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Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays?

December 5, 2023

Is One More American Than the Other? A Prosecutor’s Perspective

By: Kathryn Marsh

Recently, around this time of year, there appears to be a lot of debate about using “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays,” in fact it’s become such a hot button issue that there is now political polling on what phrase should be used with a clear divide between Democrats and Republicans.

Looking at these phrases linguistically and historically, it seems almost crazy that we even debate the issue. Christmas derives linguistically from Christ’s Mass, a holy day to celebrate the birth of Christ. Holiday derives from the Old English Haligdaeg meaning “Holy Day.” No matter which side of the debate you are on – linguistically these phrases bear significant similarity to one another, in recognizing a holy day.

Happy Holidays,” despite what the media, politicians or even grandparents might tell you, is not a new turn of phrase. Its use has been documented consistently in the United States as early as the 1860s and with regularity since the mid 1920s. In fact, prior to the recent years of debate and the “War on Christmas,” most Churches embraced the phrase “Happy Holidays” themselves to signify the season from Advent to Epiphany. Politically, until the mid-2000s, the use of the phrase, Seasons Greetings and Happy Holidays were the most common phrases used in White House holiday cards since the 1950s, and no one batted an eyelash.

If linguistically and historically there isn’t an issue with the phrase “Happy Holidays,” where does the law stand?

First, it is important to recognize that in the month of December, there are numerous religious and cultural holidays besides Christmas to include but not limited to: Bodhi Day (Buddhism); Hanukkah (Judaism); Yule/Winter Solstice (Wicca/Neo Pagan); Zarathosht Diso (Zorastrian); Kwanzaa (African); and Omisoka (Japanese). The reason it is important to recognize these other holidays is because the foundation of the United State’s legal system – the U.S. Constitution – established freedom of religion, Separation of church and state and freedom of association.

Article VI, Section 3 of the U.S. Constitution states …no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” In fact, the freedom of religion was so important to our founding fathers that John Quincy Adams swore his oath of office on the U.S. Constitution and not the bible, and Thomas Jefferson said regarding the First Amendment’s free exercise clause (freedom of religion) “No provision in our Constitution ought to be dearer to man, “than that which protects the rights of conscience against the enterprises of the civil authority.”

In 1790 George Washington wrote to the Touro Synagogue in Newport Rhode Island (one year before the passage of the Bill of Rights) that our government “giver(s) to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves good citizens…”

In 1797, the Treaty of Tripoli, a treaty between the United State and Libya states “the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion…it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility, of Mussulmen[Muslims].”

In 1940, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) first applied the free exercise clause beyond the federal government to the individual states in Cantwell v. Connecticut and in 1941 Franklin D. Roosevelt listed freedom of worship as one of the four essential freedoms necessary to secure the world.

In 1971, SCOTUS established a three-part test to determine if religious issues were constitutional in Lemon v. Kurtzman. 1) Is there a secular purpose; 2) Does it neither advance nor inhibit religion and 3) Does it foster an excessive government entanglement with religion?

Following this three-part test SCOTUS has repeatedly held that public schools may observe religious holidays (Christmas, Hanukkah, Ramadan, etc) if they are observed in a secular manner.

In 1984 in Lynch v. Donnelly SCOTUS held that cities may have religious holiday displays on public property in conjunction with secular symbols and in Allegheny v. American Civil Liberties Union, the Court ruled that holiday religious symbols that endorsed one holiday over another (ex: a creche on public property stating “Glory to God for the birth of Jesus Christ”) violate the establishment clause and are unconstitutional. However, if the government is merely displaying a creche, menorah, Yule symbols, etc., that emphasize the diversity of the “holiday” season, these displays are constitutional.

For hundreds of years our nation has touted and celebrated our diversity and freedom of religion. Our courts have emphasized that public displays of the holiday season are constitutional when they recognize the diversity of our holiday season. Our press, our ads and our politics have all emphasized “seasons greetings” and “Happy Holidays” since our inception, so let us live up to George Washington’s words that we give bigotry no sanction, that we recognize that there is not a “war on Christmas,” and celebrate the wonderfully religious and culturally diverse holidays of December with all of our citizens and visitors wishing them “Happy Holidays,” “Seasons Greetings,” or just a simple smile. To me, there is nothing more American than that. But, if you want to wish somebody Merry Christmas, you absolutely can, you’re protected by the First Amendment.

Wishing everyone the Happiest and Merriest time this Holiday Season as I pray for peace around the world.

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