Many Crikey readers will be
sending Christmas cards at this time of year, and those who go to the
post office for Christmas card stamps will find they carry an
unmistakably religious image.

Australia Post is a government
instrumentality, so prima facie this would seem a violation of section
116 of the Constitution, which prohibits “any law for establishing any
religion.” But don’t expect anyone to line up for a constitutional
challenge, since the High Court gutted that section back in 1981.

Some
may question whether any special treatment at all for Christmas amounts
to religious discrimination. But in Australia, it seems clear that
Christmas is fundamentally a secular festival. The enthusiasts of
“political correctness” who try to ban such symbols as Christmas trees
are actually importing a controversy from the US, but the much stronger
religious feeling there makes for a very different debate.

An interesting opinion piece by Adam Cohen in Sunday’s New York Times
analyses the campaigns by the Christian right, who claim that Christmas
is “under siege.” “The American Family Association is leading a boycott
of Target for not using the words ‘Merry Christmas’ in its
advertising.” The fundamentalists regard Christmas as their property,
and in their strange worldview, any denial of its importance amounts to
religious persecution.

Amanda Marcotte at Pandagon is more colourful:

Seems that a few power hungry right-wingers got together
and decided to spread paranoid conspiracy theories that Christmas was
under attack by secular humanists. It didn’t take long for hordes of
sheeplike wingnuts to start running around telling people “Merry
Christmas” with the same attitude as if they were teenagers testing
their parents’ limits by telling them to f*ck off.

As
Cohen points out, this is not just silly but unhistorical. “America has
a complicated history with Christmas, going back to the Puritans, who
despised it. What the boycotters are doing is not defending America’s
Christmas traditions, but creating a new version of the holiday that
fits a political agenda.”

As
late as the mid-nineteenth century,
Christmas was recognised as a holiday in only about half the states.
Commercialisation, not religion, is the force that has driven
widespread acceptance of it since then.

Peter Fray

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Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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