Happy Holidays: Embracing Tradition and Culture in a Secular Society

happyholidays“Have a safe and happy holiday season.” – Al Stefanelli

I wrote a news story yesterday for The God Discussion about the removal of a Christmas Tree in Brussels, Belgium, in favor of an electronic light sculpture after members of the Muslim community had voiced concern about being offended by the Christian symbol. I also noted that the city had chosen to leave the Nativity scene in place.

I think many of us who live in the United States should endeavor to understand how the process of religious issues are tackled outside our borders, particularly in countries that do not have a similar constitution to ours, but enjoy a free society, free access to information and relatively no restrictions on their lives.


Belgium, for example, is a constitutional, popular monarchy and a federal parliamentary democracy. It’s Parliament is two-fold, consisting of a Senate and Chamber of Representatives. These two entities consist of both elected and appointed individuals, and include ‘Senators by Right,‘ which are children of the king.

Yes, Belgium has a king. Albert II is the head of state, but there is also a Prime Minister. Their judicial system is based on civil law, but most political power is organized around the representation of cultural communities. Thus, the decision by officials in Brussels to remove the Christmas Tree at the behest of Muslims should not be construed as it would if something similar had occurred here, in the United States. Almost no one is crying foul. Brussels has a Muslim population that comprises over 25% of residents, a significant number and thus, they have a legitimate voice to request a change in public displays.

Belgium is a peaceful nation, a founding member of the EU and has a lot to brag about. While there are Muslim Clerics who make statements that they wish the country to become an Islamic Democracy, this does not reflect the majority of Muslims. There are Christians there, as well, who call for the same with their religion. This is no different from an extremist Muslim Cleric decrying the same things from their New York City apartment, or the Christian fundamentalist making similar statements from their home in Tennessee.

Islam Bad, Christianity Good..?

We tend to think Islam a ‘worse‘ religion than Christianity, here in the United States. Much of our fears and apprehensions surrounding Islam, Sharia law and their religious customs are not borne out of an understanding of how their religion is practiced by most Muslims, but by what we have associated with Islam – especially since 9/11. I’ve had the opportunity over the years to talk to a lot of Muslims here, and for the most part, they are no different from members of other religions.

Yes, there are places in the world we’ve all read and heard about that have melded local traditions with Islam that result in some truly horrific violations of human rights, as well as to justify beheading,  terrorism, destruction of property and extreme behavior toward women and homosexuals. There is no shortage of personal testimonies by both men and women who have been exposed to these horrors, or have been inflicted with some of them. Prominent dissenters of Islam are often either jailed or exiled, and there remains entire governments that are extremely oppressive to infidels, women, homosexuals, etc.

However, while there are a few outspoken Islamic extremists making headlines in the United States, most Muslims here don’t have any urge to go around chopping off heads, to stone their women to death and have little care about what another person’s sexual orientation is. It’s just not relevant to their lifestyles, here. Most often, they are just trying to get through the day like the rest of us.

There are a few outspoken Christian extremists making headlines in the United States, but most Christians similarly ignore the biblical commands to stone, kill and mutilate that are very similar to the Koran. How many Christians do you know who express a desire to kill their kids for being disobedient, or to stone their women for adultery, or to burn people who practice Wicca, or to kill homosexuals? Most of them, like the rest of us, are just trying to get through the day without too much ‘duck and cover.

When A Muslim Speaks…

The Muslim activists here in the United States who do make controversial statements often get a lot of press coverage, regardless of their position within the Islamic community. Their comments are immediately spit out by the media as being representative of all Muslims, when usually it’s just some lone lunatic that’s been condemned even by members of their own faith. I’ve spoken to a lot of Muslims whose reactions to these activists is along the lines of ‘please stop helping, you’re making it worse.

When a Christian activist makes a controversial statement, it usually goes unnoticed unless it’s a politician, a prominent televangelist or businessman. When local Clergy ends up on the national news, it’s usually because of a pretty slow news day. For the most part, when I talk to mainstream Christians and ask them their thoughts on some of the more acerbic commentary coming out of the extremists on the religious right, most of them have a very similar reply. Please stop helping, you’re making it worse.

Public Displays…

Our Constitution allows for the protests of any displays of religious material on public property. While this is often the source of major contention, legal battles and protests, it is still uniquely American (US) culture and law that allows us to either petition our governments to redress our grievances or display our traditions in the public square. Secularists are on the side of the law, Christians are on the side of a majority and our diverse religious communities are on the side of tradition. Sometimes the law must be addressed, such as when permanent monuments are mounted in courthouses, or where civil rights laws are broken.

Sometimes, though, a little culture and tradition is nice to see. I don’t get offended at Christmas Trees, even the one at the White House. My ire is not raised when someone wishes me a Merry Christmas, or Happy Hanukkah, or happy Kwanzaa, or Ramadan, or whatever. I usually reply in kind, because that’s just not the time for a religious debate.

During the Winter Holidays, when I pass a public park and there are displays representing a variety of religions, as well as the secular aspect of our society, it doesn’t phase me a bit. I’d probably stop to admire the craftsmanship or the ingenuity of the design, or whatever. The only time my ass gets chapped is when one religion is represented at the expense of others, or when secular displays are banned or not provided for.

When done with diversity, these are temporary, seasonal displays that represent our culture. As long as there is a venue for all traditions, and a secular representation, I don’t think our public spaces should remain spartan during our holidays. I enjoy them, all of them. In Belgium, and other parts of the world that honor diversity, the government making decisions based on local culture that are not at the expense of other aspects of their local traditions should not be looked upon as censorship. When our governments here make accommodation for religious traditions outside of the Christian faith to be represented during the winter holidays, we don’t call it censorship. We call it accommodation to diversity.

As we arrive closer to the end of the year, we will very soon begin to be inundated with consumer advertising blitzes. There will be the inevitable fights that will result from local municipalities which only want to put up Christian displays, resulting in no displays and everyone losing.  There will be the usual whining about atheists attempting to ‘steal Christmas.’ There will be the usual debates about what each religion represents with respect to social justice issues. There will be stories coming out of the media that will make us cry, rage, shake our heads or all of these things combined.

Final Thoughts…

Just remember that the usual panalopy of batshittery from the religious extremists, historical revisionists, terrorists, vandals and others who display anti-social, sociopathic or psychotic tendencies tend to get worse this time of year. The month of December is when it usually gets so intense that you just want to scream out and shut yourself away from the world.

Do yourself a favor when you totally lose ‘faith‘ in humanity. Shut off your computer and go find something pretty to look at. Take some family and friends with you and enjoy the company of those you love and whom love you. The world will waiting for you until you get back, as will the battles, debates, protests, demonstrations and everything else you hear and read about in the media and on your social networks.


  1 comment for “Happy Holidays: Embracing Tradition and Culture in a Secular Society

  1. November 15, 2012 at 9:47 am

    Christmas trees are not a christian symbol. They are pagan, linked to the festival of yule. When christianity was first spread round Europe by the Roman Empire, they did not repress other religions, demanding the removal of icons and banning rituals. They simply absorbed them and so successful was this policy that now many people make the mistake of assuming that the trees, the eggs, the bunnies and indeed christmas itself are christian (christmas, of course, results from the absorption of mithraism, paganism and several other things like saturnalia). It is a tactic that later religions and indeed non-theist belief systems might do well to emulate rather than the posturing and demands that only result in alienation and conflict.

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