The Right to Say ‘Merry Christmas’

I’m currently spending a year studying here in the UK. Part of my experience here has been witnessing the differences between how the UK and USA treat the Christmas season. I was honestly surprised.

Nobody here says, “Happy Holidays.” Everybody, from the cashiers at the local grocery store to the guys working at Subway, everybody says, “Merry Christmas.” I found this surprising given that roughly ten percent of the population attends church services regularly.

But in the United States, where 41% of people go to church on a regularly basis, we have a civil (and sometimes uncivil) discussion about whether or not we should say, “Merry Christmas,” “Happy Holidays,” or any other name we can come up with, all because we do not want to offend anybody.

There are also many groups that sing carols outside of shopping centers, in Tube stations, or outside of grocery stores. Some are acapella, some are just instrumental. In my experience in the USA, public singing or playing of carols is done either because it’s a flash-mob or because its some planned event (where groups have gone through a hassle to get permits to play at a certain time and place). And if it is the latter, it seems there will be some anti-Christmas person who complains, then the rest of us don’t get to enjoy.

So how does this relate to faith and politics? Well, in America there is a strong emphasis upon rights. An individual has rights, groups have rights, etc. There are times when Christians have their rights violated because someone doesn’t want to violate the rights of an atheist. Some school principals cancel Christmas concerts, parties or public singing.

It seems that no matter what happens, someone is going to have his/her rights violated. But this supposes two things: First, do atheists have rights to not celebrate Christmas? If so, what type of rights? Secondly, should we seek to have a society that is exhaustively inclusive of all beliefs?

To the first, perhaps atheists have civil rights to not celebrate Christmas, but maybe it is the case that they do not have the moral right to not celebrate Christmas. To the second, this seems impossible. For, to do so necessarily means that those who have the right to be exclusive will have their rights violated. So how do we set up a system where we can have a society where people aren’t having their rights violated?

The Founders set up a pretty good system where 13 states had the power to define morality for themselves, where some states would allow prayer in school and others wouldn’t. People could move freely about the states and have a say in what their society would promote, allow and prohibit. If this were still the case today, some states could have societies where there would be no religion in schools, some states could have all religions in schools and others could allow some religions (but not others). This way, people would live in societies where they would not have their rights violated.

Sadly, we don’t have that type of social experimentation any longer. Perhaps in my next post I’ll explain why this has happened. In the meantime, have a happy Incarnation Celebration Day!

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