Nowadays many people object to the public display of Christian beliefs. They tell us that this is a violation of the freedom of religion. According to these critics, placing a crèche in a public place is tantamount to forcing particular beliefs on innocent bystanders.
My own view is that this is absurd. Even when government sponsored, such exhibitions force nothing on anyone. They are merely a way of honoring a religious tradition from which we have all benefited.
Like it or not, our society sprang, in part, from Christian roots. The founders were Christian and this inspired much of what they did. Why then should we be ashamed to acknowledge, and venerate, our shared heritage? History is history and cannot be wiped clean by the mere act of ignoring — or disinfecting — it.
In any event, my wife and I are pleased to honor what we both recognize as part of our personal birthrights. We put up a Christmas tree and travel a significant distance to celebrate the holiday with her parents. We also give gifts, and for that matter, light the Chanukah menorah.
We do so because we love the spirit of the holiday. The story of the birth of the Christ child is inspirational. It is so even for nonbelievers; that is, if they are open to the message of this venerable tradition. Christ was presumably born to save the world— and that is not a bad thing.
But more than this, that a child is regarded as enormously important has momentous implications for each succeeding generation. The central message of Christmas, after all, is love. It is about the love that the deity brought to his creation. And, as significantly, it is about love that has been channeled through a child.
When I was small, my family did not have a Christmas tree or celebrate Christ. Nonetheless, Santa Claus visited our house. While we did not have a chimney, he still managed to leave a great many gifts under the stockings we hung from a bookcase. As a consequence, Christmas morning was magical for my sister and me. We adored tearing open our presents to see what was inside.
What was it that made these moments especially memorable? Why, it was that these were free gifts. Despite all the talk about a need to be nice rather than naughty, they were left for us merely because we were children. As a result, they confirmed our value and the fact that we were loved.
Christmas is thus an annual expression of intergenerational love. It provides us all with an opportunity to strengthen the bonds between parents and children, and in the process provides children with a gift more precious than any toy.
A central truth of the human condition is that happy adults develop from happy children. To know that others care about us plants the seeds of a contented life. We all need love, for without it life is barren and sometimes unendurable. It is a cliché, but love gives us a reason to live. It provides the warmth that allows us to survive the chill of an occasionally hostile world.
Years ago when I was a clinician, I routinely worked with clients for whom Christmas was a burden. Having been unloved as children, they found a holiday that celebrated tender caring to be depressing. Because it reminded them of what they did not have, the pain of its absence could be sharper than a serpent’s tooth.
So what is the message of all this? It is not that we should discontinue Christmas because it causes vulnerable individuals pain. To the contrary, we must continue to celebrate the holiday’s central meaning. An event that encourages us to transmit love to the young cannot be allowed to languish. It must continue to be a source of personal and social strength.
If people object to the origins and religious trappings of Christmas, I say let them play Scrooge in their own homes. They are not defending my freedom when they seek to expunge the shared joy of a treasured tradition.
For my part, I continue to wish a merry Christmas to those of us who embrace the holiday’s intent — and a happy holiday to those who don’t.
Melvyn L. Fein. Ph.D. is a professor of Sociology at Kennesaw State University.