While the thought of Mike Huckabee as president of the United States horrifies me, I tend to side with him on this "merry christmas" thing. Not that I'm interested in emphasizing it as a religious holiday -- I just don't think there's anything wrong with acknowledging the fact that it comes out of the Christian tradition which is a significant part of our cultural heritage. One can acknowledge the facts of history without making the leap to proclaiming that this means that we are "a Christian nation."
I was interested to hear a story on NPR in the last day or two about a move in the UK on the part of some government minister to encourage schools to have Christmas programs and Christmas displays. The move is being opposed, of course, by some who are concerned about offending Muslim sensibilities, but it is being supported by some Islamic leaders who are concerned that the move to ban such things, presumably on behalf of those tender Muslim sensibilities, creates a backlash effect by implying that the newer british are trying to eliminate all vestiges of the older traditions that so many hold dear.
Despite what some evangelicals worry about, you can celebrate Hallowe'en without declaring yourself a devotee of Wicca, and you can take a loved one out for dinner on Valentine's day without invoking the spirit of some early Christian martyr. It becomes tedious to point out that the roots of the Christmas holiday are many and various and have as many pagan antecedents as Christian. Or to try to remind people that what we think of as the trappings of the "traditional" Christmas celebration are barely a century and a quarter old. When people bemoan (at every holiday) that it's not celebrated "the way it used to be" it only means that it's not celebrated the way that it was when they were children -- but when they were children it was not celebrated the way that it was when their parents were children either. Traditions evolve endlessly. Nothing is static.
In the early 21st century we are still struggling with the notion of what it means to have a true multicultural society. When Barbara Martinez-Jitner came to speak a couple of months ago, we had a dinner discussion with a group of students from the lecture series committee. I suggested that part of the challenge that we, as a nation, face is working through what actually binds us as a nation. The American experiment is unique in that it was the first attempt to build a nation on an idea, rather than on ethnicity. It remains an open question as to whether or not such a thing can actually work. Much of the hostility over immigration (legal or illegal) comes from those who identify the nation with a set of particular traditions and histories which are rooted in particular ethnicities. But the idea of the United States, the idea of freedom and tolerance and openness clashes with the notion that to "be an American" you must embrace and accept certain traditions and ways of being that are part of the cultural history of what have been the dominant ethnicities. The principles on which the country was founded can be as vibrantly expressed in Spanish as in English.
The tribal impulse among people is strong. Whether a devotion to the ideas in the Declaration and the Constitution will be stronger in the long run remains the central challenge that we face.
Those who insist that we must completely secularize the holiday to the point of not even saying the word "Christmas" are as much a threat to the triumph of democracy as those who are determined that the only acceptable way to celebrate the holiday is as a religious festival. Tolerance and acceptance are more complicated than that.
Whatever path we choose, some sensibilities will be offended. But if we are true to the idea of America, then our goal needs to be not to attempt to eliminate everything that might offend somebody somewhere sometime, but to grow as a nation and as individuals to be able to embrace and accept all of those differences without feeling that our own individual slant on it all is threatened.
It's a tall order. I still don't know if we can do it. In this particularly hysterical political season I'm not as hopeful as I would like to be. But, Don Quixote that I am, it still seems to me to be well worth trying.