Sunday, October 14, 2007

War of the Holiday Wars

I hereby decree that every time I bring something up which has the potential to start a religious war (be it a religious war on religion, operating systems, text editors (why the hell is there a Wikipedia article devoted to that?), or whatever) I shall tell a relevant anecdote from my own life in an attempt to entertain and personalize the discussion. So without further adieu...

I went to a Mennonite school during junior high and high school. Mennonites, for those of you who don't know, are a very conservative sect of Protestantism. Some of the Old Order sects give the Amish a run for their money, and even the more liberal Mennonite sects like the one which ran the school I attended are, relatively speaking, quite conservative. How conservative? We couldn't have school-sponsored dances because dancing doesn't bring you closer to God. This was an improvement over the previous you can't dance at all policy that (fortunately) died out some years before I went there. I argued that nothing but Bible classes (excluding the ones we spent watching Mr. Bean) brought one closer to God, but this argument was not well-received.

In seventh grade, the father of one of the kids in my class came to speak to our Bible class about Halloween. He was the pastor at one of the local Mennonite churches, and he'd decided that we needed to be warned about the evils of Halloween. I won't go into specifics because I don't remember them, but the gist of his sermon was that Halloween was from the Devil and good Christians shouldn't participate in it at all. No decorating, no trick-or-treating, no dress-up, nothing. He may have gone so far as to argue that even church-sanctioned Halloween activities were of the devil, but I honestly can't remember whether he claimed that or not. After he finished talking, he asked all of us who still planned to celebrate Halloween to raise our hands. A bunch of us did, and he rebuked us, saying you're just falling for Satan's schemes again. That impressionable seventh grade students at a conservative Christian school saw through his bullshit tells me just how insane this guy was. None of us were going to become Satanists (well, almost none of us) because we dressed up and went to a Halloween party or went door to door; it was just a fun time for us to act like kids. I do wonder what happened to the pastor's son. A piece of me hopes he didn't become insane like his dad, but the rest of me assumes he did. Looking back on some of what I experienced in my past (perhaps someday I'll write about my seventh grade English teacher who forbade us from writing book reports on books with witches in them), it's a wonder I stayed sane. Thank The Great Juju at the Bottom of the Sea for small miracles, I suppose

We hear a decent amount (whether we want to or not) about the War on Christmas that atheists apparently are fighting. Although I'm still not entirely sure what the War on Christmas is, what appears to be at the center of the debate is that idea that wishing someone a Happy Holidays instead of a Merry Christmas somehow secularizes an already secular holiday season. One particularly strange backlash is against some people who call Christmas trees Holiday trees. Considering they're usually up during most of the holiday season, the latter probably makes more sense. Truth be told, I'd probably never take my tree down given the choice (and indeed, here we are in October and I still have my snowman tree ornament out from last December). Hell, according to Wikipedia, the first modern decorated tree displayed in winter was actually a New Year's Tree.

Well, apparently someone's decided to fire back with a War on Halloween. Fortunately, they missed.

Rivera-Alicea v. Gonzalez-Galoffin, 2007 U.S. Dist. (D PR, Sept. 20, 2007), involves claims by a secretary in Puerto Rico's Department of Justice that she was retaliated against for complaining that pagan office Halloween decorations offended her Pentecostal Christian religious beliefs. In rejecting plaintiff's Establishment Clause claim, the Puerto Rico federal district court held:

Halloween decorations, like valentines, Easter bunnies, and egg hunts are all secular displays and activities that neither convey religious messages nor constitute religious symbols. Halloween lost its religious and superstitious overtones long ago. It has become instead a commercial holiday enjoyed by communities in its many forms of entertainment.

Seems wrong to claim persecution when you yourself are involved in your own particular brand of it against someone else. Still, I'm not buying that either's a war. Wake me when the government seizes the nativity scene or jack-o-lantern you've set up on your own property. Until then, can't we just keep the government's holiday celebrations secular and let individuals and private organizations celebrate whatever holidays they want in whatever manner they see fit?

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