Christopher Hitchens: Merry Christmas. Now, about that public display ...

  • Article by: CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS , Washington Post
  • Updated: December 11, 2009 - 7:25 PM
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The Diplomatic Reception Room in White House was decorated for Christmas as President Obama spoke recently. Among the decorations elsewhere in the White House is a manger display in the East Room.

Photo: Saul Loeb, AFP/Getty Images

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A reported scheme for a "nonreligious" celebration of Christmas in the Obama White House was over before it began, long before it could become part of that old seasonal favorite, "the war on Christmas." I never believed the original reports anyway: The president has no need to incite those who already think that he is a closet Communist or stealth Muslim. But that doesn't mean that there is nothing to argue about. The White House is, as some recent interlopers have again proved, public property. And its East Room is one of the parts of it that are not reserved for the First Family's private life. So the constitutional question -- should taxpayer-funded space be used for the affirmation of any faith? -- is as real there, if not indeed more so, as it is anywhere else.

I never cease to be amazed by how little the Bible-believing Protestants, who constitute most of the soldiery in the Christmas wars, know about their own tradition. Under the rule of the Puritan Revolution in England, the celebration of Christmas was banned outright. This was for three reasons: The December fiesta was actually the honoring of paganism in disguise, and a descendant of the old rites of the winter solstice. Then, it was also a manifestation of popery and superstition (the "Christ-Mass"). Finally, it was an excuse for the riff-raff to get drunk and disorderly. Only the last part seems to have survived.

None of the four gospels gives any notion of what time of year the supposed Nativity occurred. Only two gospels mention the virginity of Mary, and only one has any mention of a "manger." Wise men and shepherds are likewise very unevenly distributed throughout the discrepant accounts. So that the placement of a crèche surrounded by a motley crew of humans and animals has no more scriptural warrant than does "The Life of Brian." Moreover, the erection of this exhibit near the turn of the year is actually a placation of the old Norse gods of the winter solstice.

I myself repose no faith in any man-made text or made-man redeemer, so when it's Christmas I say "Merry Christmas" with a clear conscience, as I respect Ramadan and Passover, and also because "Happy Holidays" is so thin and insipid.

I don't mind if Christians honor the moment by displaying, and singing about, reindeer (a hard species to find in the greater Jerusalem/Bethlehem area). Same for the pine trees that also don't grow in Palestine. I wish everybody joy of it.

But within a few minutes of where most Americans live there are several privately owned and partially tax-exempt institutions. They are called "churches," and if they ring their bells I have to hear and if they put up inspiring billboards I have to see. Why isn't that enough?

It is not the business of the chief executive to take any part in this business. May his daughters' stockings be well-stuffed, may a mythical St. Nick from ancient mythology delight them, may visions of sugarplums dance in their heads, but please, not in the parts of the White House that belong to the world's first secular republic.

Christopher Hitchens is a columnist for Vanity Fair and the author of "God Is Not Great." This piece originally appeared on the On Faith blog on washingtonpost.com.

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