Henry E. Brown is a Republican congressman from South Carolina.
Earlier this month, as I recorded a message to our troops and sent Christmas cards to family and friends, I found myself hesitating before using "Merry Christmas" to wish those important to me a blessed holiday. I was brought up in a Christian home where we celebrated Christmas and its many traditions. Until recently, I had never thought twice before wishing others "Merry Christmas." Communities across the country are abuzz with the "acceptable" way to observe this holiday season, but why should those who celebrate Christmas feel pressure to say "Season's greetings" or "Happy holidays," reluctant to express traditional Christmas words of good cheer?
I am troubled by the sentiment that the phrase "Merry Christmas" is not appropriate and concerned by the limits placed on the expression of the traditions and symbols associated with this national holiday. For me, Christmas is one of our most important holidays, not only because of Christianity's influence on our nation's founding but also because of the Christmas message of "peace on Earth, goodwill to men." To downplay this holiday can only be construed as an attempt to minimize its origin. While the commercialization of the Christmas season floods our cities with beautiful light displays and decorations of Santa and his reindeer, we must not forget that the true meaning and significance of Christmas is the birth of Christ.
I recognize that there are many religions that celebrate a variety of holidays this month. However, in accordance with the First Amendment, I believe it is important to protect civic religious dialogues and preserve the right for everyone to worship as they believe. This does not mean limiting individuals' expression, in public or private, of their religious traditions in favor of creating a neutral holiday season. Instead, as Thomas Jefferson suggested in his 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptist Association, the "wall of separation between church and state" ensures against government encroachment on religious expression. This means that no one should feel compelled to hide his or her celebration of Christmas or feel obligated to hesitate before expressing Christmas greetings. I am concerned that recent attempts to celebrate a "politically correct" holiday season demean this right and may cause the loss of the true meaning of Christmas and some of its sacred traditions.
Unfortunately, the avoidance and hesitation to openly celebrate Christmas seems to be growing. This month's Climate Summit in Copenhagen prohibited the Christmas trees that annually adorn Denmark's Bella Center, despite the fact that Christmas has been celebrated in Denmark since the 17th century. Its Foreign Ministry attributed the ban to the United Nations' attempt to remain neutral, meaning Denmark's traditions will be taking a back seat this Christmas.
An elementary school in Oregon banned symbols like Santa Claus and Christmas trees and even threw out a "holiday giving tree," the purpose of which was to encourage students to give gifts to needy children. The principal of an elementary school in Connecticut instructed students to say "Happy winter" instead of "Merry Christmas." Both schools said that they did not want students whose families did not celebrate Christmas to feel left out or uncomfortable because of the presence of religious symbols in which they did not believe. But the simple wish of cheer at Christmastime, to those who celebrate it or those who do not, is neither insulting nor intrusive. Instead, by pushing Christmas out of the public sphere, actions like those of these schools teach children that their celebrations are somehow offensive and should be limited.
This growing censure of Christmas in favor of a more "politically correct" holiday has also been embraced by some of our nation's leaders. Earlier this month, reports circulated that the White House would celebrate a nonreligious Christmas by excluding any religious symbols from the celebration. I was shocked to read that President Obama considered omitting the traditional manger scene from the elaborate White House decorations in an attempt to keep them religiously neutral. While ultimately the manger scene was included, the hesitation to include the nativity, which depicts a paramount scene in the Christian faith, is worrisome. Additionally, the president's official Christmas card did not reference the holiday or its purpose. To strip Christmas of all religious significance is to lose the reason for recognizing it nationally.