the most brazen and thus most offensive manifestation of Christian hegemony in America.

The Christian Right's "war on Christmas" meme would be laughable if it didn't work; they're the majority, they're in charge, but somehow they're victims. The smallest concession to common decency and sensitivity--e.g. not displaying nativity scenes on government property-is portrayed as an attack on innocent Christians. Not subtle. But clever: the dominant majority gets to claim victimhood. Anything short than total domination isn't good enough.

This has nothing to do with suppressing Christianity. I am touched, not offended, when a person of faith says that he or she is praying for me, or wishes me a "Merry Christmas." Individual and/or private displays of religiosity are fine.

Official expressions of a specific religion, however, are disgusting and inherently repressive. Public-school teachers should not wish their students a Merry Christmas. Presidents should not end speeches by saying "God Bless America." Our currency should not read "In God We Trust." Courts should not use Bibles to swear in witnesses. Government officials and employees who wear their Christianity on their sleeves reinforce the majority and subjugate the minority. Notice, it's always Christians. When's the last time a TSA screener wished you a blessed Ramadan?

A country should live up to its stated principles. Everyone who wants to honor Christmas, whether in its religious or its consumerist contexts, is free to do so. Go to midnight mass. Festoon your roof with plastic Santas. But the government shouldn't make it easier on Christians to celebrate one of their religious holidays than it does members of other faiths.

There are only two fair courses of action:

First, remove Christmas from the list of federal holidays. But replace it with something secular! Preferably in March or April. There's a long gap there.

Alternatively, add holidays for other religions. Of course, this could get complicated. How many holidays for each religion? Some faiths are more festive than others. How far down the list of major American religions do we go? The Zoroastrian holiday of Navruz? Shall we make room for new religions like Scientology?

After every sect gets its day in court there might not be a single day left in the year to work.

I say: the more days off, the merrier. Er, better.

(Ted Rall is the author of "The Anti-American Manifesto." His website is tedrall.com.)