I would like to take this opportunity to wish you a Merry Christmas, while I still can. In our politically correct society, even though the Constitution acknowledges our right to freedom of expression, that isn’t always how it works in practice. Individuals often pay dearly for exercising their right to free speech, especially when expressing sincerely held religious views.
As a sign of the times, earlier this month Texas enacted legislation called the “Merry Christmas Law” taking dead aim at so called political correctness. According to an article that appeared in Reuters, “Texas lawmakers sent notices to schools … informing them that new legislation allows students and teachers to dress in festive garb and say ‘Merry Christmas’ all they want without fear of punishment.” It also gives the green light to Happy Hanukkah as well. It specifically allows caroling, Christmas trees, decorations and nativity scenes. It prohibits “[any] message that encourages adherence to a particular religion’s belief.” The article notes the measure passed the Texas legislature “nearly unanimously.” That, in and of itself, is something to celebrate. Hallelujah.
Christmas in America has an interesting history. In Boston from 1659 to 1681, the celebration of Christmas was banned. The Puritans did not approve of what they deemed to be ceremonies of pagan origin. After the American Revolution, the celebration of Christmas remained largely out of favor as it was associated with the Church of England, which is of course why many of the colonists came to the New World – to escape religious persecution at the hands of the Church of England.
It wasn’t until 1836 that Alabama became the first state to make Christmas a legal holiday. Louisiana and Arkansas followed suit two years later. The most recent state to make Christmas a legal holiday was Oklahoma in 1907. In 1870, President Ulysses S. Grant proclaimed Christmas to be a national holiday. However, as noted by Wikipedia, the U.S. does not have national holidays in the same sense that other nations do, “pursuant to the Tenth Amendment, the U.S. federal government only has the constitutional jurisdiction to establish holidays for itself.” It has no jurisdiction over the states in this regard.
Interestingly, it is estimated that less than 20 percent of the population of colonial America actually belonged to a church, a circumstance that would change dramatically in the century after the founding of our republic. Religion is referred to in the Constitution only twice. Contained within Article VI, paragraph 3 is the affirmation that “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to an Office or Public Trust under the United States.” The other reference occurs in the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” There are no other references to religion in the Constitution.
The language in the First Amendment was plainly written and was clearly not referring to the state level of government. It restricted Congress. After the Constitution was ratified, there were states that did not dis-establish their official churches for decades, Massachusetts being the last in 1839. They did so without federal prompting.
The recent Texas legislation is a response to what has been referred to widely as “the Christmas controversy” or by some as “the War on Christmas.” One local Texas school board banned the word Christmas from its displays entirely – a Christmas tree became a “Holiday Tree” – all in response to actions by activist groups that do not understand the term “freedom of expression.” This became the catalyst for the Texas “Merry Christmas” legislation. The state government stepped in to defend the rights of its individual citizens. This is what government is for and it is refreshing to see a state government doing its job.
By the way, I’m not a Christian. This time of year my wife helps me light the Menorah, as I help her trim the Christmas tree. I enjoy participating in the festivities with my Christian relatives and friends. We should be able to observe, enjoy and celebrate the holidays as is our custom, without having to make a federal case out of it.
So, as I was saying, Merry Christmas to you, and if you are reading this after the fact, I wish you all blessings for the season.
— Elliot Simon writes
from Harpers Ferry