Tom Flynn – The Real War on Christmas

December 22, 2006

Tom Flynn is the Editor of Free Inquiry magazine. A journalist, novelist, entertainer, and folklorist, Flynn is the author of numerous articles for Free Inquiry, many addressing church-state issues, as well as the best-selling The Trouble With Christmas, about which he has made hundreds of radio and TV appearances in his role as the curmudgeonly “anti-Claus.” He is also the author of the critically acclaimed anti-religious black comedy science fiction novel, Galactic Rapture. His latest work, The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief, is a comprehensive reference work on the history, beliefs, and thinking of America’s fastest growing minority: those who live without religion.

In this talk with D.J. Grothe, Flynn discusses the origins of Christmas, current public rhetoric about secular progressives’ so-called anti-Christmas agenda, why he says it is important for secularists to abstain from Holiday celebrations, and the economic implications of such abstinence, and goes on to actually urge listeners to wage a “War on Christmas,” in defense of America’s religious diversity and the rights of nonbelievers. He also talks about alternatives to Christmas, such as HumanLight, Kwanzaa, Festivus, and Solstice.

This is point of inquiry for Friday, December 22nd, 2006. 

Welcome to Point of inquiry, I’m DJ Grothe a point of inquiry is the podcast and radio show of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank collaborating with the State University of New York at Buffalo on the new science and the public master’s degree. CFI also has branches in Manhattan, Tampa, Hollywood and Washington, D.C., and 14 other cities around the world. Every week on this show, we look at some of the big questions of our society through the lens of science and critical thinking, focusing mostly on the paranormal, religion, pseudoscience and alternative medicine. But we look at other questions as well. Before we get to this week’s guest Tom Flynn, we’re going to talk about the real war on Christmas. I’d like to welcome the new CFI campus group that is working with us at the University of Louisville. If you’d like to work with us to start a group at your school, you can do so by going to Campus Inquirer dot org signing up. You’ll get a box of free education on promotional materials in the mail and you can help us advance science and reason in your neck of the woods. 

Now a word from our sponsor and then on to Tom Flynn, the world is under assault today by religious extremists who invoke their particular notion of God to try and control what others think can do. One magazine is dedicated to keeping you up to date with analysis that cuts through the noise and the surprising courage to appear politically incorrect. That magazine is Free Inquiry, the world’s leading journal of secular humanist opinion and commentary. Regular contributors include Richard Dawkins, Wendy Kaminer, Christopher Hitchens, Peter Singer and Sam Harris. Their views are reasoned, thought provoking and to some, unpardonable, infuriating. Subscribe to free inquiry today. One year, six controversial issues for 1995. Call one 800 four five eight one three six six. Or visit us on the web at Secular Humanism, Dawg. 

Today is going to be a fun show. We have Tom Flynn, editor of Free Inquiry magazine, the nation’s leading journal of secular humanist opinion and commentary. Thom’s appeared all over in the media and has traveled widely throughout the United States, around the world, talking about Freethought, secularism and the other kinds of issues that the Council for Secular Humanism promotes. He’s the author of a number of books, including The Trouble with Christmas. And that’s what we’re going to be talking about today, Christmas and why he hates it. Tom, welcome to Point of Inquiry. 

Hey, thanks, T.J.. Good to be here. And happy just another day. 

What is it you say? Ho, ho, ho. No, no, no. Right. Yeah. You left. Pay me royalties for that. By the way. Only kidding. Tom, I have a confession to make. I love Christmas. Although they say Halloween is the gay Christmas. Christmas is kind of gay for me. I love Christmas too. My partner, I get a tree, decorate the apartment. We put up lights. Listen to Dean Martin singing Christmas songs. I have my little Latino themed Baby Jesus creche. Right. It’s really fun. It’s kitsch. We have Christmas parties every year. Last year we had a gingerbread house party where all our friends made elaborate gingerbread houses with all the icing and decorations. Lauren Becker and I still have this kind of feud about who had the best one. And this year we had another big party for most people. Here’s my point. Christmas is fun. It’s a time for families showing loved ones how important they are to us giving gifts, spending time together. Why do you hate it so much? 

Well, actually, I don’t really hate Christmas. I’d just like to be able to leave it alone. I mean, let me ask you a question, DJ Grothe. I know you well. I’m pretty sure that you’re not a Muslim. What did you do for Ramadan this year? 

I might have said happy Ramadan a couple times, I’m not sure. 

Probably not much and nor would anyone expect you to. It’s not your holiday. Well, for a lot of non-religious Americans, atheists, secular humanists, devout Americans who aren’t Christian. Christmas in a lot of ways is not their holiday. The thing is, in American life, there’s no way to resist getting dragged up on the bandwagon. You can’t live in this country and ignore Christmas the way you were. I can ignore Ramadan while the Muslim community enthusiastically celebrates it. And I think that’s unfair. I think we need to tear apart the different elements of Christmas. There’s a lot about it that is fun. There’s a lot about it that serves important social needs, particularly reuniting scattered family members. And these are things we should look at, finding better ways to do ways that occur at more commodious times of year. And importantly for us as nonreligious Americans, ways that don’t conscript us into promoting the idea that everyone is participating in the Christian holiday at this time of year. 

So I want to talk about alternatives to Christmas in a bit. But it sounds like you’re just saying you don’t like being imposed upon you don’t like Christmases, pervasiveness in society. 

Exactly. It’s very difficult to escape from. And I know that because back in 1984, I decided to stop celebrating the holiday. As they say I went, you will free. And the thing that struck me right between the eyes was just how arrogant society is in promoting this holiday and how much pressure is placed on people who, for whatever reason, don’t feel it’s their holiday. We shove it down everybody’s throat these days. 

Don’t we promote all kinds of other religious traditions or around this time of year, there’s Kwanzaa. Course, Hanukkah is kind of the. And in fact, this is a criticism of Christmas from some secular Jews that Hanukkah has become kind of the Jewish Christmas, the competition with Christmas. 

Oh, it very much has. If you if you look over in Israel, for example, Hanukkah is a tiny holiday that very little is done about. That’s been the norm in Jewish life over the centuries. So in one sense, the fact that Hanukkah had to get so plumped up and somewhat materialistic here in America is just an emblem of how crudely Christianity was imposing on the Jewish community in the early and mid 20th century that the Jewish community had to respond by basically prostituting this little holiday on their calendar, that basically all it had going for it was that it came at about the same time as the Christian juggernaut. OK. So you’re an atheist? 

Look, I’m an atheist to a secular humanist. Obviously, I don’t believe Jesus is the reason for the season. All that stuff. But isn’t your stance of being against Christmas because of its origins and that it’s imposed upon you? It’s so pervasive, a little like being against the names of our days of the week and months because of their pagan origins and how universal it is in our society that everyone calls January, January and Thursday, Thursday. 

Well, there’s an element of that course. There’s also a a political consideration. Nobody is out there trying to force prayers to the Roman gods or the Norse gods into our public schools so I can put reforming Thor’s day and January name for Janna’s in August named for Augustus Caesar. That’s way down my list of things I’d like to see changed. Christianity, on the other hand, is very pervasive in our society. 

And there are huge numbers of Christian conservatives who are very actively mounting discrimination against the non-religious. So it’s a bigger deal to give Christianity the appearance of more respect than we should be giving it than this more casual respect for other religions. But you touched on the pagan origins, and this is something in my book I talk about as the paradox of Christmas. On the one hand, if you go through and look at the entire history of the holiday, there’s almost no aspect of it, even of the way it’s celebrated in churches. That’s unique to Christianity. Almost all of the old stuff was borrowed from ancient religions, mystery religions of the Middle East, various pagan isms. Almost all of the new stuff is secular or commercial in origin. There’s very, very little, in fact, in my book. The only thing I could find that was a genuine Christian innovation in celebrating Christmas was the idea of having a midnight mass. I mean, just to give you one example, the idea of a Redeemer man, God, who was born of a virgin in humble circumstances and visited by kings is a very popular trope. There were literally dozens of mystery religions at the time of Christ that said this very thing about their founders. So even that claim is not unique in any way. Tom, tell me a little bit more about where Christmas came from. Oh, the Christmas celebration came. Largely from ancient northern European paganism, some aspects of it go back further. You can trace the tradition of decorating at solstice time with evergreens and lights all the way back to the ancient Egyptians. But many of the aspects of our festival come from Norse and other northern European pagan traditions. The Christmas tree, the Christmas tree, the whole idea of the ghostly visitor who comes and visits the house and needs to be placated with a gift of food. Now, that’s both where we get Santa Claus and his glass of milk. And the trick or treaters and their treats at Halloween. Interesting. Mistletoe. One of these pagan myths. Mistletoe is mistletoe comes out of Norse paganism. The Christmas tree came out of Germanic paganism, although it didn’t really enter our celebration of Christmas until the eighteen hundreds. Queen Victoria married a German prince and the German prince brought to Buckingham Palace a Christmas tree. The German tradition and Victoria and Albert were much like Prince Charles and Lady Di. Twenty years ago they were beloved and doted on by the British public. And when an engraving appeared in the London newspaper of Queen Victoria’s Christmas tree, well, then everyone had to have one. Wow. That’s why we have the Christmas tree so pervasively now and up. This ties in with one of the things that I point out in the book. Christmas, as we celebrated in the West, had almost disappeared at the beginning of the 19th century. It was a revival, a reanimation, if you will, that we can credit to a very small number of Victorians. One of them was Queen Elizabeth. And so when we look at Christmas traditions that came from Germany or came out of Italy or came out of the Norse lands or whatever it might be, they really didn’t. They came to our Christmas only as they were filtered through the preoccupations of this small Anglo American group of Victorians. If Charles Dickens didn’t write about it, if Queen Victoria didn’t promote it, if Thomas Nast didn’t draw it and so on and so on, it probably didn’t become a part of our Christmas. So there’s there’s this cultural narrowness in the traditional holiday that even though parts of it can be traced to different parts of the world. They all had to go through this Anglo American bottleneck around the eighteen eighties. 

And so little about Christmas is actually Christian. It’s either commercialism or ancient pagan symbolism. How can you possibly argue that it’s promoting Christianity? 

Well, that’s the other horn of the paradox of Christmas. That’s the other horn of the dilemma. Christmas, while no part of it is uniquely Christian, historically, just about the whole festival in its pagan aspects, its commercial aspects and its religious aspects all take on this Christian or just by being part of Christmas. Socially, culturally. Christmas is a festival about the enormous influence of Christianity in our culture. So even though most of its content is not uniquely Christian, when you celebrate Christmas, when you’re seen going through the motions of celebrating Christmas, you’re putting your shoulder to the wheel of Christian influence in this society. Now, if you’re a non-religious American or if you’re a non Christian believer and you think Christianity has excessive influence in this society, when you celebrate Christmas, you’re working against your own interests politically and culturally. 

I’d like to let our listeners know that you can purchase a copy of Tom Flynn book. The Trouble with Christmas through our website point of inquiry dot org, like almost no one else at CFI except for you, Tom. I have kind of a libertarian streak, you and me, against the world, right? Well, in more ways than just one at Tom, why not just live and let live? Why not just let people enjoy their cherished myths or get into the spirit of the season without being such a Scrooge? Yes. You feel like Christianity is dominant in our culture, but boycotting Christmas is not going to change that. 

Well, I’m hoping to do a little consciousness raising. The question here isn’t as much for me to live and let live. It’s to persuade or if necessary, compel the Christian majority to live and let live. The problem right now is that majority Christianity strongly demands that everyone pay lip service to their sectarian birthday holiday and this time of year. And no, I don’t think that my one person boycott of Christmas is going to have any direct effect. But I am hoping that I can do some consciousness raising to use the 60s terms, particularly to get more secular humanist thinking about what message they’re sending. When they celebrate the holiday and this isn’t a matter of ending Christmas, I mean, not that I could anyway. What I would like to see and what I think our society needs to do just because it’s growing more and more religiously diverse. We need to move from this default assumption that Christmas is something everybody has to do to the idea that Christmas is something that a lot of people do and a lot of other people don’t do. 

Do you think that your war on Christmas isn’t just playing right into the hands of the religious right who argues, like Bill O’Reilly argues, that there’s this vast secular progressive assault on Christmas? 

I don’t think we can run away from the culture wars. The culture wars are going on. We are involved in them. We are generally on the opposite side from the people like Bill O’Reilly. And I don’t think we can run away from that. What I’m very concerned about in the last two years as the right wing war on Christmas rhetoric has heated up. We’ve started seeing something that’s almost unprecedented in American life. A lot of center right people signing on to a strongly reactionary agenda and saying explicitly about Christmas that we’ve been pandering to these minorities too much and it’s time to take the culture back in the name of the majority. That’s a profoundly reactionary stance, and it’s very worrisome to see that kind of stance getting significant traction in American life. That would be the equivalent of if you’d had a large and successful movement in the South back in the late 60s, early 70s to bring back separate drinking fountains. Generally, America has done a pretty good job. It’s slow, but the system works of increasing and freedom of expression and increasing in the restrictions on allowable religious speech in public spaces. As religious diversity expands, our culture is getting more and more diverse than it’s ever been. Every religion on the planet has significant representation here. And what scares me as this is the worst of all possible times for the American Center right to be determined to turn back the clock. That could be a recipe for very serious ethnic and religious conflict in our society and in our schools in the years ahead. 

You’re not helping foment that conflict by actually waging a war against Christmas? 

No, I think the war on that side needs to be fought. The worst case is where you’ve got Bill O’Reilly and John Gibson and Glenn Beck in this crowd whipping up the troops against a war on Christmas that isn’t really there. And they’re the only people in the conflict. They’ll just keep pushing and pushing and pushing to the right. It needs to be resisted. The interests of non Christian Americans, religious and otherwise, need to be articulated, need to be defended in some quarters. That’s going to sound controversial. It’s going to sound provocative. Well, of course it is. It’s the other side of a genuine dialog and a genuine battle that we’re having in this country. And who knows whether we’ll win if we don’t fight? We’ll certainly lose. 

And it should be said that you’ve been waging your war on Christmas for a lot longer than Bill O’Reilly has been talking about a war on Christmas. 

Oh, yeah. I’ve been I’ve been against Christmas since way before. It was cool. I first gave up the holiday in 1984, enjoyed nine years of very mellow holiday seasons, no shopping, no distractions. Then foolishly, in 93, I published my book and I have microphones in my face all through the holiday season. 

Now, here’s to it. Tom, let’s talk about some of the practical implications of this war on Christmas that you’re waging, that others are waging, kind of rallying around you here. If everybody stopped celebrating Christmas, whether they stopped celebrating Christmas because of its origins or because they don’t like the smack of religion attached to it or because they don’t like Christianity being so pervasive in our society, if they all stop celebrating it, wouldn’t it severely harm the economy? Most retailers make like 50 percent of their annual revenue just during the Christmas season. Sure, some say your proposal is anti-American. Others say it’s at the very least anti Christian. But isn’t it obviously just on the face of it, bad for my wallet? If it’s so bad for the economy? 

Well, if everyone stopped celebrating Christmas, that would be a real bump in the road for American retail. Of course, you and I know that’s not going to happen. The economy is continuing to expand for better or worse. The national population is continuing to expand. If Christmas turns from something that 95 percent of the population participates and does, something that 80 percent of the population participates in, Wal-Mart and Macy’s will do just fine. There’s there’s more than enough growth in the economy that some. People can back away from the Christmas holiday and not pull the plug on the economic machine. The other thing we have to look at is that the huge economic importance of Christmas, historically speaking, is relatively new. It entered Western society with the rise of the great department stores in the final quarter of the 19th century. If you look back at Dickens Christmas Carol on Christmas morning, Ebenezer Scrooge, after he has his conversion experience, has no trouble throwing out the window open, finding a little boy walking by on Christmas morning with nothing better to do, and sending the little boy to the butcher shop to buy a goose to send to Bob Cratchit. It’s Christmas and the butcher is open. So actually, Dickens is one of the people who created this social movement that built up Christmas and dramatically expanded its commercial side. So I think we need to look at two things. Number one, everybody’s not going to stop celebrating Christmas. Darn it, most people are going to continue to feel that it’s an appropriate holiday for them and they are going to continue to have enough spending power to keep the retail sector going. And number two, on the longer term, our society has had this economic dependance on holiday spending only for about 150 years. And as long as a reduction happened gradually, I think we’d accommodate to it just wonderfully before we finish up. 

Tom, I want to ask you about some of these alternatives to Christmas that have been cropping up. I know some of our humanist groups out there, groups that are emphatically non-religious, celebrates something called human light. And there are these tongue in cheek Festivus parties all over the country. Now, our CFI in Chicago is throwing one at the beginning of January. Are you also a Scrooge about these kinds of alternatives to Christmas or do these get a pass? 

Oh, I certainly don’t have much use for them personally. You left out the winter solstice, by the way, which is another popular alternative celebration, something you don’t even attend here at the Center for Inquiry. Exactly. Exactly. I mean, if I am not a Christian, I’m not a pagan either. So I don’t see any reason to observe what is essentially a pagan observance, which the solstice is. My problem with these alternative celebrations is more political and cultural, that it makes us look like we’re trying to go along. It makes us science seem to disappear. You know, you can have your solstice tree up in your window. John Q. Public walks by and sees it in your window interest. Thanks. Oh, there’s one more Judeo Christian on the bandwagon. So we’re missing an opportunity to make ourselves more conspicuous. I’d like to throw out one other idea, too. Why not create a holiday? Oh, let’s say in June, where everyone gets a week off and family members can come together from all the different parts of the country. I mean, this is this is very typical. Here we are leading up to the weekend before the holiday. Thousands of people are stranded in Denver by a snow storm. Thousands more are stranded in Chicago today by fog. I mean, in the northern part of the United States, the weather predictably stinks. At this time of year where we’re having Thanksgiving and we’re having Christmas and we’re doing all this travel, why don’t we move that to a time where it’s going to be nicer when you get there and you’re more likely to get there? Good point. Maybe I shouldn’t say that. Okay. I admit that I’m right. 

Don’t tell anyone, especially since I appear to be a bad secular humanist or atheist because I have that big Christmas tree up in the living room. You just need some consciousness raising, T.J.. Okay. Out to. I’ll take your word for it. 

Let me get back to the point that I was talking about right at the beginning. We are social primates. We like to congregate, get together, laugh, have fun together to socialize. I still wanna ask you. Aren’t you throwing out the baby with the bathwater now? I’m not talking about baby Jesus. Don’t we need some kind of annual celebration with friends and family? And isn’t it a little too much work to, you know, shift the calendar and make everybody do it in June? 

Well, I don’t know about that. First off, course, as secular humanist, we get rid of the baby a long time ago. The question is, why are we clinging to the bathwater? But fact, when you look at the history a thousand years ago, what we now observe as Thanksgiving and Christmas and New Year’s and Halloween, we’re all one holiday. Holidays do shift. They go through metamorphosis. The other thing I think we need to look at is I think we’re about do as a society to revisit what we mean by holidays. Yes, we’re social creatures, by all means. We need to get together. But let’s think about this. So many of our holidays that we celebrate are historically based on festivals, feast days. These were the rare days of this festival. Yes. These were days of the year when people who usually didn’t have enough to eat actually had some surplus. And a big part of the festival was getting together and gorging ourselves. Now, according to the statistics I see, and certainly my Santa Claus, like bulk, attest to this. Most people in the first world have exactly the opposite problem. Maybe the idea of a festival, maybe the idea of a winter festival said at the time of the solstice doesn’t have the same resonance it used to. When people have central heating and understand how the planets orbit and increasingly we’re building a global society in which the solstice has the opposite meaning on the other side of the world. So maybe we need to review which traditions we want to keep and which ones we want to modify in view of the huge differences in the way people live today. And I think if we do that objectively, obviously it’s not going to happen tomorrow. But I think over the middle term, if we do that objectively, we’re going to see that a winter festival of consumption that celebrates the fact that the days are about to start getting longer probably won’t have the same resonance for our children and grandchildren as it has for our ancestors. 

I’d like to remind our listeners that you can purchase a copy of Tom Flynn is the trouble with Christmas through our Web site? Point of inquiry, dot org. So before we say goodbye, Tom, what are a couple things our listeners could do if they want to enlist in this war on Christmas, aside from purchasing your your book? It was a fun read. 

Even people who don’t necessarily want to join the war might want to learn a little bit more about it, might want to challenge their thinking. There is my book in the current issue of Free Inquiry, which is the December January issue. My editorial deals with one of the more noxious aspects of the war on Christmas. The degree to which some Christian conservatives have started using the term Merry Christmas against non Christians as a form of hate speech. Those are strong words. Yeah, well, in some quarters we’re starting to see more and more of this, and it’s relatively new. Merry Christmas is turning into a three word greeting. And I think listeners couldn’t use their imagination as to what the third word is. And it’s being directed against people who don’t seem supportive of the holiday, who weren’t religious, who practice a religion other than Christianity. This is part of that reactionary movement on the Christian center right that I’m so worried about, because with exploding diversity, the last thing we need is a force on the Christian center trying to turn the clock back. 

So the first thing they could do is educate themselves about Christianity, its origins, its implications. What else? 

Well, the history of the holiday is actually a very important subject because there’s so much that happens this time of year that people don’t know about. I’d like to recommend another book, The Battle for Christmas. Believe the author’s name was Nissenbaum that came out about eight or nine years ago and that details the early battles over Christmas. So much of what shapes our holiday celebrations actually comes out of the battles between the Puritans and the Cavaliers in 16th, 17th and 18th century England. Our Puritans came out of that conflict. The differences in celebration between the American North and South paralleled what was going on in England. A lot of that turned out to drive the civil war. So there’s a lot of interesting, interesting cultural baggage in there. I think the most important thing is when you’re out in the world and somebody wishes you a merry Christmas or you’re about to wish somebody Merry Christmas. By reflex, just ask yourself, is that really what I want to say? How about happy holidays? How about have a good one? How about just just doing your little part to keep the rest of the calendar still in your thoughts at this time of year? Nobody’s gonna overthrow Christmas. I’d like to make a little more room where more people can get out of its shadow. 

When someone wishes you Merry Christmas. Do you ever tell them no on occasion? 

Usually I just say, oh, I don’t celebrate that holiday. And they get all flustered and embarrassed. 

Thanks for joining me again on point of inquiry, Tom. Thank you, T.J.. And happy just another day. 

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Thanks for listening to this episode of Point of Inquiry. Join us next week for a discussion with another thought leader on one of these interesting topics. If you want to get involved with an online conversation about the real war on Christmas, go to CFI Dasch forums. Dot org views expressed on point of inquiry don’t necessarily reflect the views of the Center for Inquiry, nor its affiliated organizations. Questions and comments on today’s show can be sent to feedback at point of inquiry dot org or by visiting our Web site. Point of inquiry dot org. 

Point of inquiry is produced by Thomas Donnelly and recorded at the Center for Inquiry in Amherst, New York. Executive producer is Paul Kurtz. Point of Inquiry’s music is composed for us by Emmy Award winning Michael Boylen. Contributors to today’s show included Debbie Goddard and Thomas Donnelly. I’m your host, DJ Grothe. 

DJ Grothe

D.J. Grothe is on the Board of Directors for the Institute for Science and Human Values, and is a speaker on various topics that touch on the intersection of education, science and belief. He was once the president of the James Randi Educational Foundation and was former Director of Outreach Programs for the Center for Inquiry and associate editor of Free Inquiry magazine. He previously hosted the weekly radio show and podcast Point of Inquiry, exploring the implications of the scientific outlook with leading thinkers.