Not long after some grumpy administrative Grinch at the University of Maine warned employees against the placement of “religious-themed” decorations on campus – including candy canes – NASA announced that Christmas lights have become so bright that they are visible from outer space. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration released satellite imagery, both still and video, to show how much U.S. cities glow during the holidays.
This sort of brightness is important at moments of national gloom. Part of the secular significance of Christmas is to bring cheer. It’s often as simple as that. Many people who decorate their homes aren’t trying to spread a religious message. They just want to make their neighborhoods brighter. Last year, in the Connecticut town where my wife and I live, it seemed as though the decorations stayed up longer than usual. People didn’t want the cheer to end.
This function of Christmas is often missed by secularists like the unhappy soul who produced the memo at the University of Maine. The ban on ornaments, he suggested, would display the campus’s commitment to diversity. One of those less-is-more moments, perhaps. Had anyone taken him seriously, the campus would probably have been less cheery. As it happened, the university hastily withdrew the memo as not consistent with its policies.
The federal government shows no such delicacy about Christmas. The White House this year features no fewer than 26 Christmas trees. Displayed around the mansion are the winners of the 3-D Printed Ornament Challenge, a competition among designers to create ornaments that can be reproduced from 3-D printers. This sort of challenge is far more interesting and fun – and, one might say, far more in keeping with the American spirit – than writing silly memos about what’s banned this year.
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To be sure, banning is a great American tradition. Secularists fiercely resist the word “Christmas” for school recesses and shopping and the like. Alas, their belief that the popular holiday’s roots are principally religious is amusingly misinformed.
During the 19th century, many U.S. churches and pastors, especially in the North and the Midwest, fought against giving the day any special significance. If Christmas happened to fall during the week, it was treated as an ordinary day. Children went to school. Workers went to their jobs.
The historian Stephen Nissenbaum, in his book “The Battle for Christmas,” points out that among religious elites, the idea of celebrating the birth of Christ was seen as pagan, a phenomenon of the immigrant, somehow anti-American. Not until 1870, under President Ulysses Grant, did it become a national holiday, a decision made very much at the instance of the commercial interests who saw the chance to make sales.
Nowadays, of course, the commercial interests are everywhere. In China, for example, nobody could accuse the government of furthering a religious agenda, and the holiday has no official observance, but the malls are nevertheless bedecked with trees, and the shoppers are out in droves. The growth of secular Christmas turns out to be useful in other ways. In Hong Kong, pro-democracy protesters sing “subversive” versions of popular Christmas carols. (“Evil police angrily wave their batons, hoping to kill a few pedestrians!” to the tune of “Oh Come All Ye Faithful” – presumably it sounds better in Cantonese.)
Christmas turns out to be a part of every cause. If we really didn’t care about Christmas, nobody would care whether climate change is going to wreck Scandinavia’s Christmas tree industry. Just weeks ago, New York was alather after protesters angered by the Eric Garner case threatened to shut down the lighting of the iconic Rockefeller Center Christmas tree. (It didn’t happen, but NBC was criticized for airing happy and upbeat coverage of the ceremony rather than covering the protests.)
Some communities – New Brunswick, New Jersey, for example – were actually forced by protests to cancel their tree-lighting ceremonies. Shoppers, too, have felt the sting. A “Black Lives Matter” protest over the weekend interrupted shopping at the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota.
But causes aren’t the only disruptive forces in this year’s shopping season. There’s also geopolitics, including the standoff between Russia and the West over the invasion of the Ukraine. With the ruble in freefall, Apple suddenly stopped selling the iPhone in Russia. The company evidently was unwilling to risk further losses due to relative currency values. But the same dynamic may have led some European shoppers to flock to Moscow to buy cheap Tag Heuer watches and Cartier bracelets for the holiday.
Meanwhile, the toy industry is dead or dying, replaced by a “play industry” where the competition is “for time and mindshare in an 8-year-old’s brain.” Top toymaker Mattel, of Barbie and Hot Wheels fame, is having a terrible year. Thoughtful scholars publish learned tomes over how the switch from physical toys to digital games and devices is affecting the wiring of young people’s brains.
It turns out that this is no new fear. A century ago, wise editors were tut-tutting over the rise of manufactured toys as Christmas gifts for children. One 1905 essayist quoted by William B. Waits in his book “The Modern Christmas in America” warned of the dire effects of the new practice: “We try at the onset to destroy their interest in the plain and wholesome things of life by the multitude of strange and startling devices we shower upon them. We would have them believe that the world is one great toy shop made simply for their amusement. We create a false taste, a craving for ceaseless novelty, everything new everyday, every hour.”
That’s been the risk of secular Christmas ever since there’s been a secular Christmas. If it’s all about the gifts, then it’s all about satisfaction of immediate impulse, as too much of Western culture is these days. But if it’s about the decorations, and the joy, and the spirit – why, then it’s part of our national battle against moments of gloom.
That’s why it’s wonderful, not wasteful, that our Christmas lights can be seen from space.
Stephen L. Carter, a Bloomberg View columnist, is a professor of law at Yale University.