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Steve Nelson: Let’s Have a Truce and a Merry Christmas

Snowman or straw man? Among America’s most recent holiday traditions is the fun debate about the “War on Christmas.” Conservatives, particularly the festive crew at Fox News, take particular umbrage at the phrase “Happy Holidays,” believing its utterance is an epithet directed at the faithful.

The Liberty Institute, an organization dedicated to “defending and restoring religious liberty in America,” cites various outrages, like prohibiting cute little children from giving out pencils in school with the message, “Jesus is the reason for the season.” Or a nativity scene “kicked out” of Shaw Air Force Base in South Carolina.

But I come not to bury Christmas, but to praise it.

We nonbelievers are barking up the wrong Christmas tree. There are reasons aplenty to criticize religion. For example, using any faith as justification for slaughtering those who hold another faith is probably worthy of our disdain. And using religion to deny full rights to gay women and men is naughty, not nice, especially at Christmastime, when gaiety should be encouraged.

And there ought to be bipartisan agreement that consumerism is rampant and corrosive to the spirit. If there is anything over which the right and left hands might join, it should be a campaign to take Christmas back from the salesmen. Responding to a recent New York Times article about the War on Christmas, a clever commenter suggested that the war was in response to Christmas’s unprovoked invasion of Thanksgiving. Or, more aptly, Halloween. Or is it now Labor Day?

But when we get our humanist knickers in a knot over pencils or crèches, I fear we give the strenuously faithful an opening to characterize all secularists as nasty little scolds.

My school, which is joyfully unfaithful, has a lovely Christmas tradition. On the last day of school before the blessed break, all students gather in the gym. From the balcony, the senior class leads a rag-tag chorus of 500 in The Twelve Days of Christmas. The students act out each verse, miming the front crawl to “seven swans a-swimming” and squatting in unison while screaming, “six geese a-laying.” “Ten lords a-leaping” shakes the foundation.

And here’s the thing: While we don’t do a religious census, I figure about half the kids are Jewish, at least culturally, a couple of handfuls are Muslim and a great many have no particular religious identity. On “and a partridge in a pear tree” verse, we all put our index fingers on top of our heads and spin, giggling and losing our bearings. Several students and faculty have had to readjust their yarmulkes after this verse. In 16 years, I’ve never fielded a complaint from a student, parent or teacher. We are a private school, of course, so the separation-of-Santa-from-school Claus of the Constitution doesn’t apply, but no one is kvetching.

So perhaps we should just declare a truce. The righteous right might put their rhetorical guns away for the Christmas season if we stop giving them easy targets, like banning harmless displays or telling kids they can’t sing Christmas carols in school.

I can’t, in good conscience, rail against the religious roots of a season that provides my family with such profound pleasure. All of this season’s traditions, including my school’s silly song, provide an opportunity for connection — with each other and with the ineffable.

Some evening before Christmas, we will take our annual trip to the Joseph Smith Memorial in Sharon, driving through the lights with gratitude for the spiritual gift they provide.

On Christmas Eve, we will be with our daughter, son-in-law and granddaughter, belting out “Joy to the world, the Lord is come,” deeply meaning the first phrase, deeply uncertain about the second. Late on Christmas Eve, my wife and I will sit in front of our Christmas tree and listen to centuries-old carols, reviving fading memories from 44 Christmases together, giving ourselves over to wistful serenity. If we have a midnight clear, I’ll go on the deck and listen to the deep silence, looking at the night sky with reverence, grateful for the unlikely notion of my own existence.

And then, as every year, we will crawl into bed listening to a recording of Dylan Thomas reading his A Child’s Christmas in Wales, wondering, too, whether it snowed for six days and six nights when we were 12 or whether it snowed for 12 days and 12 nights when we were 6.

Steve Nelson lives in Sharon and New York City, where he is the head of the Calhoun School, a private school.