Why is Christmas day an official holiday in the US?
May 19, 2004 9:23 AM   Subscribe

Baffling Things About America, #820. If church and state are completely seperate in the US, why is Christmas day an official holiday?
posted by Pericles to Society & Culture (32 answers total)
Because it's a traditional holiday, even amongst heathens like me. Or because it's so people can worship Satan... uh... I mean Santa...

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;

Allowing people off for traditionally celebrated holidays, whether secular or not doesn't violate that part of the first amendment.
posted by jpburns at 9:30 AM on May 19, 2004

a) church and state are not completely separate in practice
b) everyone likes a day off, even if you've nothing particularly to do that day
posted by mookieproof at 9:31 AM on May 19, 2004

Christmas is actually a perfect example of the way that a nearly homogeneously Christian dominant culture has segued into a pluralistic one. Christmas is a national holiday mostly because it's always been one and the inertia is too strong. But Christmas has been co-opted by secular society to the point that it is celebrated by the popular culture as a nonreligious holiday. All the Christmas specials about the "true meaning of Christmas" being abstract notions like "giving" and "caring" and "family" and so on.

The other part of this is that lots of voters still believe that America is a "Christian" country--whatever that means--and any politician who so much as suggested demoting Dec. 25 from its status as a federal holiday would be committing political suicide for no tangible benefit.
posted by vraxoin at 9:34 AM on May 19, 2004

To summarize vraxoin, politicians are hypocrites.
posted by mischief at 9:38 AM on May 19, 2004

hmmm. i once wished an american jew happy christmas and he was pretty pissy about it. i am out-and-out atheist, so i was a bit taken aback, because it had no religious conotations to me, but i assumed that it must do to americans. so was he an arsehole, or does christmas have christian conotations? or is life just complicated?
posted by andrew cooke at 9:42 AM on May 19, 2004

He was an arsehole.

It's not like you were trying to make him choke down a communion cracker or something.
posted by bshort at 9:55 AM on May 19, 2004

life is just complicated
Manners, he celebrates Hanukah. Did you know he was Jewish? If I knew you were an atheist and after you sneezed, I said; "God Bless you." How would you react?
posted by thomcatspike at 10:00 AM on May 19, 2004

I don't celebrate Christmas but if someone wishes me a Merry Christmas, I just smile and say thank you. It's the polite thing to do.

Some people are just itching for a fight. *shrug*
posted by Tacodog at 10:04 AM on May 19, 2004

Xmas is Xtian? I thought it was all about the jolly fat man, and giving gifts to everyone, and being cheerful and celebrating and generally acting the way we should all year long.

This is why Xmas should continue even though it is Xtian/Church-State. That, and even the Grinch can't take it away (unlike the peaceful Whos, loss of Xmas would cause armed rebellion amongst people.)

Just let this one slide, eh?
posted by Shane at 10:15 AM on May 19, 2004

Most people say "Happy Holidays" here, andrew...you can never assume someone's a Christian.
posted by amberglow at 10:28 AM on May 19, 2004

Response by poster: "If I knew you were an atheist and after you sneezed, I said; "God Bless you." How would you react?

If it were me, I'd say "thank you" as someone has wished me a kindess, same as if a muslim wished me Happy Eid or a Hindu wished me happy Diwali.
posted by Pericles at 10:29 AM on May 19, 2004

This has, of course, been the subject of lawsuits. A judge threw out a recent suit, writing her opinion in rhyme, and comparing the plaintiff to the Grinch. The grounds are basically what vraxoin said: Christmas has significant secular dimensions.
posted by profwhat at 10:33 AM on May 19, 2004

If I knew you were an atheist and after you sneezed, I said; "God Bless you." How would you react?

i'd say, "oh, thanks". wouldn't you? (ok, obviously you wouldn't, but there's something odd here because it seems we're both surprised by this - my original guess was that this kind of thing was interpreted "more literally" in the usa, which is why i asked the original question. or maybe it's a minority thing - he's just fed up with feeling different (which i can understand more easily now, having become a minority in some rather insignificant ways)).
posted by andrew cooke at 10:39 AM on May 19, 2004

andrew cooke: er, what amberglow said. "Happy holidays" is the PC American thing to say, because that way you're not implying anything except goodwill. Maybe they're pagan and they're celebrating winter solstice.

A possibly telling anecdote here. In film school I took an "industry seminar" class, the idea of which was basically to give aspiring screenwriters a wakeup call to the realities of Hollywood business . One week, the teacher (a very succesfful agent, non-jewish) shocked the class by announcing that "As next week's class falls on Yom Kippur, we will not be meeting." Someone objected that Yom Kippur was not a holiday kept by the university. The teacher said that he didn't care. "If you want to work in Hollywood," he said, "you had better learn when the jewish holidays are."

I have to say, I was raised in a reform jewish environment, and consider myself agnostic, but i was also raised in the midwest, where the jews are relatively scarce, and few gentiles know anything about the jewish holidays, except that sometimes they happen. So I couldn't help feeling a little bit of "in your face!" even though the holiday in itself doesn't mean much to me.
posted by bingo at 11:05 AM on May 19, 2004

I'm not bothered by a well-intentioned "Merry Christmas" and I even ignored an email from a coworker who wanted to remind everyone in our department about the real "reason for the season -- Jesus." However, I understand why people are sensitive about it in an environment where some (including those running the country) are trying to cram their religions down everyone else's throat and to make non-Christians feel like second-class citizens.
posted by callmejay at 11:25 AM on May 19, 2004

Christmas is a national holiday mostly because it's always been one

Not so. It was actively discouraged in Puritan New England (in fact, celebration was forbidden by law in Connecticut and Massachusetts in the mid-17th century) and frequently seen later as a dubious practice of Catholic immigrants. It slowly gained respectability during the 19th century. This site has a nice summary of the history of the holiday in America. It does not, however, mention 5 USC 6103, which established Christmas as a Federal holiday, and I'm having trouble finding out when that was enacted (it was amended in 1968 and later); does anybody know? (Richard Ganulin has been suing on the grounds that "Christmas is a religious holiday, and the Congress of the United States is not constitutionally permitted to endorse or aid any religion, purposefully or otherwise, or entanglement between our government and religious beliefs." His suit has been dismissed at least twice; I don't know if it's finally dead.)

The American Secular Holidays Calendar, oddly, includes Christmas, "since it is a federal holiday, although it is not based on a secular holiday."
posted by languagehat at 11:31 AM on May 19, 2004

The reason Christmas is a national holiday is that the majority of people are going to take it off anyway, and making it official makes a lot of things more convenient. You can plan gatherings, for example, knowing that all your children, your spouse, even your friends and other relatives will have some time off during that period. The fact that two major religions have a holiday around the same time and that there's another holiday (New Year's Day) in close proximity makes it a good time for celebrations and get-togethers.
posted by kindall at 11:54 AM on May 19, 2004

All the more reason I'm determined to make the default American Christmastide greeting be "Happy Generic Non-Denominational Winter Solstice Festival", or similar.
posted by jammer at 12:14 PM on May 19, 2004

Where I work, we get half the 24th of December off and the 25th of December. We do not technically get "Christmas" off which is some nutso semantic technicality. I'd prefer to work on the 24th & 25th and get some time off when it's warm out, but we can't have the library open on the 25th. The issue from my perspective is like what callmejay was saying... To many people, probably most in the US, it's a secularish family and eating and shopping holiday. I don't mind that holiday. However, it 100% overlaps with the Baby-Jebus-got-born-then-died-for-you [alternate with "was killed by 'your people'"] holiday and I don't much enjoy that one. They're tough to disentangle because their external trappings are almost identical. Christmas is therefore Christian to me because there's no surefire way to tell when it's not Christian and the Christians sure do claim it. I certainly don't mind saying thanks when someone wishes me a Happy Christmas, but when all of work-culture becomes full of "What are you doing for Christmas?" "Who's coming over for Christmas?" "Did you get anything good for Christmas?" I feel like even more of a Martian at work than I normally do, continually saying "We don't really celebrate it". I say Happy Holidays and it works fine.

"If I knew you were an atheist and after you sneezed, I said; "God Bless you." How would you react?

If it were a stranger or an aquaintance, I'd say "thanks." If you were someone who knew me well enough to know that I'm not the godblessyou type, I might mention something. To me, if you want your god to bless my sneezing, that's your business.
posted by jessamyn at 12:17 PM on May 19, 2004

thanks - i think amberglow must have posted while i was writing my post. when i left the uk, "happy holidays" was used only in ads for gap on teevee. incidentally, no-one at work (here in catholic chile) remarked on the following in an email broadcast to everyone (which reported some good news about a co-workers relation, that we had earlier been asked to pray for):
Personalmente doy GRACIAS A DIOS por haber escuchado nuestras oraciones y pido a Dios bendiga a X y la proteja siempre.
(personally, i give thanks to the lord, for having heard our prayers, and i ask him to bless X and protect her always). which surprised even me...
posted by andrew cooke at 12:19 PM on May 19, 2004

Christmas is not a religious holiday despite christianity's efforts to co-opt it.

Think about it, where in the bible does it call for kissing under mistletoe, bringing trees indoors, burning a yule log, a fat man with gifts, etc. Biblical scholars put the season for christ's birth as spring.

A link describing some of Christmas' pagan roots.

And here is a handy google search.
posted by jester69 at 3:02 PM on May 19, 2004

I think it's different from sneezing and someone saying "God bless you" (altho it's more commonly just "bless you" i find) or "Gesundheit" (which is what i say). "Christmas" is the holiday where you Christians are supposed to celebrate the birth of Jesus; "Holidays" cover the whole season (Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, New Year's, etc)
posted by amberglow at 3:15 PM on May 19, 2004

Also, even public schools have stopped calling it "Christmas Vacation" (which is what it was when i was in elementary school) and now call it Winter Recess or something.
posted by amberglow at 3:18 PM on May 19, 2004

As languagehat indicated above, the Christmas is recognized as a federal holiday by 5 USC 6103(a). That particular statute was enacted in 1966. That section is derived from 5 USC 87, 28 Stat. 96, an earlier statute originally enacted in 1894. However, that section did not actually make Christmas a holiday. Instead, it made Labor Day a federal holiday "to all intents and purposes, in the same manner as Christmas...."

An earlier section, 16 Stat. 168, enacted in 1870, appears to be the first law to establish federal holidays, including Christmas:

You will notice that the law only officially recognizes holidays for the District of Columbia. In the strict sense, there are no federal "national" holidays in the United States. Each of the 50 states has jurisdiction over its holidays. In practice, however, most states observe the federal ("legal or public ") holidays, even though the President and Congress can legally designate holidays only for federal government employees.

Federal holidays are observed according to the legislation of individual states. The dates of these holidays, and others, are decided upon by each state government, not by the federal (national) government. Each state can agree on the same date that the President has proclaimed, such as Thanksgiving Day. State legislation can also change the date of a holiday for its own special commemoration. Cities and towns can decide not to celebrate a federal legal holiday at all. However, the majority of the states (and the cities and towns within them) usually choose the date or day celebrated by the rest of the nation.
posted by monju_bosatsu at 3:55 PM on May 19, 2004

What's the status of Martin Luther King Day? anyone know?
posted by amberglow at 3:57 PM on May 19, 2004

Amberglow: MLK day is a federal holiday. Was that your question?
posted by monju_bosatsu at 4:01 PM on May 19, 2004

If church and state are completely separate in the US

They're not "completely separate" in any way but the very specific legal sense.

The "wall of separation" between church and state is intended to protect religious expression and institutions from public interference. It is not intended to quash all expression of religious sentiment in public forums, nor is it intended to restrict governmental expressions of common religious sentiment that do not rise to the level of "establishing" the religion.
posted by gd779 at 6:54 PM on May 19, 2004

All states observe MLK day. Arizona was the last to adopt it, in 1992. New Hampshire has kind of a weird history about it. And Virginia, in a way that only Virginia can, combined MLK Day with "Robert E. Lee Day" and "Stonewall Jackson Day" until 2000 when the holidays were made separate.

There's a lot of state holidays out there that aren't celebrated by any other state. The third Monday in April is Patriot's Day in Massachusetts, where everyone dresses up in funny costumes, the Red Sox play at 11 AM and the Boston Marathon is held.
posted by PrinceValium at 7:52 PM on May 19, 2004

Arizona was the last to adopt it, in 1992.

See also: Public Enemy

I was just listening to that song today....
posted by oissubke at 9:38 PM on May 19, 2004

just for you liberal 7-week vacation europeans, there are lot of jobs that require you to work on christmas, most pay holiday pay, but i don't think they're required to. I've worked quite a few christmases.
posted by rhyax at 11:44 PM on May 19, 2004

rhyax: Some people will have to work on xmas day over here too (how would we watch the queen's speech and cook the turkey without electricity?). However, I don't! This year at my work we will quit on Thu 23rd Dec and go back on Tue 4th Jan, you'll be happier for me once you realise that none of these days come out of my 33 leave days for the year.
posted by biffa at 2:05 AM on May 20, 2004

biffa: its not nice to point out to Americans what huge suckers they are, working so hard and getting so little holiday time in return--Even if there are more people than jobs there.

(American living in the UK)
posted by Goofyy at 9:08 AM on May 20, 2004

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