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Freethought Today · April 2013

Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc.

Let’s observe Dec. 25, but not as Christmas

The New York Times’ “Room for Debate” series Feb. 13 included this op-ed by FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. The series addressed the question, “Should the U.S. have more or different official holidays?

If I had my druthers, Christmas would not be a federal holiday. It’s a no-brainer. The First Amendment categorically states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”

Clearly, designating the date upon which Christians observe the birth of their messiah as a federal holiday is making a law respecting an establishment of religion and placing governmental weight behind Christianity.

Would I have U.S. citizens forgo end-of-the-year festivals or miss out on a federal day off? Not for the world. I would propose one of two remedies. Option 1: Rename Dec. 25 as something secular like “Family Day.” Uruguay has long celebrated Dec. 25 as Dia de la Familia. Option 2: Make Dec. 21 (the winter solstice), not Dec. 25 (Christmas), the federal holiday. The shortest, darkest day of the year is already a natural holiday, so why not make it a federal holiday as well?

The winter solstice is, after all, the reason for the season. It signals the rebirth of the sun and the natural new year. For millennia, our ancestors in the Northern Hemisphere have greeted this seasonal event with festivals of light, gift exchanges and feasts. The federal government’s description of Christmas as a federal holiday claims: “Decorating houses and yards with lights, putting up Christmas trees, giving gifts, and sending greeting cards have become holiday traditions even for many non-Christian Americans.”

But it is the Christians who stole Christmas. We don’t mind sharing the season with them, but we don’t like their pretense that it’s the birthday of Jesus. It is, if anything, the birthday of the Unconquered Sun. The winter solstice has astronomical significance all Americans can mark, without reference to their religious beliefs.

Should we compound the current constitutional violation by turning minority religious observances into federal holidays? Banish the thought! Think how unworkable (given the hundreds of religious “holy days”) that would be.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation successfully overturned a statute declaring Good Friday to be a state holiday in Wisconsin. This statute even directed citizens when to worship! Our legal victory did not deny state workers a half-day off. Instead, workers get to choose their own half-holiday instead of being told by their government to worship. It is not the business of our secular government to celebrate anyone’s “holy days.” Accommodate, yes.

Recognizing the winter solstice would violate no constitutional provision. Accommodating family time, universal weariness during our darkest days and allowing our national “well” to fill up after a hectic year — these would indeed serve secular purposes. Let’s hear it for Family Day!

Besides Gaylor, others answering the question were Khyati Joshi, associate professor of education at Fairleigh Dickinson University (“Keep Christmas, and add other faiths’ holy days”); Mark Rienzi, senior counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty and professor of constitutional law at the Catholic University of America (“Secular reasons to mark religious days”); and Norman Ornstein, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute (“No need for an election holiday; vote on the weekend”).

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