Wednesday, December 7, 2005

Yuletide in Public and in Private

While I celebrate Yule and accept that others celebrate Christmas, Chanukah, Kwanzaa, and the Feast of Acquisition, I think it is important to draw a line between the public realm and the private realm regarding the various observances of the season.

In private spaces, including stores and malls as well as homes and places of worship, expressions of the religious traditions of the holidays are perfectly fine. They may be present or absent to a degree chosen by the owners of those places. As far as I'm concerned, this includes front yards.

The public realm is different. Any place owned or operated by government at any level should studiously avoid overt expressions of religious faith, in deference to the diversity of the people who are served by that government and subject to its jurisdiction.

The difference is this. If I put a manger scene on my lawn, I am saying in effect, "“I am -– or we (this family) are -– celebrating the birth of Jesus",” which I would no doubt do, and rightfully so, if I were a Christian. If a congregation puts a manger scene on display in front of a church, they are saying in effect: "“we (the congregation) are celebrating the birth of Jesus." Again, no problem there.

But if a government displays a manger scene in front of a courthouse or in a public square, they are saying in effect: "we (the people of this jurisdiction) are celebrating the birth of Jesus”." That'’s a problem, because "“we the people"” are saying no such thing, at least not with a single voice. Putting a menorah next to the manger doesn't help, since "“we the people"” have and actively choose other options than celebrating the birth of Jesus or celebrating the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem.

The same applies in the schools. If two students who are both Christian greet each other with "Merry Christmas”", that'’s fine. But if a teacher or administrator wishes everyone a Merry Christmas, or leads everyone in a Christian hymn or a Christian prayer, that crosses the line.

I remember singing Christian songs in public school when I was a kid. I think everyone just assumed that, since the school was in a lily-white Protestant suburb, no-one would object. I didn'’t, at the time. But this now strikes me as an arrogant and unfounded assumption, given the diversity of the American republic.

This is not to say that the line between public and private isn'’t sometimes blurry. For instance, should there be public displays of evergreen boughs and wreaths, trees festooned with lights, and other pagan trappings of the season? Or have those trappings been sufficiently abstracted from their origins that they can serve as generic decorations for whatever holiday we (the varied and diverse) people choose to celebrate?

When should the Post Office and other government offices be closed? Can a government employee be required to work on Chanukah or the solstice, and required to take Christmas off? Or if a government employee takes one of the other days off, should they be required to work on Christmas Day? Can the observance of December 25 as a national holiday be distinguished from the observance of Christmas as a Christian celebration?

Can there be performances of religious holiday music in public places? Can a public high school orchestra and choir perform excerpts from Handel's Messiah (which my high school music program did every year)? It is part of the standard repertoire of orchestral and choral music that is accessible to high school-age musicians, but it is also without question a Christian work, with the text taken directly from the Bible.

Tough questions. I guess the acid test should be the message that comes across: Does this or does this not attempt to speak for everyone about the meaning of the season? Does this or does it not acknowledge the full range of meanings that have become invested in Yuletide?

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