First, as an atheist, I'd like to apologize for the behavior of some of my brethren this season. Specifically, I'm talking about the atheists who flooded the lottery system for a town in California in order to claim 15 of 18 spaces reserved in a public park for a holiday display. Ordinarily, these spaces were used by local churches to stage nativity scenes. This year, however, only three churches could put up displays due to the atheists having snatched up the other spaces. Adding insult to injury, the atheists only put up three rather boring winter solstice displays, then left the remaining dozen spaces empty.
Some people will argue that a public park shouldn't be used for religious displays, period. I find this a little confusing. It seems to me that public parks as shared space should be available for use of all the public, and, last I checked, Christians composed at least some small portion of the population. I would think that as long as the local government is neutral on content, allowing religions other than Christianity to put up displays if they wish, there's no violation of anyone's rights unfolding by letting churches stage their nativity scenes in a park. If you can stage a Shakesperian play in a park, why not the nativity? A nativity scene is just a very boring play. Some teenagers in robes stand around with sheep and a donkey, staring adoringly at a baby doll in a straw-filled wooden box for hours on end. The highlight of the evening is if the donkey poops. How does this harm anyone?
I firmly support the right for atheist groups to put up a display promoting their point of view. But to leave the majority of spaces empty just shows they weren't interested in spreading a message, they were interested in silencing Christians. I can think of no motivation beyond spite.
It is, bluntly, the work of jerks. The fact that these jerks happen to be atheists embarrasses me. No one should gain pleasure by stopping their fellow man from partaking in an activity that he enjoys if no one is harmed. It's just petty.
That said, I find it tiresome that some right wing commentators use this time of year to trot out the predictable phrase, the War on Christmas.
If Christmas is in any existential danger, it's not from atheists. Instead, it's in danger from the corporate Christmas machine. Christmas has become a brand, a rather naked excuse to drive American's into a shopping frenzy that results in shoppers breaking down mall doors, pepper spraying fellow shoppers, and brawling over sneakers. I know that there's a reporting bias here; no one is going to report a story of shoppers entering a Walmart, quietly finding the items they want, then checking out with a polite cashier. It's only the extremes of naughty that make the Drudge Report.
Still, I can't help but feel that Christmas has been warped by our collective affluence. I find an analogy with our obesity epidemic. American's used to do a lot of manual labor and eat less processed foods, and were, on the whole, much thinner. But, we got smart, started working desk jobs and making more money, and began eating out all the time. We ballooned up. Christmas faced a similar problem. There was a time when gift giving meant more, because people didn't have as much free money as they do today. (Arguably, the free money is actually cheap credit, but that's another column.) A girl who got a doll on Christmas morning was thrilled, because she didn't have that many toys. Today, kids have more toys than they can ever play with. I've watched kids opening gifts and been struck at just how jaded and ungrateful they seem now. It doesn't get much better with adults. Because we're affluent relative to the Victorian era where many of our traditions began, most of us already have all the stuff we need to live a comfortable life. So, Christmas gifts almost by definition are becoming stuff that we don't need. I was struck by a gift center in a department store the other week, where the items being sold were obvious intended for no other purpose than giving away, since they were in decorative holiday boxes already. The gifts were little doo-dads and trinkets. A hammer with a flashlight in the handle. Binoculars with a compass built in. Clock radios for showers. Golf balls with little christmas trees on them. Bars of soap shaped like snowflakes.
No one would ever buy these items for themselves. But, because we absolutely must give gifts, these useless, pointless items are purchased, given, then promptly go into drawers, or storage buildings, or landfills.
Just as our affluence has led us to devour too many empty calories, we now clog the arteries of our holiday traditions with valueless gifts. And, just as our wastelines have expanded beyond the bounds of health and attractiveness, Christmas has expanded, swelling across the calendar to all but swallow Thanksgiving and Halloween, which are now events concurrent with the Christmas season, rather than events that preceed it.
I admit, I'm saying this as an outsider who walked away from Christmas many years ago. It may be that those of you who still celebrate the holiday like walking into malls at Labor Day and looking at the Christmas displays going up. But, I still can't help but think that, if Christmas doesn't mean as much as it used to, it's not the fault of atheists.