One of America’s paradoxes is that Christmas is probably our most widely observed holiday, even though we were the first Western nation to enshrine the republican principle of separating church from state, and we still practice that principle more scrupulously than most.
From Florida to Alaska, only essential personnel will be at work tonight on Christmas Eve and tomorrow on Christmas Day. “Essential” means first responders and the military, of course, but it also includes a lot of other people. Without ground staff and flight crews sacrificing time with their families, many of us would not be able to get home to be with ours. Ditto the gas station attendants, convenience store clerks, and Waffle House cooks and servers who keep travelers fueled and fed on the road. If you don’t have Waffle House in your neck of the woods, you’ll just have to make do. Also, trust me when I say that you cannot have a traditional Christmas for non-Christians without movie theaters, even in the age of streaming video.
News organizations must keep operating, in part to inform children about any unusual air traffic emanating from the far northern reaches of the globe tonight. When I was a young newsman –the official term for the job at the time – with The Associated Press, volunteering to work on Christmas was a no-brainer. I was raised in the Jewish faith. Of course I would work on Christmas to let a colleague spend the day at home. One year a co-worker insisted I come to his home at the end of my shift; thus I enjoyed my first genuine family Christmas dinner. It was lovely, and I remember it well some 40 years later.
When our first daughter was born, my wife wanted to borrow a little glitz and glam for Hanukkah from that other December holiday. She cut out a string of letters and dreidel shapes from bright, shiny foil in a variety of colors, and hung a festive “Happy Hanukkah” banner in the living room, roughly where a Christmas tree might go. She still hangs it every year.
We have never had a Christmas tree, but a high point of many seasons when the children were young was to spend a weekend afternoon with close friends and help them “twim the twee,” as our younger daughter put it when she was 4. As the girls got older, we liked to travel to other places to participate vicariously in their versions of Christmas. One year we were in London, another in Brazil, and on a third we were in the Laurentian mountains of Quebec. Our youngest was 11 that year. On Christmas Eve, she grabbed a book and cozied herself in front of the lodge’s fireplace, while the rest of us were upstairs. She reported later that another woman staying at the hotel was outraged at the sight of our daughter spending Christmas Eve alone, doing exactly what she wanted.
While I do not share the Christian faith, many of the values that Christmas celebrates are universal to people of every belief and of no belief at all. Why would we not want to have a holiday that encourages generosity, kindness, charity and love? Throw in more than a little commerce, too, because that is about as American as anything gets. We could have designated any day as a legal holiday to focus on these values, but why not Christmas? It’s as good a day as any, and considering how many people would celebrate it anyway, it is better than most.
A lot of Americans are deeply frustrated and easily angered nowadays by what they see, or at least see described on television, as the bad behavior and evil motivations of others. All of us could really use a day that reminds us that our neighbors of all political persuasions also hold the values we honor and to which we aspire. Most of the time, we are really arguing mainly about priorities and methods, not about values and goals. People who disagree with us are not generally trying to do harm. Most people mean well, no matter how we perceive the way they think, talk, act or vote.
I could surely choose to climb on a soapbox and rail against the celebration of Christmas as a secular holiday because it arguably infringes the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Others have. I think they miss the point that Christmas has acquired dual roles as both a secular and religious event, just as the institution of marriage has such dual roles. Each faith is entitled to define marriage or to celebrate Christmas (or not) as it chooses. We honor our constitutional roots by acknowledging that freedom while keeping religious doctrine out of the secular sphere.
So I choose to enjoy Christmas activities as a non-Christian American. Last week I was in Utah as a co-sponsor of my musician friend Maddie Wilson’s annual benefit concert for Tabitha’s Way, a local food pantry that feeds many hungry families in the Provo area. Maddie was joined this year by returning country duo Mersi Stone and by her good friend Madilyn Paige. This gave me twice as much reason to sponsor the event, because I work with both Maddie and Madilyn. This annual benefit is part of the annual #LightTheWorld campaign through which their church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, seeks to promote the spirit of Christmas through acts of charity and kindness. Maddie and Madilyn demonstrate those traits all year, which is one reason I enjoy working with them so much, but they always make a special effort at Christmas to do good deeds and to inspire others to do the same.
It works. Last year I bought a goat from a vending machine as an act of charity. I did not have time to visit the vending machines on this trip, so I’ll shop for my goat the way I usually shop – online. Care.org, which handles fulfillment for those big red vending boxes sponsored by the church, has its own charity catalog. Goats are available.
Whether we observe with a religious service, an act of charity or attending a benefit concert – or just by buying a goat – Christmas has taken on a cultural role in America that makes many aspects of it accessible to all of us, regardless of faith. Acts of charity and kindness are their own reward. Twimming the twee is just plain fun. Although my customary greeting is the generic Happy Holidays, today is the day to wish everyone a Merry Christmas, no matter whether or how you celebrate it.