Is Christmas a Religious or Secular Holiday?

Can the government officially endorse the holy day of one particular religion?

Office Christmas party
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Americans all over the country in all walks of life look forward to getting a day off on Dec. 25, a day which has traditionally (and probably erroneously) been celebrated as the birthday of Jesus Christ, regarded as a divine savior for all Christians. There is nothing wrong with this, but for a democratic government premised on a separation of church and state, it can be decidedly problematic if that government officially endorses the holy day of one particular religion.

 

Logically, this is unacceptable on legal grounds. Such endorsement of one religion over others cannot possibly survive even superficial scrutiny under the principle of church/state separation. There is but one recourse for those who wish to maintain the status quo—declare Christmas to be a secular holiday.

The Problem with Christmas as a Religious Holiday

Given the prevalence of Christian culture in much of the West, it is hard for Christians to understand the argument for declaring Christmas to be a secular rather than a religious observation. Were they to consider the situation of followers of other religions, it might offer them some understanding. If Christians were forced to use personal vacation time in order celebrate their most important holidays, they would perhaps come to understand the position of followers of virtually every other religion whose holy days are not sanctioned in similar ways.

The reality is that Western culture has generally privileged Christians at the expense of other religions, and since that privileging has persisted for so long, many Christians have come to expect it as their right. A disturbingly similar situation exists wherever Christians are faced with legal challenges to practices they have come to regard as their rights: officially sanctioned status: school prayer, Bible reading in school, etc.

These privileges logically have no place in a culture premised on religious freedom and separation of church and state.

Why Not Declare Christmas a Secular Holiday?

The logical solution to the problem is, unfortunately, one that would also be quite offensive to devout Christians. What if the legislature and Supreme Court were to officially declare Christmas a secular and not religious holiday? To do so would remove the legal problem inherent when a government gives a single religion preference over all others. After all, of the ten official U.S. Federal holiday, Christmas is the only one affiliated with one religion's holy day. If Christmas were officially declared to be the same kind of holiday as Thanksgiving or New Year's Day, much of the problem would vanish. 

Such a decision by the legislature or courts would likely be offensive to devout, practicing Christians. Evangelical Christians have been complaining long and loud--and in general without justification--that our secular society has become anti-Christian. In reality, the official stance of the government should not be "anti" but "non"—a distinction this group fails to acknowledge.  

For members of all other religions, as well as atheists and many reasonable Christians, declaring Christmas as a secular holiday would be an important movement toward eliminating the presumptuous and illegal assertion that America is a Christian nation based upon Christian values.

 

And it is hard to see what the real danger would be for fundamentalist Christians. The religious meaning of Christmas has already been largely diminished by the commercialization of the holiday, and declaring it to be an official secular holiday would do nothing to prevent Christians from celebrating it as devoutly as they wish. However, the reasonableness of this approach all too often seems to be lost on a group that seeks not only religious freedom for themselves but wishes to impose their religion on all others. 

Related Court Cases

(1993)
According to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, a government is permitted to give employees a religious holiday off as a paid vacation day, but only if the government can provide a legitimate secular purpose for choosing that day instead of any other day.

(1999)
Is it constitutional for the United States government to recognize Christmas as an official paid holiday? Richard Ganulin, an atheist lawyer, argued that it isn't and filed suit, but a U.S. District Court ruled against him.