While talking to myself, as I so often do, I came up with something I just had to share with you all. You know, sometimes I can’t stand this time of the year. It’s not just the rampant commercialism and foaming-at-the-mouth need to buy the coolest and latest gadgets and gifts, and pepper-spraying one another on Black Friday… no, it’s also the fictional War on Christmas™ that the right wing loves to try to convince us is going on all around us.
Take, for instance, the now-infamous “Holiday Tree” lighting of Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee. Let’s forget the fact that this is a tradition that has been going on for years, with the evergreen in question being called a “Holiday Tree” nearly every single time. Let’s also forget the fact that Christmas is a celebration that should never have been made into a federal holiday, because of all the controversy and debate it conjures up this time of the year.
Let’s instead focus on the real issue here: how a lot of Christians, for some reason, fear that Chafee is just one in a long line of politicians who are trying to take their faith and their beliefs away from them, and who are apparently forcing everybody to call their own trees “Holiday trees” instead of the ever-popular “Christmas tree”.
Allow me to ram this point into your mind: Nobody is trying to take away your right to call your tree whatever the hell you want. Nobody is trying to take away your right to celebrate Christmas however you want to. Nobody. You understand? Nobody can take away your beliefs or your traditions or your religion, except for yourself. If you feel that your governor (if you happen to live in Rhode Island) has the power to dictate what your own personal religious beliefs are, then you need a reality check. Because he is doing no such thing.
Here’s something that many people don’t seem to understand. There are two sides to Christmas: the religious — celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ, displaying the manger and the wise men, and going to midnight mass (in the case of Catholics) — and the secular — displaying popular icons such as Santa Clause, reindeer, and elves, as well as decorating an evergreen tree with tinsel, lights, candy canes, and other ornaments. What the Rhode Island governor is doing here is celebrating the secular side of Christmas. As far as I am aware, there were no religious symbols or displays at his holiday tree lighting ceremony — no statues of baby Jesus, no manger scenes, nothing of the sort.
There is nothing religious, or even remotely Christian, about an evergreen tree, or the decoration thereof. It is a wholly secular tradition, one that has no origins in Christianity or the Bible. Jeremiah 10:1–4 aside, there is nothing about the evergreen tree that is so symbolic of Christmas that has anything to do with the birth of Jesus Christ. Instead, the tradition and decoration of the evergreen tree was something originally practiced by ancient Romans during their celebration of Saturnalia. Christians saw these celebrations as potentially competitive, and so co-opted them for their own use, starting the tradition of erecting an evergreen tree in celebration of the birth of Christ… which was now set to December 25th (a rather silly notion, as all evidence points to Jesus, if he existed, having been born in the spring or summertime).
So not only is there nothing Christian about the Christmas tree… it’s not even an original Christian concept. And if Christians don’t like secularists and atheists co-opted Christmas for wholly secular means, then they must remember the true origins of most of their Christmas traditions.
I’m not going the whole “you stole it from the Pagans” route. But what many Christians need to remember is that there is nothing religious or Christian about a tree. There is nothing wrong with Governor Chafee continuing the long-standing Rhode Island tradition of calling this tree a “Holiday Tree”. There is nothing to get all worked up over.
I’m an atheist, and I still call my tree a Christmas tree. Because Christmas has grown, expanded — evolved, even — beyond the Christian origins. It has become something bigger and greater than just the birth of one religion’s savior — it is a celebration of humanism in all its forms: feeding the hungry, helping the sick and the poor, donating toys to children, donating time at shelters and soup kitchs… helping out our fellow man (or woman).
That is what Christmas is all about to most people. Almost none of the Christians in my family and circle of friends celebrate the birth of Christ nearly as much as they celebrate the humanist aspects of the secular holiday we know as Christmas.