War Against Christmas 2004 Competition [IX]:
An Orwellian Christmas
By Tom Piatak
[Also by Tom Piatak: Take Back Christmas! and Happy Holidays? Bah! Humbug!]
Traditionally, the writer most associated with Christmas was Charles Dickens. But today, Christmas in America is far more likely to be Orwellian than Dickensian.
Long before the advent of political correctness, Orwell wrote, “Freedom is the freedom to say 2 + 2 = 4. If that is granted, all else follows.”
I was reminded of Orwell’s great insight by a recent skirmish in the War against Christmas at a private school east of my hometown, Cleveland.
A seventh grader there made the mistake of saying that two plus two equals four. He called the decorated tree in his homeroom a “Christmas tree.”
When I was in seventh grade, such a statement would have been as controversial as saying the sky is blue. After all, Christmas is the holiday that causes tens of millions of Americans to celebrate by putting up decorated trees.
But, at this school, students are required to say that two plus two equals five: the decorated tree must be referred to as a “holiday tree.”
Because of his insistence on speaking the truth, this seventh grader was labeled an “anti-Semite” and a “Nazi” by classmates.
Far from reprimanding the students who absurdly equated Christmas with Nazism, his teacher threatened to discipline the seventh grader if he persisted in calling the decorated tree by its actual name. He was also warned that he must not wish anyone a “Merry Christmas.”
Needless to say, this bit of nastiness was justified on the Orwellian grounds of “diversity” and “tolerance.”
Interestingly, even though Jewish students are a minority, the school also displays menorahs and dreidels (but no nativity scenes) and puts up lights in blue and white, the Hanukkah colors. No one is threatened with discipline for mentioning that holiday.
I was also reminded of Orwell when I was preparing for a recent talk to the Cleveland chapter of the Federalist Society on the legal aspects of the War Against Christmas. At least some federal courts harbor a thinly-disguised hostility toward Christianity, justified in Orwellian terms.
Of course, as VDARE.COM has pointed out, the First Amendment is not the reason for the War against Christmas. The school where no student may say “Christmas” is a private school, not a public one. And the War Against Christmas rages in lands with no First Amendment. Last week, the New York Times reported that there was widespread outrage in Italy because a school near Como had decided to substitute the word “virtue” for “Jesus” in an Italian carol the students were performing—in the interests of “diversity,” of course.
But the First Amendment (and the “wall of separation” between church and state it supposedly embodies) has certainly proven a valuable weapon for those intent on obliterating any public mention of Christmas.
Needless to say, that is not what the First Amendment was intended to do. As Justice Joseph Story, the leading commentator on the Constitution in the first half of the nineteenth century, explained,
“The real object of the amendment was not to countenance, much less to advance, Mahometanism, or Judaism, or infidelity, by prostrating Christianity, but to exclude all rivalry among Christian sects, and to prevent any national ecclesiastical establishment which should give to a hierarchy the exclusive patronage of the national government.”
Indeed, several New England states had established churches well into the nineteenth century.
Often, however, current jurisprudence stands Story’s words on their head. In Skoros v. City of New York, a federal district judge upheld the New York City schools’ policy of displaying Islamic crescents and menorahs, but banning nativity scenes. In upholding this policy, the court lauded the schools’ “diversity policy,” writing that
“Without a diversity policy, a winter holiday display in New York City’s public schools would be dominated by images representative of Christmas.”
Citing Supreme Court precedent, the court concluded that
“an explicit Christian religious symbol such as a crèche need not be included in a Christmas time display to counterbalance the display of a menorah before the message is reasonably perceived as one of inclusion.”
This is the point: in today’s America, what “diversity” and “inclusion” actually mean is that symbols of America’s Christian heritage must be excluded—and expelled.
In Orwellian terms: “inclusion” is exclusion. “Diversity” is conformity.
And, of course, freedom is slavery.
In amazing contrast is the California district court decision in Eklund v. Byron Union School District, which upheld an eight-week long “study module” for seventh graders that required students to recite Islamic prayers and participate in activities intended to approximate the Five Pillars of Islam, and also encouraged students to create Islamic banners, take Arab names, and wear Arab garb.
The court ruled that “Role playing activities which are not in actuality the practice of a religion do not violate the Establishment Clause”—citing Ninth Circuit precedent upholding reading assignments that discussed witches and instructed students to pretend to cast magic spells.
One is tempted to resort to Orwell’s newspeak to explain these decisions: Islam and witches, good; nativity scenes, “ungood.”
Fortunately, other federal court decisions suggest a strategy for a successful counterattack: emphasizing the unmatched cultural significance of Christmas.
The Eighth Circuit has recognized, in Florey v. Sioux Falls School District, that “carols have a cultural significance that justifies their being sung in the public schools.”
And the Fifth Circuit has recognized, in Doe v. Duncanville Independent School District, that
“a position of neutrality towards religion must allow choir directors to recognize the fact that most choral music is religious. Limiting the number of times a religious piece of music can be sung is tantamount to censorship and does not send students a message of neutrality.”
At my talk to the Federalist Society, I illustrated this point by playing a recording of “Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen” (we know it as “Lo, How A Rose E’er Blooming”) from my favorite Christmas CD.
Aside from its amazing beauty, there were several notable aspects about this recording.
It was sung by children, showing that age is not an insuperable obstacle in introducing students to cultural excellence.
This particular version was recorded in East Germany, showing that even an atheist state, officially hostile to religion, was able to recognize value in Christmas.
The carol was sung in German, showing that teaching students about Christmas is an ideal vehicle for teaching them about true multiculturalism. Indeed, my own collection of Christmas music features carols sung in German, French, Italian, Latin, Spanish, Polish, Catalan, Welsh, and Ukrainian, in addition to English. No other holiday matches the cultural breadth of Christmas.
Also significant was the fact that the music was composed by one great composer, Michael Praetorius, and that the singers came from the choir of St. Thomas in Leipzig, among whose former choirmasters was Johann Sebastian Bach. This CD features Christmas music by both Bach and Praetorius as well as two other towering geniuses, Palestrina and Handel. It’s also one of 40 Christmas CDs I have, each featuring something unique and not found in the others.
No other festival has inspired even a tiny fraction of such great music. It is absurd that those whose profession is to teach now discipline students who even mention the name of the holiday that inspired this outpouring of beauty.
Perhaps the schools should follow this test instead: equal emphasis on all winter holidays that have music written for them by Johann Sebastian Bach.
Even crèches, regularly expelled from schools and other public places, could serve a secular educational purpose. In addition to helping explain the origin of Christmas, they could be used to introduce students to the Western artistic tradition.
The first crèche was created by Francis of Assisi, whose life was recorded in paint by Giotto, one of the founders of Western painting. The Metropolitan Museum of Art recently spent a record $45,000,000 to acquire a painting of the Madonna and Child by a contemporary of Giotto’s, Duccio. Even though the painting is no larger than a sheet of typing paper, the Met felt the purchase price was justified by Duccio’s great importance in the Western artistic tradition—a tradition inextricably bound up with Christianity in general and Christmas in particular.
Indeed, Duccio, like Giotto, painted many scenes inspired by Christmas—including the painting purchase by the Met. According to a Met spokesman quoted in the December 10, 2004 New York Times, the museum is going to display its prized acquisition starting on December 21:
“There was a strong desire to have the Duccio on display before Christmas because there’s such an interest in its history as a devotional picture.” [“The Met Unveils a Masterpiece, Its Most Expensive Work of Art,” by Carol Vogel]
If our schools can spend eight weeks teaching students about Islam, surely they should be able to teach students about the holiday that has been at the heart of our own civilization for centuries.
One need not accept the divinity of Christ to recognize—and even be awed by—the beauty His birth inspired. I doubt the Met decided to purchase Duccio’s painting for reasons of Christian piety.
A friend tells me that her Jewish mother-in-law observes Christmas each year by going to a performance of “Messiah” and to Midnight Mass, because of her love for the music. Some of the best Christmas music I know was recorded by Joel Cohen and his Boston Camerata. Great Jewish conductors such as Eugene Ormandy and Leonard Bernstein recorded albums filled with wonderful Christmas music. Recently, America’s greatest conductor of choral music, including Christmas choral music, was Robert Shaw, a Unitarian, not an orthodox Christian.
A greater appreciation for the unparalleled cultural significance of Christmas should lead to greater tolerance of the public celebration of Christmas in all its facets. After all, the beauty that inspires even many non-believers was the result of a tradition that valued Christmas and what it means.
A society that treats “Christmas” as a dirty word and assiduously tries to prevent school children from learning anything about it—especially the parts of Christmas that are beautiful or sublime —is unlikely to add to that beauty, or even pass along the beauty it received from earlier generations untouched by the War against Christmas.
Despite the continued onslaught against Christmas and the Orwellian arguments served up to justify it, I remain optimistic. Each year more and more people come to recognize that a War against Christmas is being waged, and they start fighting back.
I was also encouraged by the Federalists’ reaction to my talk. And one audience member, an Orthodox Jewish lawyer, offered a valuable piece of advice.
He said that Christians need to grow backbones.
He was right. We need to be able to stand up and say “two plus two equals four” again.
If we can do that, as Orwell wrote, “all else follows.”
Tom Piatak writes from Cleveland, Ohio.
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