The assumption, that is, that we’re all Christians.

Sure, the legal imperative is to avoid giving the impression of governmental religious endorsement. Erect a crèche in front of a post office and it’s an establishment of religion. Stick a menorah next to it and it’s a constitutional display of American spiritual folkways.

That may seem like jurisprudential hairsplitting, but when it comes to actual non-Christian Americans, it matters. Take my wife.

She no warrior against Christmas. She happily wishes Christian friends Merry Christmas, enjoys going to Christmas dinner at their houses (especially if the meat is kosher), and every Yuletide sings in the Lessons and Carols service at Hartford’s Immanuel Congregational Church.

But she doesn’t like people acting as though there’s nobody here but us Christians. Back in Decatur, Georgia, she created a bit of a fuss at our neighborhood elementary school by protesting the Christmas tree in the front hallway. Adding the menorah made a big difference. As we walked the carriage roads in Acadia National Park a week ago, she was pleased when other hikers wished us Happy Holidays; Merry Christmas, not so much.

As Gary Trudeau merrily inquired last week, why do Bill O’Reilly et alii vulpes insist that churchyard nativity scenes fail while crèches in front of post offices succeed? That’s for them to say.

For now, with the happy holidays in the rear view mirror, we can go back to our usual plural selves. The feast of the assumption is over.

Categories: Culture

Mark Silk

Mark Silk

Mark Silk is Professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College and director of the college's Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life. He is a Contributing Editor of the Religion News Service


  1. Is putting a menorah next to the nativity scene really an appropriate solution?

    For one thing, it perpetuates the insulting idea that Hanukkah is “Jewish Christimas.” Because Hanukkah is really a very minor holiday, it gives the impression that Jews really just want to join in the present-getting and partying part of Christmas without having to accept the religious concomitants. The real analogy to the nativity scene in front of the post office would be a scene of the Pharoah’s Army drowning in the Red Sea at Passover time.

    But even that isn’t even remotely equivalent. Judaism and Islam simply do not have the same practice of physical representation of the Deity. In fact, both strictly prohibit anything that looks even remotely like idolatry. You could make a Passover scene for the post office, but the main character would have to be invisible.

    I think a mature pluralism should just leave the nativity scene alone in front of the post office and explain that Jews and Muslims do not have images of God. Displaying images of God or the gods at holiday-time is a Christian and pagan custom.

    • It’s not about the menorah or Hanukkah. It’s that Christian displays (such as creches and crosses) alone on public grounds is a symbol of a Christ uber alles worldview.

      • Why would you assume that a nativity scene symbolize an aggressive “Christ über alles” worldview? It is normally simply a tradition of a particular community.

        I have always found it odd that some children and grandchildren of Jews who were honestly grateful to be in a country where they were free to observe their faith (or non-faith) should now feel compelled to intimidate the religious majority into refraining from public celebration of their most beloved holy day – even to the point of censuring their private speech. I find it even odder that they have been allowed to get away with such intimidation. Can it really be good for Jews that they have?

        A few years ago I was in Malaysia, a majority Muslim nation, around Christmas time. I saw nativities and Christmas trees and heard carols everywhere. And I mean highly religious carols, not just Jingle Bells and “Santa, Baby”. This highly diverse country, rather than Scroogishly squashing public displays of religious sentiment, seems to have decided that it is best to let everyone publically celebrate their faith. Perhaps they fear the consequences of doing otherwise.

  2. Bill O’Reilly is a phony. He makes up all his empty-headed fuss about all kinds of things just to keep a job. His Christmas war takes place because it’s that time of year and convenient for his paycheck. That’s how Fox “Noise” operates. It’s the airwaves most heavily endowed Murdoch tabloid. The winter solstice is the oldest of all the season’s celebrations, and the reason for many of the others having their place at this time of year. Hanukah predates Christmas just as much as other celebrations that post-date Christmas have a perfect right to exist. No one has to ask O’Reilly’s permission to celebrate anything at any time of year. What a shallow and nasty “religious” man O’Reilly is! And all the employees and guests of Fox fall in the same category. Ugliness certainly is not news!

    • I don’t think that Bill O’Reilly is demanding that non-Christians receive (his) “permission” to celebrate their holidays and holy days. He is demanding that Christians be able to mark theirs in the public realm. This country survived just fine for the better part of a couple of hundred years with public displays of Christmas on public property. It is only in recent decades that militant atheists and others hostile to public displays of Christmas have demanded the removal of creches and Christmas trees (or their renaming) from public property. According to a recent survey, self proclaimed Christians make up 77% of the population of this country. That is not that much less in percentage terms from the Jewish portion of Israel’s population. Yet, if I lived as a gentile in Israel I would feel foolish demanding that the state of Israel remove all public displays of Jewish celebrations and culture whatever they might be. I would respect the culture and traditions of the Jewish majority. The same would apply to Hindu India or east Asian countries.

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