Thursday, December 8, 2005

A Fir Tree By Any Other Name

Today was the last day of class for the semester, and I unwound a bit by having my students discuss a simple question: "When we get up to leave today, should I wish you a Merry Christmas?"

The discussion in each case was livelier than many we've had this semester, and covered a lot of the ground I've covered in this blog in the last few days. My students helped me to clarify my thinking.

I'm no longer sure how worthwhile it is to get hung up over the word, "Christmas". It's almost as though we now have two words rolled into one. One of my students made a verbal distinction between the two: we can speak of Crissmiss (with a short 'i' in each syllable) and Christ-mass (with a long 'i' in the first syllable).

Crissmiss seems to have become the dominant term for the whole Yuletide season, including pagan and suitably neutralized Christian symbols and music along with Santa Claus and rampant consumerism. We have a Crissmiss tree in our living room, and our city has lighted Crissmiss wreaths on every lamppost downtown. Many secular Jews celebrate Crissmiss, as do many non-Christians in Japan.

Christ-mass is the Christian celebration of the birth of Jesus. It is integral to the liturgical calendar of the Christian church, a matter of specific doctrine drawn from the Bible.

So, is it all right to call a decorated tree in a public place a "Christmas Tree"? Probably, as long as it is fairly clear from context that it is a Crissmiss Tree and not a Christ-mass tree - that is, not a public endorsement of a specific religious doctrine. On these grounds, it might also be fine, again depending on the nuances of context, to wish people a "Merry Christmas."

More broadly, atheists who sue to remove all signs of the holiday seem to be missing the point, mistaking Crissmiss for Christ-mass. They may be right to oppose public manger scenes, but it seems they're just getting bent out of shape if they want to ban Crissmiss trees as well. But then atheists, being dogmatists, are generally more likely than skeptics to get bent out of shape in any case.

Of course, there are still puzzles in this. The public display of a manger scene seems to be a public endorsement of a particular creed, which violates the establishment clause. Public display of a Christmas (er, Crissmiss) tree probably does not, in and of itself, given the diverse history of the tradition and it's many possible meanings. But, as one of my students asked, what if the public Crissmiss tree has an angel on top? What about a star?

In any case, I've decided that, next year, I'm going to decorate my yard with a giant, illuminated chart of retail sales figures.

P.S. When I ran the spell-checker on this entry, it didn't recognize the word "Crissmiss." It recommended instead "crassness."

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