Penn Gillette, the talkative member of the illusionist duo Penn & Teller, has been working the interview circuit since the publication of his book, "Every Day Is an Atheist's Holiday!"
Penn Gillette, the talkative member of the illusionist duo Penn & Teller, has been working the interview circuit since the publication of his book, "Every Day Is an Atheist's Holiday!" Mr. Gillette is well known for ridiculing certain aspects of the Christian faith, but when it comes to religious holidays, he gets serious. He says, "I would love to take the Christ out of Christmas. I mean, I would love that."
He is not the only celebrity who would like to take religion — Christianity, in particular — out of the holidays. When asked about Christmas in a Today Show segment, Dr. Nancy Snyderman, chief medical editor for NBC News, told her colleagues, "I don't like the religion part. I think religion is what mucks the whole thing up."
I think I understand what Dr. Snyderman and Mr. Gillette are saying. They like Christmastime. It is a beautiful season. It's a time when people are happier and more generous than usual, when even military hawks talk wistfully about peace on earth. They like Christmas, and they don't want to feel excluded from its festivities because they are non-Christians.
I can sympathize with Mr. Gillette's reaction to the rhetoric of Bill O'Reilly and others about the war on Christmas (or on Christians) but, rhetoric aside, it seems to me that he misstates the case. He implies that Christians are doing something wrong - that they are intentionally excluding him and others from the holidays - by greeting them with a "Merry Christmas!"
But the truth is that, however one phrases it, Christmas is a Christian holiday — a holy day for the Church and not just a holiday for the nation. The birth of Jesus was celebrated long before the United States formed a better and more perfect union, before Columbus discovered America or Leif Erickson ever sailed west.
It is understandably difficult for Christians to be asked by their employers to refrain from saying, "Merry Christmas." Would you ask a Jew to replace "Happy Hanukah" with "Season's Greetings" or a Muslim to say, "Happy Holidays" rather than "Blessed Eid"?
One might argue, though, that the Christian holidays - Christmas, Easter, Halloween (the eve of All Saints Day) and even Saint Patrick's Day - have become national holidays. But is that a reason to forget their long history or wrest them from their religious context?
More than that, one should ask why these particular holidays became so popular in the first place. The cynic will answer that Madison Avenue had a hand in it, and he would be right. But long before Madison Avenue, people were celebrating these holidays. They were happier and more generous than usual on Christmas Day. They sincerely hoped for, and occasionally acted in the spirit of, peace on earth. Christmas and Easter and Halloween are special not in spite of their religious associations, but because of them.
If atheists want to celebrate a non-religious holiday at the same time as Christmas or Easter, what's stopping them? If Mr. Gillette wants to encourage people to celebrate Christopher Hitchens Day (Hitchens is the recently deceased atheist writer who had such an impact on him), more power to him. I'll wish him a Happy Christopher Hitchens' Day, with all good will.
But imagine how Mr. Gillette would respond if Christians started a drive to say "God bless you" to all the people one meets on Christopher Hitchens Day? Imagine further they petitioned Wal-Mart, Walgreens and other retailers to instruct their associates to greet people with a "God bless you" on Christopher Hitchens Day, so that Christians wouldn't feel excluded.
To do so would be to misrepresent Christopher Hitchens and to dishonor his memory, and I'm pretty sure that Mr. Gillette would object — as he should. Similarly, I would never insist that Mr. Gillette wish me a "Merry Christmas." If "Happy Holidays" is the best he can do, I'll accept it with gratitude. But if I say, "Merry Christmas," I hope he'll accept it in the same spirit.