Sunday, December 26, 2010

Re-Thinking Christmas as a Federal Holiday

Christmas Day (yesterday) this year was on Saturday, so it was not so important for it to be a federal holiday. But what about it? Should Christmas be a federal holiday? Probably not.

I am sure many who read this will disagree with me. So let me explain why I, one who has been an ordained Christian minister for more than fifty years and who served as a missionary for nearly four decades, question the legitimacy of Christmas being a federal holiday.

Last time I mentioned how Christmas is widely celebrated in Japan, especially by the merchants. But as you might expect, Christmas is not a holiday in Japan, or in most other countries where a majority of the citizens are not Christians and where Christianity has not been the primary shaper of the culture.

But that certainly does not mean that Christmas has no religious meaning in Japan. There are more people, including more non-Christians, who attend church services on the Sunday before Christmas and on Christmas Eve than any other time of the year.

Many Western Christians of the past, however, did not celebrate Christmas at all. Many Protestants, including those “illegal aliens of 1620” about whom I wrote last month, did not observe Christmas as a holiday. Those pious Pilgrims began building their first permanent houses in Plymouth Colony on December 25, 1621. And from 1659 to 1681 Christmas was actually outlawed in Boston.

During that same century, the Puritans who remained in England were also negative about celebrating Christmas. The name, after all, came from Christ’s mass, a Catholic practice which they referred to as “a popish festival with no biblical justification.” It was only after the monarchy was restored under King Charles II in 1660 that Christmas began to be celebrated again in England.

In this country now, many who would object to Christmas no longer being a federal holiday are also likely to advocate maintaining the original intent of the founding fathers of the nation. But during and after the Revolutionary War, English customs fell out of favor, including Christmas which had again been popular there for a century. In fact, Congress was in session on December 25, 1789, the first Christmas under America’s new constitution.

Christmas wasn’t declared a federal holiday in the U.S. until 1870. One wonders if there was something of a compromise in that action. Before the Civil War, the North and South were divided on the issue of Christmas as well as on slavery. Many Northerners opposed the celebration of Christmas, but the first three States to make Christmas a legal holiday were in the South: Alabama in 1836 and Louisiana and Arkansas in 1838.

Now in our pluralistic nation at the end of 2010, perhaps it is time to re-think Christmas as a federal holiday. The demographics of the U.S. are much different now than 140, and more, years ago, so probably we should be following the stipulation of the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.

In spite of its secularization and commercialization, Christmas surely still has something to do with Christianity. Thus, changing Christmas so it is no longer a federal holiday is probably something that should be done sooner rather than later.


  1. The first response is in an e-mail from a Thinking Friend whom I do not know personally. He wrote,

    "Right on! I have always thought that Christmas, Good Friday and Easter should be left in the hands of the worshipping Christians. These are surely very much related to Christian theology."

  2. These days there is really nothing rational about our government bureaucracy except the concept of expanding it. The UK is seriously revamping their bureaucracy to make the country more citizen friendly. Indeed they have surpassed the US in ranking as being business friendly again.

    With the rise of anti-Christian sentiment by prominent groups pushing the "elimination of Church from state" (which has even been noted by well known Jews) we may be headed toward an anti-Christianism which may rival anti-Semitism (which does by definition includes Arabsm and by inference Islam and Judaism).

    One weakness of developing countries' governments is to adopt the developed countries' predilection for numerous national holidays - PAID days off.
    Days off for religious reasons are good, as are vacation days for rest and restoration, and a couple of national memorial holidays Independence Day and Thanksgiving Day, but a federal PAID days off are unnecessary for religious holidays. I would recommend recognizing major religious holidays for major religions. The new thinking on management in business could readily adapt to Eid, Yom Kippur, Solstice, as well as others. But federal governments, by and large, are in the business of expansion, and rarely re-evaluate the benefits and costs of their bureaucracies.

    Having worked with and in bureaucracies, I would lean toward a libertarian view of flushing all but the original constitution and 10 amendments and rethinking everything else once again (much of which is good, but should still be reconsidered). Of course our federal government would never let this happen. That it happened with welfare reform is unbelievable, but even there the loop-holes did not allow for much change.

    Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

  3. You make some very interesting suggestions including some helpful historical information. Apparently Christmas was celebrated earlier in the year until Pope Julius I moved it to December 25 in the 4th Century to make it closer to the beginning of winter.

    While I'm not sure I would like to eliminate a Federal Holiday we already have too few of them and some companies (I won't name specific ones but I'm certain the largest discount retailer would be first in line!) would just use it as an excuse to exploit their employee further. We already, it seems, work more days with fewer "holidays" than most other countries. Christmas should be two days at least including Boxing Day!

    Having said all this! As a member (39 years) of a fairly large (250-300 in SS) (sort of moderate) Baptist Church I am constantly amazed at the number of "Papist" customs we have adopted at Christmas. We now have Advent not Christmas. We have the advent wreath in which there are five candles one of which is lighted with fire each and every Sunday in December with a rather elaborate ritual. We have two Christmas trees (although we call them Crismon Trees). We also include a creche on the communion table into which one of the children adds an "idol" (doll) representing the infant Jesus at the Hanging of the Green ceremony at the beginning of December. The creche remains until after the Christmas Eve Service. We also have a very large (well attended) "Christmas Eve" service with the serving of communion (a la Midnight Mass) with candles throughout the congregation. We used to have minister light the chairman of deacon's candle who then passed the light to deacons, who went down the aisles of church lighting candles of each row each person who passed the light to the next person and so on until all candles were lit. This has been discontinued for the last two years as our properties committee recommended to the church to use battery candles because the wax tended to fall on cloth pews which was very difficult to remove. Our Insurance Agent warned us very emphatically that lighted candles violated our fire insurance policy.

    I just read the other day that scholars have determined that females were part of "Wise Men" who visited Jesus. What is next?

    Can't we just have the fun and happiness with Christmas, Santa Claus and the over abundance of gifts, credit cards etc etc and not confuse them with our worship of the living Lord Jesus Christ. RT

  4. It has become easy to celebrate Christmas as only a secular holiday.

    I definitely see your point of not having a federal holiday for a religious observance, but in our consumer-rich culture Christmas has become a powerfully secular and commercial occasion. It is also a time for "winter breaks from school, time to travel to be with family and friends. So much is centered around this holiday...with a Christmas Eve service as only one tiny part of it.

    With all this at stake, I can't see our culture seriously considering Christmas not being a federal holiday while so much revolves around that day.

    We are left to carry out out very personal religious traditions surrounding Christmas and remember that the reason for Christmas is the root for what our cultural celebrations have become. That, of course, is both good and sad.

  5. There is a practical side to the question. When almost everyone would want to take the day off, does it make sense to keep the office open just to avoid a seeming endorsement of the holiday? A version of this happens on the day after Thanksgiving, which most years is a Federal work day. This means that a significant number of workers and managers are required to be at work to keep the offices open and running. Every year people are at work who would take the day off if they could. I know, because I have at times been one of them.

    Now this is different than the situation for doctors, guards, and such, who must be available continuously. A hospital never takes a holiday. What is at stake is the question of keeping a general office open just to say we have kept an office open. Are we going to require thousands of people to work on Christmas day just to say we kept the government open?

    Even our standard work week has religious implications. The weekend runs almost exactly from the sundown start of the Jewish sabbath to the midnight end of the Christian sabbath. A lot of secular institutions have followed the lead, such as professional football, but that does not change the foundation. Indeed, even the seven day week has a religious basis. At what point do we stop untangling imbedded religious practices that today are largely secular traditions?

    I would suggest a pliable flexibility, allowing overwhelming religious traditions such as Christmas to have a long secular tail, while allowing generous flexibility to handling other religious holidays as needed. Not only would this involve accommodation to those wanting off, but it might mean that certain offices in certain places might take off different days, perhaps, say, Yom Kippur, instead of Christmas.