Christmas, Nativity Scenes, Federal Holidays, and the First Amendment…oh my.

Ah Christmas, the time for family to gather together and…get into arguments about whether Nativity scenes can be placed on public property?

What? You’re family doesn’t do that? Mine does, or at least my brother and I do…sometimes my parents come along for the ride, but my brother and I are the most vocal about it and it doesn’t look like either of our opinions are going to change any time soon.

However our argument made me think about something and so I decided to devote and entire post to discussing just what I put in the title.*

I certainly don’t claim that Christmas doesn’t mean different things to different people and, as this is a free country, you may celebrate the winter holidays in any way that you choose. You may even call it Christmas and be completely secular and atheist.

That, however, is not what this post is about. This is about legal definitions and whether Nativity scenes on public property, such as a courthouse, is legal according to the First Amendment.

The United States of America there are 11 Federal Holidays, usually these are a chance for businesses to close, banks to shut down, and for people to have a day off…or to get paid time and a half if they do work.

Most of these, such as President’s Day and the Fourth of July and New Year’s Day, are completely secular and related to historical or political or cultural norms.

However there is one very different holiday on the Federal books.


What is Christmas?

Well here are a few definitions.

A Christian feast on December 25 or among some Eastern Orthodox Christians on January 7 that commemorates the birth of Christ and is usually observed as a legal holiday

Webster’s Dictionary

Christmas, Christian festival celebrating the birth of Jesus. The English term Christmas (“mass on Christ’s day”) is of fairly recent origin. The earlier term Yule may have derived from the Germanic jōl or the Anglo-Saxon geōl, which referred to the feast of the winter solstice. The corresponding terms in other languages—Navidad in Spanish, Natale in Italian, Noël in French—all probably denote nativity. The German word Weihnachten denotes “hallowed night.” Since the early 20th century, Christmas has also been a secular family holiday, observed by Christians and non-Christians alike, devoid of Christian elements, and marked by an increasingly elaborate exchange of gifts. In this secular Christmas celebration, a mythical figure named Santa Claus plays the pivotal role.

Encyclopedia Britannica

Christmas or Christmas Day (Old English: Crīstesmæsse, literally “Christ’s mass”) is an annual commemoration of the birth of Jesus Christ,[5][6] celebrated generally on December 25[2][3][4] as a religious and cultural holiday by billions of people around the world. A feast central to the Christian liturgical year, it closes the Advent season and initiates the twelve days of Christmastide.[7] Christmas is a civil holiday in many of the world’s nations,[8][9][10] is celebrated by an increasing number of non-Christians,[1][11][12] and is an integral part of the Christmas and holiday season.


Two of these 3 definitions do address what I mentioned earlier, that any number of secular of pagan traditions have become part of the traditional celebration of Christmas and many secular and non-Christian people still celebrate “Christmas” as a gift giving holiday in mid-winter, however all three have something in common.

All three note that the origin of the Christmas holiday is Christian in origin and it is a religious celebration at it’s core. I, as a non-Christian though not an atheist, have no problem with this. I listen to religious Christmas carols and listen to the story of the Nativity every year before I open presents with my family. These aspects are not particularly important to my enjoyment (well the carols are, I prefer them to most secular carols), but they certainly don’t offend me or make me feel marginalized or an outsider in my own family. It’s part of Christmas, always has been, always will be. If I chose to celebrate solstice the situation would be different, but I don’t, I choose to celebrate the Federal and religious holiday that is Christmas.

Now that we have established the Christmas is both a Federal and religious holiday, we can talk about how ridiculous it is for people to demand that nativity scenes be removed from Public Property.

First, as Pat Condell said, it does not actually physically or emotionally harm anyone to see a Nativity scene. If it does cause you emotional harm…well I hate to be rude, but stop being a wimp and grow the fuck up. It’s a plaster and plastic cast of shepherds, sheep, Wisemen, parents, and a baby in a manger. Even if certain church or denomination has hurt you grievously in the past and caused to irreparable emotional scarring, I highly doubt the nativity is going to be the object that brings back debilitating flashbacks of horror.

Second, should there be secular displays and displays of other religions as well as the Nativity? If the display is maintained by a public organization, such as the city or state government, then absolutely. If taxes are going to maintain it, then we should put up displays that show the belief systems of the other holidays that are celebrated at this time of the year. This is not because those are Federal holidays, which Hanukkah and Kwanzaa and Solstice are not, but because we are a country that has many diverse religions and traditions and we should show that proudly. However, if the display is paid for and maintained by a private entity, which many are even when they are placed on public property, then that entity is under no obligation to put up other displays to represent any other faith.

Third, is it a violation of church and state? No, it is not. ‘Huh?’ you say, ‘but isn’t a Nativity scene favoring one religion over another?’ Well, yes, I guess you can put it that way, if the only display is the Nativity. However it isn’t really, because it is a Christmas decoration and Christmas is the Federal Holiday so the display is honoring a specific holiday. The Nativity is just as much a Christmas decoration as a Jolly Old Saint Nick or a Red Nosed Reindeer and tiny little elves and snow flakes.

The actual question you should be asking is. Is Christmas as a federal holiday a violation of church state separation? Possibly, but do you really want to take Christmas out as a Holiday? Is it really hurting you so much to be surrounded by holiday cheer and Angels singing on high and peace on earth, goodwill toward men? If so, then I have one thing to say to you. Hello there, Scrooge, I hope you get a few visits from some ghosts on Christmas Eve.

Fourth. I know quite a few atheists, or did once upon a time when I considered myself an atheist as well. Now I basically just know my brother. However one of the key things that I heard a lot of things about how the Bible was really just a fictional story that (depending on the person) was very poorly written, very well written, interesting, boring, morally reprehensible, had a few good things to teach about morality. Just a story. So why is it that a holiday that is based on some fictional account of a baby being born in a barn, is so offensive to an Athiest or Liberal’s sensibilities?

I know that Star Wars is just a story, completely fictional. However there is an entire religion based on The Force. There are huge groups of a devoted fan base that worship The Force and even those that don’t follow the religion still collect relics, dress in odd clothing, and attend huge gatherings to, essentially, worship the films. Do I ask that Star Wars conventions be shut down? No, absolutely not, because while I’m not a Star Wars fan (I’m a Trekky okay) I know that it’s just a story, that some people enjoy and maybe put a little too much of their lives into.

So if I don’t demand that Star Wars conventions be shut down (which are both more physically and olfactory offensive than Christmas and probably much less healthy for the convention attendees) why is it that a bunch of plaster fictional characters on a lawn can invoke such irrationality?

Sure, almost all religions have their problems and almost all have done bad and harmful things to society at one time or another and I fully support stopping harm done to society by religion, but how is Christmas and Mary, Joseph and Baby Jesus hurting society? I’d say the story of Christmas, redemption and hope, are one of the best things imparted by Christianity.

I just don’t get it.


*Mostly because the presents are wrapped already, baking is in the oven, my family (minus the brother) are all at Christmas Eve services, and I still have several hours before I can start unwrapping the ones with my name on them.



  1. I have been thinking about this subject in relationship with the occupy movement. The occupy movement displays the right of tax payers and indivuduals to use public space to display their opinions, does it not?
    How are nativity scenes any different?

    Perhaps to answer my own question, the problem lies when these scenes are sponsored by a political figure. But then what do you say of those politicians who endorse certian view points or opinions in protests such as the occupy movement.

    I don’t know, just a thought in its infancy.

    • Ah, yes, but the Occupy Movement isn’t about a religion. However I can see what you are saying and it does make sense to a point. Especially when it comes to displays of Nativity scenes sponsored and paid for by private organizations…which still receive just as much problems from atheist and liberal groups as state sponsored displays.

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