Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Christmas, pagans and religious divergence

By Mary Zeiss Stange
USA Today
December 12, 2006

Happy holidays!

Have I just offended you? If you are a member of the American Family Association, the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights or the Committee to Save Merry Christmas, I probably have.

For the second year in a row, conservative Christian groups have threatened boycotts of big-box and department stores whose advertisements for "holiday trees" and whose hearty if non-specific holiday well-wishes reflect, these groups say, an "anti-Christian and anti-Christmas bias."

Opponents of generic holiday greetings also suspect that there is something un-American about them. As Alderman Thurston Hanson of Monroe, Wis., objected, when he recently voted against a City Council motion to grant the Chamber of Commerce a permit for a post-Thanksgiving "holiday" parade: "Christmas is a federally mandated holiday. … Ninety percent of people celebrate Christmas, and we shouldn't offend them by not calling it what it is."

Hanson's numbers might be somewhat skewed (roughly 80% of Americans are self-identified Christians), but major chains, including Wal-Mart, Target, Walgreen's, Macy's and Kohl's, have gotten the message. The assumption at work here appears to be that, while we are a diverse society, Christmas is a national holiday that trumps all other seasonal celebrations.

"Black Friday," the day after Thanksgiving that kicks off the annual frenzy of consumerism known as the holiday season, sets the tone. Gone are the days when folks who worried about rampant materialism cautioned that it was time to "put Christ back into Christmas." Now it's time to put Christ back into Kmart. And so, as Wal-Mart spokeswoman Marisa Bluestone has bravely proclaimed, "This year, we're not afraid to say 'Merry Christmas.' "

What about us?

Of course, if you are a Jew celebrating Hanukkah, or a Muslim marking Eid al-Fitr, or a neo-pagan Wiccan for whom the Winter Solstice (Dec. 21) is a major observance, you probably had appreciated the more inclusive acknowledgement that the end of the year is a festive time for you, too.

Indeed, particularly if you are Wiccan, the matter of being un-included this holiday season must especially sting. A group of Wiccan families is suing the Department of Veterans Affairs for the right to bury their fallen heroes in military cemeteries in graves marked with a pentacle, the five-pointed star that symbolizes their religion, much as a cross does Christianity or a Star of David, Judaism.

Why this symbolic exclusion that potentially affects about 1,800 active service personnel?

Veterans Affairs recognizes 38 religious symbols for soldiers' graves, and to the casual observer, some of them are odd, indeed. In addition to a variety of Christian crosses and a cross-section of symbols from world religious traditions ranging from Buddhism to Bahai, the "Available Emblems of Belief for Placement on Government Headstones and Markers" also include symbols for atheists, the Church of World Messianity (Izonume), Sufism Reoriented, Eckankar, the "Humanist Emblem of Spirit," and the United Church of Religious Science. Given this potpourri of "available" faiths, the exclusion of Wicca, which calls itself the Old Religion and traces its origin to pre-Christian Europe, is baffling.

Or maybe not. The federal authorities have offered no convincing explanation for the banning of this one group's symbol. But the presumption at work seems to be that, while Christian America will tolerate a certain degree of religious divergence, there is something about witchcraft that simply crosses the line. "Alternative" religious perspectives are one thing; paganism, quite another.

Pagan symbolism

Yet there is a deep, and seasonal, irony here - one that might come as a shock to the "Save Merry Christmas" crowd.

For Christmas is, in its origins and its symbolism, perhaps the most pagan-inspired of all Christian holidays. Its dating derives from the ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia, which was determined by the winter solstice, that astronomical point in the year after which the periods of sunlight on Earth lengthen.

And that's not all that contemporary Christians have in common with neo-pagans. Most of the popular symbols surrounding Christmas - evergreen trees and other greenery, mistletoe and holly, the Yule log, candles and bonfires and holiday lights, mystical spirits with the ability to fly and to enter and leave a house through its chimney, tricksters who treat or taunt little children, not to mention those elves - all derive from older, pre-Christian Europe.

These pagan-derived symbols and customs are precisely the elements of Christmas that Christian activists are pressing to preserve and promote, in venues such as Target and Macy's.

Compounding the irony even further, these are the symbols that federal and state courts have determined make a holiday display sufficiently "secular" to warrant its construction on public property at taxpayer expense. All of which goes to illustrate what's wrong when any one religious group or government entity claims the ability to determine what constitutes "religion" in America.

In fact, nothing could be more in keeping with the "Christmas spirit" than to embrace and celebrate religious diversity. And nothing could be truer to the spirit of the First Amendment than to honor American war dead as they and their loved ones would wish. No single group of self-proclaimed Christians holds a premium on the meaning of this magical season. And no government agency should decide what "qualifies" as an appropriate religious symbol.
And so, no offense intended, but season's greetings.

Mary Zeiss Stange is a professor of women's studies and religion at Skidmore College. She also is a member of USA TODAY's board of contributors.

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