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Merry Christmas

A Commentary By Susan Estrich

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Or happy holidays.

Does it really matter?

Once again this year, there are folks howling about the so-called "War on Christmas." With real wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, not to mention painfully high unemployment that has left parents struggling to play Santa, you'd think people would have better things to worry about. Think again.

Christmas is, first and foremost, a religious holiday -- a Christian holiday to celebrate the birth of Jesus. The majority of Americans are Christian, and they celebrate Christmas. Notwithstanding the fears of at least one member of Congress who actually introduced an anti-Happy Holidays bill, Christians are not under attack in America. They are in control, in the overwhelming majority, and are very capable of speaking for themselves, protecting their holiday and practicing their religion.

Our country was founded on the dual principles of individual religious freedom and government keeping out of religion. "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

During a recent TV debate, when I pointed out that the First Amendment establishes the separation of church and state, my "opponent" actually argued that no such provision exists in the Constitution. So I started reciting the First Amendment, and she responded that it was merely an amendment, not part of the Constitution.

Amendments are part of the Constitution. Is the Christmas season also the silly season?

I don't lose sleep over creches -- or menorahs -- in public places. But I can't understand why my tax money should be used on either. Businesses can put up whatever decorations they want, but government shouldn't be buying religious symbols to put in public places.

The answer I get to that argument is that these aren't just religious symbols. Of course they are. I have never had a Christmas tree, because I'm not Christian. My Christian friends don't light menorahs. My Muslim friends don't have either. To say that these aren't religious symbols, it seems to me, is the real war on Christmas, the war against the religious significance of a sacred occasion.

The Founding Fathers understood that religious freedom and religious observance go hand in hand; that if you want to encourage religion, you do it by keeping the government out of people's religious lives. Insisting that the government wish those of us who aren't Christian a "merry Christmas" dilutes the religious significance of the holiday, not to mention leaving those of us who don't celebrate this holiday feeling excluded and disfavored.

When I was a little girl, I was told that I couldn't play Mary in our (public) school play -- even though I had the longest hair, which would have guaranteed me the part -- because I was Jewish. I went home crying, and my parents pointed out that Mary was Jewish, too.

But not making trouble was the watchword, so I said nothing. From the back row of the chorus, I mouthed the words to the songs with the other Jewish kids and felt a loneliness deep inside because I understood that we were not only different, but somehow lesser. Why should any child feel that?

Merry Christmas. Happy Holidays.

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