Christmas Trees Not So Harmless

“Reminders of Christmas can make religious minorities feel ill at ease — even if they don’t realize it. When people who did not celebrate Christmas or who did not identify as Christian filled out surveys about their moods while in the same room as a small Christmas tree, they reported less self-assurance and fewer positive feelings than if they hadn’t been reminded of the holiday, according to a new study.” The full news story is here.

The researcher Michael Schmitt, a social psychologist at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, Canada said, the presence of the tree caused non-celebrators and non-Christians to feel subtly excluded.
“Simply having this 12-inch Christmas tree in the room with them made them feel less included in the university as a whole, which to me is a pretty powerful effect from one 12-inch Christmas tree in one psychology lab,” said Schmitt. Study participants did not know the study was about the effects of Christmas trees.

The reference “Identity moderates the effects of Christmas displays on mood, self-esteem, and inclusion
Identity moderates the effects of Christmas displays on mood, self-esteem, and inclusion,”
Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (November 2010), 46 (6), pg. 1017-1022. It’s here.

We’ve always had a Christmas Tree in our department common room and we have thought of it as harmless. Perhaps it’s time to reconsider.

84 thoughts on “Christmas Trees Not So Harmless

  1. Another interesting bit of the story: “Previous studies have shown that the environment can have significant effects on people’s moods and preferences. In one 2009 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers found that women report less interest in computer science after being exposed to stereotypically masculine, “geeky” rooms. “

  2. This was fascinating. Big question is, do we take down our Christmas Trees or make sure everyone feels included, given that Christmas is such a multicultural mishmash?

  3. Not sure to make non-Christians feel included in Christmas!

    The study author says “I don’t think it’s really going to undermine anyone’s experience of Christmas to tone it down,” he said. “We’re not suggesting ‘no Christmas’ or ‘no Christmas displays at all,’ but in contexts where we really do value respecting and including diversity in terms of religion, the safest option is not to have these kinds of displays.” Another option is to include other religious traditions in holiday displays, Schmitt said. The researchers didn’t investigate the effect of minority religious symbols on people in the majority; however, they wrote, previous research suggests that because these symbols are less frequent and less symbolic of the culture at large, the effect should be minimal.

  4. I’m wondering what’s going on. Visitors to a country don’t necessarily feel depressed and left out when a symbol of a celebration they don’t share in appears, surely? The unfamiliar icon is often interesting, even exciting.

    I suppose what I’m wondering is whether the tree is the real problem; perhaps it’s the exclusionary and negative forces that are at the bottom of it?? Would it be possible, then, to put some energy into making the tree a symbol of incluson? Or to change at least the small scale setting in a department to help break down the exclusion.

    Perhaps it’s just easier to junk the tree rather than change the world, but still… .

    I suppose we could compare the situation to stereotype threat: you want to avoid setting people up to feel threatned AND work against the power of the threat. Perhaps, then, we should junk the tree but also realize that’s hardly addressing the deeper issue, which will be in peoples lives in many more ways than a tree.

    Perhaps one should have a “whack a tree” party.

  5. Actually, I’m still wondering about the possibility of doing something more positive. Apparently students feel less vulnerable if they write something about their values at the beginning of a semester. We have a post about this somewhere. So one thing might be to have pieces of coloured paper on which students can write about values and then put these on the tree….or have them just put into a box and then put on the tree, so the writer’s identity is not obvious.

    O well…a thought…

  6. This is fascinating, and not at all surprising to me. I’m Jewish and though I wouldn’t have said that this makes me uncomfortable, I think it probably does. Just today I was at the vet with my cat, and there were little Christmas decorations on the door inside the exam room–they were small, and were blue and white (not typcial Christmas colors but rather the colors I tend to see people using for Hanukkah decorations). I found myself drawn to them, and I looked closer to see if they were actually for Christmas or for Hanukkah. Upon looking more closely I saw the words “Merry Christmas.” I wouldn’t have even given this a second thought (until writing just now), but I felt a little disappointed–I must have been hoping that the people at the vet’s office were more inclusive.

    I know Christmas (and the holiday season) can be annoying and upsetting for a lot of different reasons, but I really do feel excluded as these various things add up. I can’t tell you how many people have asked me “What are you doing for the holidays?” [nothing–my “holidays” fall at other times of the year, usually on school/work days] and “Are you done with your shopping” [there is no “holiday” shopping for me, since gift giving really isn’t central to Hannukah, with the exception of having to give your kids stuff so they don’t feel left out].

    Anyway, I wouldn’t make a big deal about a Christmas tree, but like so many other cultural/social phenomena, the effects build over time. It’s never just one isolated tree…

  7. jj, I think the analogy with visitors in another country is not apt. As a visitor to other countries, I expect and even welcome the sense that I am not where I belong! As a philosopher, I do not welcome this feeling in my workplace.

    But notice that the study continually stresses, “And non-celebrators.” I recall the happy sense of festive belonging I got when a professor gave me a Christmas-image laden card with “Happy Solstice!” scrawled excitedly in it. I felt like a co-celebrator! Perhaps the answer isn’t to take the tree down, but to include one’s members actively and happily.

    The same holds true in so many gender studies: Rather than erase the presence of gender, we are told repeatedly that it is better to make people of any gender feel welcome to enter and expected to enter. So I’m not taking down my decorations! Instead, I am including my office visitors in the festivities.

  8. “Another option is to include other religious traditions in holiday displays, Schmitt said.”

    In any European country, at least, this idea would be totally unacceptable to most people of the indigenous ethnicity.

  9. Profbigk: I agree that in a way the example of visitors is not apt. I mentioned it as a way of asking what is apt – that is, what are the important factors. It isn’t just that the symbols are alien to one’s culture.

  10. If a country has an established culture, then I do not think that, just because others come to live and work in that country, the country should tone down – and thereby undermine – its culture. That would be morally wrong. I would rather have a world where there are countries with strong Christian/Western traditions, a country with a strong Hindu/Indian tradition, a country with a strong Jewish tradition, countries with strong Muslim/Arab traditions, a country with a strong Muslim/Malaysian tradition etc etc.. Rather than a world where there are no distinct traditions, and everything is a dull grey mush.

    If I were fortunate enough to live and work in a Muslim country, then I would not for a moment think the people there should stop making the Friday call to prayer (for instance) regardless of whether I would, if filling out a questionnaire whilst it were on, report less wellbeing.

    Of course the host culture should do what it can to ensure visitors and those from immigrant communities do not feel threatened, but rather feel included. But there will be limits (as with the example of the Friday call to prayer – it is a call to prayer for some and not others).

    In the UK Christmas is not very Christian – and certainly most people in a philosophy department are not Christian – so Christmas is not exclusionary on that score. Rather it is simply a traditional celebration – rather like Thanksgiving in the US.

  11. As a Jewish person living in the U.S., I feel as though there might as well be a big sign screaming, “you don’t really belong here,” starting in November and continuing through the end of December.” There’s nothing unconscious about my feelings. As for what to do about it — those who are concerned to cause such feelings can take actions accordingly, perhaps starting by not assuming everyone is celebrating Christmas (or “holidays”), even in a non-religious way. I did not come to live and work in this country; I grew up here, and yet the country has let me know that I am an outsider, something I’ve been aware of since around kindergarten or so.

    Sorry to sound angry, but it’s a frustrating time of year.

  12. I should also add that, at least for me, “including” me in the Christmas festivities is not the answer. Rather, that just feeds into the “you should be Christian” message that I’ve been getting my entire life. It doesn’t help that some Christian denominations value and encourage proselytism.

  13. ben (from 8): why on earth do you think that?

    i was thinking of holiday festivities in schools in the uk. it’s quite normal now to celebrate christmas and eid and dewali and so on in schools, including all the children. i wonder does this make a difference. christmas traditions aren’t being changed at all (indeed, a nativity play is common in state schools)(tho, can i point out: there’s nothing christian about decorating a fir tree!), but major holidays from several religions are being celebrated. (channukah, btw, isn’t, but i think this is because channukah isn’t a major holiday amongst european jewish people.)

  14. Maybe what we need is a massive campaign to point out that trimming a tree, decking the house with wreaths and swags, lighting candles, etc., are remnants of Northern European indigenous religions that were co-opted by Christianity, just as Easter’s eggs and rabbits were, not to mention Halloween, and that when we celebrate with these traditions, we’re really being “secular pagans.”

    If Christians stopped thinking of these things as “Christian” but just as customs that for political reasons got tacked onto the Christian holidays, maybe they could be seen as secular, seasonal aspects of the dominant culture, like the decorative aspects of the Fourth of July and Thanksgiving, and maybe that wouldn’t feel as exclusionary?

  15. Yay to what “justanotherfemalephilosopher” said.

    I’m an atheist Jew and the results of this study are completely obvious to me. There is no way you are going to dress up your damn tree or let me put cute notes on it that is going to mitigate how uncomfortable I feel around it.

    Notice something about this thread: You repeatedly have Christians (cultural Christians at least – people who don’t feel on the the outside of the dominant Christian culture) saying “Oh maybe we can do ‘x’ to our tree and it won’t hurt anyone” and Jews saying “Nope, your tree bothers and excludes us no matter what”. It seems to me that a little dose of standpoint epistemology ought to be enough to convince the Christians that they are simply missing something.

  16. Rebecca and justanotherfemalephilosopher, I’m wondering if you think there’s no way to co-opt the tree, or if more you are skeptical of the ability of fomer or present Christians to come up with effective ideas for doing so.

    I suspect that what’s going on here is that some people have the sense that the basis of the problem isn’t really the tree, but the underlying and far spread institution. Given one’s inability to change much of that, it might make sense to think about how one could make the symbols less powerful. That might just not be possible, though.

  17. Much important discussion in the comments here. Nonetheless, I think many readers might benefit from consulting some of the relevant scholarly literature (on interdisciplinary studies in ethics, ethical theory, political philosophy, and political science). One excellent place to start is with work by Will Kymlicka. For some good starting points, I recommend the following:

    1) Multicultural Citizenship (1995), by Will Kymlicka [especially chapter 5]

    2) Politics in the Vernacular (2001), by Will Kymlicka

    3) chapter 11 of the 2001 book [2) above] is a reprinted survey article titled:

    Cosmopolitanism, Nation-States, and Minority Nationalism: A Critical Review of Recent Literature. 1999. by Will Kymlicka and Christine Straehle

    This last piece is co-authored by:
    Will Kymlicka, , and

    Christine Straehle,

    There are of course more recent circles of literature on these matters, though I find the pieces listed above amongst the best places to start (and often more valuable than more recent material).

  18. I’m wondering how Jewish people might feel about putting up hannukah decorations with Christmas ones. I know some Christians who put up a menorah, but it’s because they think ultimately Jewish holidays really are Christian and not because they want to be inclusive. This makes me a bit uncomfortable.

  19. I’ve read quite a lot of Kymlicka, but I don’t find that he speaks directly to this set of issues. In response to jj’s question (and Iga’s suggestions), while I think the tradition of tree decoration could *in theory* be “co-opted,” I’m not at all convinved that this is what’s actually happening now, when I see these decorated trees everywhere. At least during the time and place where I grew up, this was (and as far as I can tell, still is) a specifically Christian tradition. Yes, atheists who were raised Christian may still do it and feel as if it’s not about religion. But most atheists who were raised Jewish do not buy/decorate trees, and do not put up Christmas lights. There might be ways to alter the meaning that such trees have over time, but we can’t simply act as though they don’t have the culturally understood meaning.

    I actually love trees–and, at least during December, I love the snow (I live in the midwest, where everything is white right now). In terms of doing something positive, it seems that we should be able to find other ways to celebrate winter, and other symbols of this beautiful season. Actually, it’s not pine trees that bother me, but pine trees covered in ornaments and lights, with presents underneath, signify to me “Christmas,” not just winter/nature.

  20. Including Hanukkah is not the answer. First of all, it makes people think that Hanukkah is the Jewish version of Christmas. Second, it ends up being a song or two or a decoration or two, lost in a sea of Christmas songs and Christmas decorations. Or it becomes Christmahanukwanzaakah, but really, just the other holidays co-opted by Christmas. Third, it makes people think that Hanukkah is an important Jewish holiday, which it isn’t from the point of view of the Jewish religion. Fourth and perhaps most importantly, it doesn’t help with those who choose not to celebrate any holiday at all, or who celebrate their holidays at different times of year.

    I try to tell myself that the decorated trees are pagan symbols. But the truth is that people aren’t putting them up for that reason, regardless of their original origin and meaning. There are those who argue for keeping (or putting back) the Christ into Christmas. And as long as it is still Christ-mas, I won’t be celebrating it. I think Rebecca hit the nail on the head when she said that a lot of non-religious people are comfortable with Christmas because they are culturally Christian. So, perhaps they don’t understand why us non-culturally-Christian people are uncomfortable with these symbols. Again, for me, it is part of a larger message that I hear, telling me that we should all be Christian.

    I think if there is any change to be made, it is to make this time of year completely non-religious. Wish people a happy winter solstice. I always tell my students to have a good winter break. I don’t wish people “happy holidays” because to me, that’s just a euphemism for Merry/Happy Christmas, and because I don’t want to assume they are celebrating any holidays.

    That being said, I find the hopes for cultural change dim in this regard. But I would like to see my academic friends be a little more aware.

  21. No-one here, it appears, actually read the study. It has the same methodological problems one finds in many psychology papers: the participants are all undergraduates at the researchers’ university, the samples are only a few dozen people each and are drawn based more on convenience than to control for anything, and the threshold for statistical significance is low.

    In all their results for non-Christians/non-celebrator, the only effect that was statistically significant to 99% was a hit to self-assurance. The presence of the Christmas tree was a much better predictor of positive effects on Christians than of negative effects on non-Christians and non-celebrators. None of the differences in self-esteem were statistically significant to 99% for any group of participants. The researchers are going out on a limb, I’d suggest, when they interpret this as evidence of a negative effect on non-Christians.

  22. Dan, it is possible to point out methodological problems without suggesting none of us read the study. (I agree with your criticisms, I’m just saying, principle of charity and all that.)

    jj, thanks for the co-opting comment (#17)! Indeed, the professor I mentioned who gave me a “Happy Solstice” card was not a Christian, culturally or otherwise, and in addition is a radical lesbian who considers celebration of the ancient pagan aspect of the holiday as subversive. It was an honor to be included in her festive subversion.

    The claim that those of us who imagine ways to include others in the festivities are Christian is a claim that assumes what it is trying to prove.

  23. These so-called “studies” are designed for making shame-like feelings in ourselves because of our culture, thus undermining it slowly and gently, rendering ourselves defenseless to the the conquerors of our ages.

    We should not be annoyed by studies like this at all.If someone wants to feel inferior or outclosed because of our cultural habits, he just should take his stuff and go home to his culture, and let us enjoy our rights in our homelands to celebrate our holy days.

  24. Thank you! Methodological issues aside, i am grateful that the article triggered a discussion on the impact of Christmas decoration on non-Christians. I am an atheist and feel increasingly frustrated with the imposition of the “holiday cheer” on me. That is one reason, too, that i am resisting co-opting the symbols, which really are fundamentally religious. To me, the whole idea of coming up with a counter-holiday (or elevating a fairly unimportant one, as has happened with Hanukkah) misses the point: I want to have the option not to celebrate *anything* around this time. But somehow, i am expected to come up with something to be “inclusive,” “non-offensive” or whatnot. To me, this very much feels like the dominant culture imposing itself onto my life, my beliefs in the guise of being “inclusive”… And as i type all this, the thought keeps crossing my mind that i am just a holiday scrooge. But that’s again, just my point: Wanting to be without holidays during this time makes me grouchy, a scrooge, something that’s unacceptable because the expectations on my mood are based on the dominant culture.

  25. I do appreciate the sentiment behind the co-option suggestion and find myself tempted by it. It’s just that it’s too hard for me to distinguish between “let’s co-opt these symbols and give them other, non-religious meanings” and “let’s make it so that we all celebrate Christmas.” I realize there is a big difference between the two ideas, but in practice, I think they amount to the same thing. Again, it seems like “Happy Holidays,” which on the face of it seems neutral, but in practice ends up meaning “Merry Christmas.” I don’t want to celebrate Christmas at all, in any form. Why do I have to be included in the festivities? Why can’t some celebrate what they want without bombarding those who don’t want to celebrate? Should everyone be included in Purim and Sukkot festivities? (which I don’t generally participate in either, for what it’s worth)? Why?

  26. I just want to add my support to much of what justanotherfemalephilosopher says.

    As a Jewish person living in a country that’s mostly Christian, I understand XMas celebrations are very important to people around me, and can learn to live with them. But I can’t stand the way people around me assume these are just universal cultural symbols, rather then very specific symbols of one religion that some of us are not part of. And I too, find the attempts to turn Hanukkah into the “Jewish Christmas” utterly annoying. (For one thing, Hannukah is *not* a major Jewish holiday – Passover, The Jewish New Year, and The day of Atonement are far more significant).

    Lots of people around me seem to feel so tolerant by being careful to wish me ‘happy holidays’ instead of ‘marry Christmas’, not even taking note of the fact that Hanukkah has already been over a while ago. I would have much preferred: ‘I know you don’t have a holiday now, but enjoy the vacation’.

    Anyhow, I’m not entirely opposed to departments having XMas decorations (I realise I’m a member of a minority religion with all that comes with that). But I do think that when you have XMas related activities in the department, you should be aware that for some of us, these are not very different than, e.g., hanging a big cross in the department’s hallway.

  27. I wonder how much cultural attitudes toward these holidays matter. When I first came to the UK, I was shocked when people wished me a Happy Christmas and gave me Christmas cards. Back in the US, people had been *far* more cautious about assuming anything regarding my religion. I was a little horrified to think that all the British people just assumed everyone was Christian. But then I started noticing other things– British Jews throwing Christmas parties, British Muslims putting up Christmas trees and sending their children to see Santa, British people non-ironically saying “no, it’s not a religious school. It’s C of E.”

    Over time, I’ve become increasingly convinced that Christmas is in general viewed as a wholly non-religious holiday here. This has changed my attitude– I have caught myself wishing atheists a Happy Christmas, for example.

    On the other hand, I am finding it creepy that Jender-Son comes home from school singing about Jesus.

  28. That’s what I remember about grade school. Singing about “Christ our Savior is born,” etc., and having to mouth the words. (And yes, “Silent Night” is a beautiful song. But.)

  29. I think I have a text-crush on justanotherfemalephilosopher now.

    Just to be curmudgeonly one more time – I f*cking hate it when Christians wish me happy Hanukkah or tack some dradle-menora-thingy amidst the sea of Christmas crap. It is patronizing, typically ignorant of the holiday and its timing, and, most importantly, makes the alternative to the dominant religion yet more religion.

    Seeing people write about how Christmas is not religious but cultural, blah, blah, is so reminiscent of long-dead claims about ‘he’ being actually a gender-neutral pronoun, blah, blah. My goodness, haven’t feminists already learned the lesson that things look universal and neutral and harmless from the inside? Do we still need to argue about this?

    And I don’t want to co-opt or reinterpret or do any elaborate thing with your damn tree. I just want it out of the public square.

  30. “Over time, I’ve become increasingly convinced that Christmas is in general viewed as a wholly non-religious holiday here.”

    That’s certainly always been my take on it. I’m not Christian and I’m not sure I know anyone in my native country who is, but we all celebrate Christmas. If there’s any religious/quasi-religious context to Christmas it’s more centered on Santa Clause than Jesus, if anything, it seems to me.

  31. Something that I’m starting to wonder about: Are the fairly disengaged voices here (mine among them, certainly) reflecting how philosophers think about problems? I do feel myself inclined to think, “Well, either one tries to change the institution or one tries to change its symbols. The first is not possible any time soon, so we should look to the symbols.” And since this is experienced as very unhelpful, I’m wondering whether we’re seeing real flaws in our training, at least in so far as moral philosophy goes. Perhaps, among other things, our tendency to discuss moral issues without serious prior engagement with the actual points of view of the people who have the problems is a very deep limitation in our models of reasoning.

  32. PS: I don’t mean that question to sound particularly original or anything. It could be asked from a number of different kinds of critics.

  33. But let’s all agree to celebrate somthing we can all enjoy: Rebecca announced the first text-crush ever to appear on FP!


  34. > it makes people think that Hanukkah is the Jewish version of Christmas

    Idiots. *Christmas* is the Jewish version of Christmas. That was the whole point!

  35. Rebecca says: And I don’t want to co-opt or reinterpret or do any elaborate thing with your damn tree. I just want it out of the public square.

    For reasons I give above, I think it is wrong of you to demand this. Just as it would be wrong of me to go to Iran, or Israel or Indonesia and demand they change their culture. Perhaps you should learn to be more tolerant and accepting of difference.

    By the way like Jender, I too am in Great Britain and have Muslim friends who celebrate Christmas. And I get given sweets at Eid, so it’s a win-win situation… :-)

  36. tina: I am not demanding it. The original thread was about emotional reactions. That’s my emotional reaction to Christmas trees. They don’t make me want to co-opt them. They just make me want them not to be there.

    But, um, your note contains a really weird and troubling presupposition. I didn’t “go to” a Christian country. I was born in this country. Christians immigrated to the US and Britain just like Jews did. Y’all don’t own the culture any more than I do, though you do dominate it. Very creepy that you’d assume that I just showed up here as some outsider because I am not Christian.

  37. It is rather cathartic to have my outpourings of years of frustration and anger result in a text crush! I am glad to know I am not the only one who feels this way about Christmas.

    I was born in the U.S. My parents were born in the U.S. My grandparents were all either born in the U.S. or Austria-Hungary. Anyone with any knowledge of 20th century world history should be able to guess why they left. So where, exactly is my “homeland,” my “culture”? Is it supposed to be Israel, even though I am not a religious person, even though I have never been to Israel and have no family there (and may not have had family there for hundreds or thousands of years)? Or I am simply supposed to be happy living in a country that claims to be tolerant of all religions (and lack of religion) but really isn’t?

    jj, I appreciate your thoughts on this. I agree that co-opting the symbols might work in other situations. But for the reasons I’ve already explained, not here. Another stab at an option is to try to find a way to get people to see what it’s like for people like Rebecca, anotherjewishphilosopher, and me. I think that most people don’t intend to be hurtful, but they just don’t realize what it is that they are doing.

  38. JAFP: Happy to provide well-deserved catharsis! And again, with respect to your last post, word!

  39. Rebecca, you said ‘I want your [damn tree] out of the public square,’ which certainly sounds like a demand. If it is just an emotional letting off steam and you do not think this should guide other’s action then to avoid confusion you should have added something like ‘Although I have a desire for your damn tree to be taken out of the public square, I do not think the tree should be removed, rather I think you should just ignore my desire.’ That would have been much clearer.

    I don’t think the moving somewhere vs being born somewhere makes a difference. If I move to Burma, Brazil or Borneo then I would not think that either I, or my children or grandchildren had a right to demand that the host country change their culture. Of course I would think that the host country should respect, not interfere with, my religious observance, or lack of it; and should respect me and treat me as equal before the law etc.. But I would accept and respect the culture as it is, rather than getting worked up about it. That way I would be happy, and my hosts would be happy.

    You say, ‘Christians immigrated to the US and Britain just like Jews did,’ but that is not correct. The demography of Great Britain and the US is very different. Descendents of the original inhabitants still live here in the UK, supplemented by various others, though from the Norman invasion nearly a thousand years ago until the post war period there was comparatively little immigration to Britain. The spread of Christianity in Britain is usually dated to Augustine’s arrival in the sixth century, though it was present before then. Nowadays the culture might be described as post-Christian, but whatever you call it , there is an established culture of this country, so it is not beholden on those who come to live here (which they do in order to benefit themselves and their descendents) to demand a change to it.

  40. tina – Please read some speech act theory and learn the difference between reporting a desire with a declarative and issuing an imperative.

    And if we all had to “accept … the culture as it is” then there wouldn’t be much point to having a feminist philosophy blog or engaging in any kind of political action, would there? I’m especially not going to “accept the culture as it is” if we are understanding the (US) culture as Christian or post-Christian (despite the official commitment to ideals of multiculturalism and the separation of church and state) and if an American-born atheist Jew like me has to count as an outsider in my own country.

  41. No amount of reading “speech act theory” is going to make “I want your [damn tree] out of the public square” not sound rather like a demand, Rebecca, to Tina or to any competent speaker without an ax to grind. “I want…” is a perfectly legitimate form for a demand to take (think of a kidnapper or a hijacker). Austin (eg) would certainly have conceded that demands need not be cast in the imperative — this isn’t even true of *com*mands. The making of a demand is not confined to any one grammatical construction, any more than, for example, bluffing, or bullying, or condescension are.

    Happy holidays everyone!

  42. Rebecca, I know the difference between ‘reporting a desire with a declarative and issuing an imperative’. I also know that it is normal to think that if a person expresses a desire then the person would act on the desire were they to have an opportunity to do so, and would like others to fulfil that desire. That is why you should have made clear that you would not act on your desire to remove the tree from the public square could you do so, nor would you want others to remove the tree from the public square on your behalf.

    You say ‘And if we all had to “accept … the culture as it is” then there wouldn’t be much point to having a feminist philosophy blog or engaging in any kind of political action, would there?’

    This is a fair point. However, I take it that there is a difference between striving to eliminate inequality and injustice in a culture – such as feminist generally aim to do – and simply undermining a distinctive feature of a culture because you do not like it.

    You say ‘I’m especially not going to “accept the culture as it is” if we are understanding the (US) culture as Christian or post-Christian (despite the official commitment to ideals of multiculturalism and the separation of church and state) and if an American-born atheist Jew like me has to count as an outsider in my own country.

    You do not count as an outsider in your own country from the perspective of right-minded others. However, as I have stated above, it seems that you are choosing to adopt an attitude that causes you lots of grief at Christmas, where you could adopt a different attitude and not suffer that grief.

    Anyway, I hope you have a nice vacation! :-)

  43. Well, I’m not so sure. I think there are a lot of “I want…” that shouldn’t be construed as demands simply because they “ask” the impossible. In doing so, they make it clear that normal satisfaction conditions are not implicated. Compare:
    – what I really want is that Bush admit his mistakes
    – what I really want is that Bush admitted he stole the presidency and resigned right after 9/11.

    So which is “what I really want is your damned tree out of …”. I think that the wish is so unrealistic that it is more like the second of my examples than the first. When people say things like that, they are surely not asking for something nearly or actually impossible. Rather, they are using a form to express deep feelings, etc, etc.

    Now, what I really want is for everyone to agree to what I have said!

  44. Perhaps I am alone on this amongst the readers of this blog (see my comment #18 above). In any case, I find Kymlicka’s discussion of dominant “societal cultures” and their relations to various subcultures and minority cultures highly relevant and illuminating on these matters. Also very interesting is Kymlicka’s account of the relation between certain kinds of cultures, on the one hand, and certain kinds of meaning and freedom in life, on the other hand. Also very interesting is Kymlicka’s attempts over the years to balance the alleged moral importance of “nation-building” activities and policies of dominant societal cultures, on the one hand, and the alleged moral importance of accommodating (or not accommodating) various needs and alleged rights of minority cultures (that conflict with the nation-building activities/policies of dominant societal cultures), on the other hand.

    Just to be clear, one of Kymlicka’s main arguments is, roughly, that we need (dominant societal) culture for freedom, and we need nation-states for (dominant societal) culture, so we had better care about nationalism if we care about freedom. Kymlicka has some very informative accounts (both speculative and empirical) of what happens to immigrants and others who do not fit into the dominant societal culture, and about the morality of such circumstances and potentially moral/ethical/just alternatives to them.

    One famous problem is that Kymlicka intends his account of liberal nationalism roughly only to apply to modern, liberal democracies that secure and protect everyone’s equal basic rights (and in which everyone’s equal basic rights are secured and protected). As Susan Okin and many others have pointed out, this small caveat allegedly renders Kymlicka’s account applicable to virtually no society/nation/nation-state on the planet (given the prevalence and depth of various forms of sexism). Nonetheless, I find Kymlicka’s discussions of different cultures and how they relate to different forms of meaning, freedom, public policies, and personal lives very instructive (even if incorrect) on these matters. (In particular, you can find in Kymlicka’s work arguments that support certain positions that people have taken in the comments above. Of course, I do not recall whether he discusses Christmas trees.)

  45. Fair enough, jj. What mostly bothered me was the suggestion that something called “speech act theory” had established that you simply couldn’t express a demand by saying “I want…”

    Given other things she says and endorses, Rebecca is still pretty clearly not just “reporting a desire” that Christmas trees not be there (as if her problem might as well be that she just finds them ugly). She is making something rather like a demand: a claim of justice, even if one that she acknowledges is unlikely to be recognized any time soon. (Please correct me if I’m wrong Rebecca.) The idea seems to be that in a truly just society Christmas trees would be banished from public spaces, because they are so offensive and alienating to people like her.

    Similarly, the idea behind comments like 26, 27 and 30 seems to be that if people’s attitudes were as they should be — if people weren’t so insensitive — they wouldn’t go around saying “happy holidays,” because they would realize how hurtful that can be.

  46. JJ is exactly right. OF COURSE whether something is a demand or not is not a mere matter of its grammar. But the whole point of the thread was to discuss a study about how Christmas trees made people *feel*, and then people were saying that maybe people would *feel* better if somehow the symbol were co-opted or covered with notes or whatever. I was not demanding anything at all – I was saying that no matter what token things like that you do, I will still just *feel* like I want the tree not to be there, and that is what I was reporting. And it is indeed so unrealistic a desire that it is not a demand of any kind. If I were making a demand with that speech act on this blog, who would it be a demand of exactly?

    Please excuse any grumpiness. I ****HATE**** this time of year and it brings out all my resentments and cranky tendencies. Once I can go buy a screwdriver or get a cup of coffee without songs about Jesus being pounded into me over the loudspeaker I will return to my normal warm fuzzy self .

  47. Darius, I think that’s still too strong. I’ve heard similar remarks from gay men about children, and they really can’t reasonably be construed as claims about justice. That one feels it is sad and unfair that one is deluged by a fairly alien but seemingly often joyful dominant culture – e.g., the family/parenting scene – can’t sensibly be understood as holding that people should keep their children indoors.

  48. I guess I’ll settle for “a claim about unfairness,” jj. It’s still a bit different from “Man those breeders are bringin me down” because it’s not as hard to imagine the public sphere being purged of Christmas trees (as it is of crucifixes etc) as it is to imagine ordinances requiring straight people to keep their kids indoors so as not to alienate and offend gay people. And I don’t get the impression that Rebecca would find the former sorts of ordinance absurd.

    Rebecca: one thing you don’t hear at cafes and hardware stores in the US during the holidays is songs about Jesus. Although I imagine that even a militant atheist might prefer Bach’s Christmas Oratorio to the incessant infantile pap about snowmen and reindeer we are all forced to endure.

  49. Darius, FYI, I actually went to two hardware stores yesterday (the first didn’t have what I needed) and I heard Silent Night (i.e., a song about Jesus) being played at both. I live in the U.S.

  50. Darius: Are you kidding? I have been inundated with songs about Jesus in stores for weeks here in the US. Maybe christians just tune them out?

    And no I really don’t think that ideally christmas trees should be banned. That doesn’t mean I don’t feel alienated and uncomfortable being surrounded by them in the context of THIS culture. I think jj’s analogy is excellent. I love her phrasing: I feel it is “sad and unfair that I am deluged by a fairly alien … dominant culture” and this doesn’t mean that I think that justice demands that it suppress certain objects.

  51. I think it’s also important to distinguish what the context is and whether we are talking about “ordinances” or simply what people ought to do.

    So, if we’re talking about government-sponsored displays of religion in countries like the U.S. where there is supposed to be a separation of church and state — yes, I think those should not be allowed. It sets up a situation where the government is endorsing a religion and appears to be favoring some groups over others.

    Aside from that, I don’t think there should be any ordinances or laws regarding individuals or businesses displays of religion.

    Having said that, though, if a person learns that 78.5% of people in the US. identify as Christian (according to Wikipedia), and that a significant percentage of the remaining 21.5% are made uncomfortable by religious displays, wouldn’t you change your behavior? If you were a business, wouldn’t you want to tone things down a bit? If you were an individual, wouldn’t you want to avoid sending your non-Christian friends cards with nativity scenes, bringing your religious practices into the workplace, or simply assuming that complete strangers must be celebrating Christmas and welcome your religious expressions? Wouldn’t you focus more on your personal religious expressions?

    What’s the argument for not taking into account the feelings of others here? That your feelings of joy from your religious expressions at this time of year simply outweigh any discomfort that others might feel? That it’s their problem, not yours? That 4 out of 5 is close enough to 5 out of 5, and screw all that multicultural stuff you endorse the other 11 months of the year? Maybe from time to time you remember that there’s a holiday called Hanukkah — that should be enough, right?

    Again, I am not talking about laws or ordinances here. I am just perpetually baffled at people who persist in thinking that everyone believes what they do, and should be happy to celebrate what they do, in the face of lots of contravening evidence. And that when that evidence is explicitly pointed out to them, when it’s suggested that they make others feel like outsiders in their own city or country, they blame those others for being overly sensitive rather than themselves for being insensitive. How much joy do people get from sending nativity scenes to non-Christians, anyway? Or forcing them to listen to songs about Jesus? Is that joyful? Is that a good act?

  52. ‘Justanotherfemalephilosopher’ : Your post is mainly rhetoric, and does make the effort to understand and engage with the points I and others have made above.

    Maybe you are just letting off steam.

    Anyway, here is another way of putting things, which has just occurred to me.

    Most people are able to modify themselves to some extent. Some more than others. Imagine one is someone with suficient self-understanding to be faced with a choice of the following two ways of being.
    Person A: someone who gets miserable when others celebrate and who, when she celebrates and others get miserable at her celebrations, curtails her celebrations
    Person B: Someone who is happy for others when they celebrate, and who does not curtail her celebrations when others get miserable at her celebrations.

    It seems you are person of type A. I, and thankfully many others, are persons of type B.

    I think it better to choose to make oneself a person of type B rather than a person of type A.

  53. But Tina, you’ve left out the details that provide the specific reasons for being miserable, AND so you’ve generalize it into a character trait that seems to operate generally.

    I expect you didn’t see this as very unfair, but I am starting to worry about violations of our rule: Be Nice.

  54. Text crush on JAPH intensifying :)

    Tina, you are the one who is not paying attention to the details of people’s points.

    It would be a handy solution to all problems concerning exclusionary practices if the people excluded could just ‘choose’ not to be bothered, and to revel in the general celebration of the oppressor/dominant culture, wouldn’t it now?

  55. Hi JJ

    So is the following ok? Or am I missing something? If so please clarify

    Person A: someone who gets miserable when others celebrate festivals of religious origin and who, when she celebrates festivals of religious origin and others get miserable at her celebrations, curtails those celebrations
    Person B: Someone who is happy for others when they celebrate festivals of religious origin, and who does not curtail her celebrations festivals of religious origin when others get miserable at those celebrations.

    By the way JAFP says ‘Having said that, though, if a person learns that 78.5% of people in the US. identify as Christian (according to Wikipedia), and that a significant percentage of the remaining 21.5% are made uncomfortable by religious displays…’ and goes on to talk of ‘ 4 out of 5 is close enough to 5 out of 5,’ etc.

    I take it that she thinks that there is a reasonable likelihood that a significant percentage of those who do not identify as Christian are made uncomfortable by religious displays. I’d be surprised if that were the case – not least because most atheists enjoy Christmas, as do a significant number of others. Further others are simply ambivalent, if irritated by practical things like the long queues and rubbish music in shops at this time of year. .

    Rebecca: Obviously one cannot just ‘choose’ to improve one’s character. But one can work at improving one’s character over time. And if one fails to improve oneself despite one’s best efforts, then one should not expect others to pander to one.

    Clearly one does not have to be someone who sees the dominant culture as an ‘oppressor’ simply because it chooses to celebrate a festival of religious origin.

    Those who do not share this culture may feel left out. But then others will feel left out of the minority culture’s festivities, way of life etc.. The Jewish culture is a great and ancient culture, and you are very fortunate to be part of it. That you have a different culture to many other people emeans you are left out of aspects of their lives just as they are left out of aspects of yours. Still we all share the most important things: our humanity, reasoning, the arts etc; living in civilised, democratic, law-governed society.. And you share with millions of others being an American, and I share with millions of others being British, and so on. So there is far more that we share and that connects us than separates us.

  56. Let me preface this by saying that I am not Christian. That said, it seems to me the fundamental message of the gospel, and the ethic of Christ, is one of love and peace. I have difficulty believing that Jesus would condone telling people that if they feel excluded and marginalized by Christian celebrations in public, that they ought to improve their character. Jesus consistently reached out to include those on the margins (the sick, the poor, the prostitutes) and rebuked his disciples for judging them or treating them harshly (take the log out if your own eye so that you may see clearly the speck in your neighbor’s). And he did, after all, warn people not to pray on street corners. Does this mean people should compromise their faith to be accomodating? No. But I do think it would mean that people ought to take reasonable measures not to exclude, and love their neighbors as themself.

  57. I’m not sure whether Tina has read all the postings above, or just read some selectively. One point that was made at the very beginning of this thread is that those who are not a part of the *dominant* religious culture are made to feel “left out” in ways that are not the same as the feelings of exclusion dominant group members have when they see minority groups’ religious and cultural displays. Part of what is so upsetting to me as a (secular) Jew is the *assumption* that I am celebrating Christmas, or that I am to be pitied when I say that I don’t do *anything* for Christmas since it’s not my holiday. At least in the U.S., non-Jews are not ridiculed or pitied when they choose not to celebrate Purim, Hannunkka, Rosh Hashana, Sukkot, or Passover. While non-Jews can take an interest in these holidays, and can go a a seder, visit a sukkah, or whatever, they are not made to feel like there is something *wrong* with them if they are indifferent or choose not to partake.

    In any case, I find it troubling that those who are members of minority groups of various sort (religious minorities, people of color, and even women, to name a few…) are often expected to just develop a thick skin and not be so “sensitive.” Why should the burden fall on those who are already excluded and marginalized? When I started reading this thread I wasn’t quite so pissed off about all this. But now I’m seeing how clearly this aligns with other forms of racism and cultural oppression, and the fact that this isn’t clearer to everyone is quite frustrating.

  58. Clearly if someone goes out of their way to ‘ridicule or pity’ you for not celebrating Christmas then that is not very nice, and is something they should not do.

    But I do not see that others celebrating Christmas in the normal way, or expressing goodwill to you by saying ‘Merry Christmas’ in ignorance of the fact that you won’t be celebrating it, should make you feel like there is something wrong with you.

    If you had read my posts carefully you would see that I am not recommending ‘developing a thick skin’. I am suggesting it might be right to undertake a change of attitude – from being a person of type A, to being a person of type B.

  59. The foregoing was addressed to HelenEsch, of course

    Kathryn says ‘I have difficulty believing that Jesus would condone telling people that if they feel excluded and marginalized by Christian celebrations in public, that they ought to improve their character.’

    This is hilarious. I think you will find that Jesus does indeed tell *everyone* to improve their character – and says that those ‘excluded and marginalized by Christian celebrations in public’ (namely non-Christians) should change most of all, namely they should change to follow Him and His teachings – in other words, become Christians. I was not suggesting anything quite so radical…

    Of course one should love one’s neighbour as oneself. However there is a question regarding what loving one’s neighbours consists in. If someone feels fear when confronted with a household spider then that does not mean the spider is dangerous, and does not justify squashing the spider….

  60. Tina I think there is a difference between how Jesus would assess the character of others and what he would think is an appropriate way to treat others. Given the special consideration he showed (according to Christian tradition) to those on the margins, I stand by what I said–however funny it may seem.

  61. Tina, since you have radically oversimplified what I said to the point of complete misrepresentation (“someone who gets miserable when others celebrate festivals of religious origin”), I will expand on my experiences in more detail in the hope that you will try to put yourself in my shoes, and those who wear similar shoes, for a moment.

    I was born in the U.S., as were my parents and some of my grandparents. I attended public schools in a largely Christian community; generally, there were one or two other Jewish kids in my class. As a kid, I very much believed in God and was taken with the stories of Jews throughout history who held onto their faith despite some pretty difficult circumstances.; nowadays, I consider myself an agnostic.

    One of my earliest school memories is having to make a plate celebrating Christmas in kindergarten. We made drafts of the plates; I drew the requisite tree, etc. But when it came time to do the final version, I knew that I couldn’t make that plate. Instead, I drew a girl playing dreidel and a menorah. The teacher came by and frowned at my plate, and asked why I had changed my drawing.

    A strong memory from first grade is having to sing Christmas carols in class. Some of these were innocuous, some of these were about Jesus as Lord, as King, as Savior, etc. I was required to sing, but I mouthed the words.

    In second grade, the teacher had us make a Christmas display for the bulletin board. I insisted that there be a Hanukkah display, too. At age 8, I guess I thought that this would solve the issue; as I argued above, it does not. We put on a play for the school; we all sang the Christmas carols, but the other Jewish kid and I had to dance some Russian-style kicking dance (don’t ask, I don’t know) to a song about dreidels.

    Ok, enough with the grade-by-grade, but here are a few other memories. I remember a girl in my neighborhood telling me that I was going to go to hell because I didn’t believe in Jesus. She is my Facebook friend now. She just sent me a message saying, “Support my cause, Merry Christmas Message to US Troops. Help by joining, donating, or inviting your friends!” (I am not making this up). I wonder if she still thinks I am going to go to hell, or if perhaps I have been redeemed by now.

    One of my strongest memories as a kid, because it happened so often, was the dreaded yearly question: “What did you get for Christmas?” I had two options, neither of which were good options: explain that I was Jewish and what that meant, or lie and pretend that I had gotten Christmas presents. I alternated between these two options, feeling awful either way.

    Ok, let’s move towards adulthood. It became pretty clear to me that for many people in this country, the words “good” and “Christian” are synonyms. And that people are still baffled and a bit disturbed when it is suggested that I don’t celebrate Christmas. That when people wish me “Merry Christmas” I am still left with the same two bad options I had as a kid. That I am fairly sure that I know all the words to at least 100 Christmas songs, even though I turn off the radio when I hear them, and that there is simply no way to escape Christmas in this country even if I wanted to, unless I went to the backcountry for a month and a half. That the message on all of the TV shows is repeatedly, “get the spirit of Christmas” or you are a bad person and a Scrooge. I should want to do all sorts of good things during this time of year (donate, etc.) because I have the right spirit. I think I could donate the rest of the year, but that wouldn’t matter; I’d better have the right spirit in December, or something is wrong with me.

    These are the messages that I get over and over and over. If you are a Christian in this country, then you belong and are a good person. If you are not Christian, then you are an oddity and certainly suspect if not bad. Add to that the fact that most Christian denominations proselytize — it’s not just my imagination that people are trying to pressure me to be Christian. Some of them are. Be like us. It certainly would have made my life easier if I had converted or at least agreed to celebrate. But I am not going to pretend to believe in something that I don’t in order to be accepted. I am not going to give up the ideal of people who have the right to believe and practice what they want, or to not believe or practice in any religion if they want.

    So, again, this isn’t about me being someone who “gets miserable when others celebrate festivals of religious origin.” This is about a long personal history coupled with some facts about the role of the dominant religion in the U.S. It is having to deal with Christmas celebrations in my workplace or in my exercise club or from the FedEx guy — everywhere — the constant message that I don’t belong.

    Given all of the above, I ask again the question that you failed to answer when I asked it before — “What’s the argument for not taking into account the feelings of others here? That your feelings of joy from your religious expressions at this time of year simply outweigh any discomfort that others might feel?” You *must* wish Merry Christmas to everyone you come into contact with? You must have a tree in your workplace? You will suffer if you don’t, and that suffering would be greater than the suffering of those of us who are in the minority?

  62. >That your feelings of joy from your religious expressions at this time of year simply outweigh any discomfort that others might feel?”

    Surely wishing people ‘Merry Christmas’ is, at least in some ways, an act done out of consideration of others – out of consideration to the person to whom you direct the wish, rather than from consideration of the joy it brings you in wishing it.

    You can see that by considering that it might be appropriate for someone who is both non-Christian, and who doesn’t celebrate Christmas, to wish other people ‘Merry Christmas’.

    Sure, in a minority of cases, someone may wish ‘Merry Christmas’ to someone who feels marginalised by it. But in a country in which most people (Christian or not) celebrate Christmas, this will not happen often. So there’s a pretty good reason to wish people ‘Merry Christmas’. Now, perhaps you think that it’s only appropriate to do so when you *know* the person you aim your wish at does celebrate Christmas. But I think that’s false.

  63. Interesting, thanks JAFP. I’ll have a think and reply more fully in a couple of days.

    In the meantime, may I ask for further clarification? Given that most atheists in the West (and there are millions of them) celebrate Christmas why is it that you (who are also an atheist) choose not to/feel you cannot? They enter into the a general spirit of goodwill, send cards to friends, buy presents, meet up with the family, wish strangers well through saying ‘merry Christmas’ and so on. They may even sing along to carols, presumably on the grounds that you do not have to believe all the lyrics of a good song in order to sing along to it – otherwise you would only sing ‘I’m through with you baby’ if you were intending breaking up with your partner, or ‘Girls just wanna have fun’ if you think it is true that girls just wanna have fun, etc! :-)

  64. When I posted the original link what struck me about was that these weren’t people who objected to Christmas trees as a matter of rights or justice. Nor were they people who said they had their feelings hurt or who said they felt left out. We don’t even know if they consciously noticed the tree in the room. What interested me was that their responses reflected the presence of the tree in the room regardless. The authors connected this to research on steroetypically male workplace environments. None of this is about rights, really, nor is about anyone’s feelings about trees. The question is how we ought to respond if it’s true that having trees in workplaces affects the mood, feelings of inclusion, and self esteem of non-Christians. Asking the non-Christians how they feel about it and if they mind, isn’t necessarily going to help. Nor will it help non-Christians to try to see past the tree, or try to feel included or feel happy for those who are celebrating. Much of this may be beyond anyone’s conscious control Christmas decorating isn’t beyond our control. So isn’t the choice not to decorate workrkplaces an easy one?

  65. Tina – What seems to be completely, fundamentally missing from any of your posts is any recognition that Christianity has any cultural significance or role, as the dominant culture, other than as a source of Christmas decorations.

    You say: “Clearly one does not have to be someone who sees the dominant culture as an ‘oppressor’ simply because it chooses to celebrate a festival of religious origin.” Seriously? SERIOUSLY? You think that we think that Christian culture is oppressive simply BECAUSE of the celebration of Christmas? Um, do I really need to rehearse the history of Christian culture and its representatives prosthelytizing, appropriating, persecuting, and just plain drowning out other cultures and religions in order for you to be able to imagine why many non-Christians feel oppressed and left out by its symbols, and most certainly not in the mood to join the celebration? As a cultural atheist jew, joining in Christmas celebrations is not only unappealing to me but feels like a (literally) nauseating betrayal of my personal integrity and family history. It’s because of what Christianity is – a voracious consumer of all cultures around it, sometimes violently and intentionally and sometimes not – that the tree is oppressive, its not oppressive because of the tree.

    Honestly I would have thought this would be obvious.

  66. CK: I agree that most people who wish others “Merry Christmas” are well-intentioned. My question is why these well-intentioned people would continue to wish people Merry Christmas if they knew that it made some people uncomfortable. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to limit such wishes to those who one knows will appreciate them. In fact, that’s what I do. (Yes, I wish people a Merry Christmas, as well as Happy Passover — in both cases, only when I know that the person celebrates the holiday in question. I would no more wish an unknown person Happy Passover than I would wish them Merry Christmas). There are plenty of other ways to wish someone well, namely, the ways that we do it during all the other months of the year.

    Tina: You asked, “Given that most atheists in the West (and there are millions of them) celebrate Christmas why is it that you (who are also an atheist) choose not to/feel you cannot?” For the record, I am an agnostic, although I am not sure that matters here. More to the point, I feel the same as Rebecca does: “joining in Christmas celebrations is not only unappealing to me but feels like a (literally) nauseating betrayal of my personal integrity and family history.” This was what I was trying to get at with my rather personal history; Rebecca’s approach in describing the actions done in the name of Christianity throughout history and the present day is more direct. Many of my ancestors died because they refused to give up their religious practices — and I am not talking about the Holocaust here, where Jews were killed regardless of their religious practices. I may not share those religious beliefs, but there is no way that I am going to celebrate Christmas in any form because the majority has pressured me to do so throughout my life. Yes, it would be easier. But it is more important to exercise my right not to participate in a religion that dominated in non-violent and violent ways. In this respect, I will not be assimilated. And I very much resent the continued pressure to be “like everyone else.”

    Finally, I find it disturbing to see writers like CK and Tina downplay the numbers of people who feel marginalized by Christmas celebrations, in the absence of evidence of such numbers — and, to bring the topic back to the beginning (thanks, RedEyedTreeFrog), in light of the possibility that people may even be bothered without knowing so consciously. It is hard for me not to hear “you are a very small minority. There is something wrong with you. Why aren’t you like everyone else?” i.e., exactly the same message I have been getting as a non-Christian my whole life.

  67. >My question is why these well-intentioned people would continue to wish people Merry Christmas if they knew that it made some people uncomfortable.

    Because they also know (a) it makes some people comfortable/happy, and (b) that more people are made happy then are made unhappy.

    To put it another way – why should someone spread less joy, because they know there is the odd person like you who will be made uncomfortable by them doing so? Why do the uncomfortable feelings of the minority count for more?

    In any case, I’m not claiming they do or don’t. I was offering you *a* reason to wish people ‘Merry Christmas’, and not claiming it a decisive one. I simply thought you were a little uncharitable to the alternative view by suggesting it was selfishly motivated, when there is an extremely clear non-selfish reason for wishing people Merry Christmas. I found your comment 65 extremely useful for helping me emphasise.

    >I find it disturbing to see writers like CK and Tina downplay the numbers of people who feel marginalized by Christmas celebrations, in the absence of evidence of such numbers

    I think you’re reading a bit too much into what I’ve said by claiming I’m downplaying anything, as I haven’t expressed any view about numbers – I’ve just illustrated *a* reason to wish people Merry Christmas by reference to a hypothetical country.

    But just to be clear – do you think that knowledge that 1 person in a population is offendable is sufficient reason to not wish anyone a Merry Christmas (absent specific knowledge that the potential wishee is not that person)? Or does it depend on the numbers (which makes our arguing without evidence a bit limited….)?

  68. Tina: You ask “Given that most atheists in the West (and there are millions of them) celebrate Christmas why is it that you (who are also an atheist) choose not to/feel you cannot?”

    I find this question pretty odd. Given that there are millions of atheist Jews that celebrate Passover, why do you choose not to? Given that there are millions that celebrate the independence day of US/France/Mexico/[insert random country], why do you choose not to? One doesn’t need to have a strong objection to a holiday, to feel that it isn’t one’s own holiday.

    On a lighter note – this might amuse some of the readers of this thread:

    Merry Christmas to those who are celebrating…

  69. CK, in post 71, you said, “I think you’re reading a bit too much into what I’ve said by claiming I’m downplaying anything, as I haven’t expressed any view about numbers.” But in post 66 you had written, “Sure, in a minority of cases, someone may wish ‘Merry Christmas’ to someone who feels marginalised by it. But in a country in which most people (Christian or not) celebrate Christmas, this will not happen often.”

    In post 71, you continue with your downplaying the numbers of people who might feel marginalized by expressions of the dominant and dominating religious culture by saying, “why should someone spread less joy, because they know there is the odd person like you who will be made uncomfortable by them doing so?” (Odd has an “interesting” double meaning here). You then reduce the whole thing to absurdity by asking whether “knowledge that 1 person in a population is offendable is sufficient reason to not wish anyone a Merry Christmas.” That’s not even worth engaging with.

    Finally, please showed me where I said that people wishing other people a Merry Christmas was selfish. Since you seemed to find what I was saying in comment 65 unclear, here is what I really think. Of course most people are well-intentioned when they wish others Merry Christmas and engage in many other public displays of their religion. They don’t realize the effects of their actions and that they are perpetuating some unfortunate practices of their religion. The real issue is about whether their actions change once they realize the effects of their practices.

    If you’re not going to argue in a reasonable fashion — if you are going to misrepresent what you have said and what I have said — there is no point in discussing this with you.

  70. justanotherfemalephilosopher – agh, communication has been hampered by my inability to spell – I meant to say I found your post 65 clear and useful for allowing me to empathise with your discomfort


    >Finally, please showed me where I said that people wishing other people a Merry Christmas was selfish.

    The thing I was responding to was:

    >“What’s the argument for not taking into account the feelings of others here? That your feelings of joy from your religious expressions at this time of year simply outweigh any discomfort that others might feel?” You *must* wish Merry Christmas to everyone you come into contact with?

    I took you to be suggesting that the best argument of those for wishing Merry Christmas is that wishing it personally brings them feelings of joy, which I take to be a selfish reason for wishing Merry Christmas. I apologise if that’s a misrepresentation.

    The main point I was trying to make was that those for wishing Merry Christmas can argue for doing so on the basis of the feelings of others, and so won’t agree that they are ‘not taking into account the feelings of others here’.

    >The real issue is about whether their actions change once they realize the effects of their practices.

    On that I agree, but only insofar as that people shouldn’t wish Merry Christmas to people they know the wish will impact badly on. The issue I’m unsure about is whether knowledge that this practice has bad effects on a minority, but good effects on a majority, is reason to end it. That’s the point I’d like to know your thinking on.

    I suspect there’s a case to be made for saying the harm done in wishing someone in your position a Merry Christmas is worse in kind or degree from the joy brought to someone who is so disposed. But I’m just not sure how one gets from there to saying the practice should end.

  71. CK: I am glad that we cleared up the miscommunication.

    I do think that “the harm done in wishing someone in [my] position a Merry Christmas is worse in kind or degree from the joy brought to someone who is so disposed,” so that even if one is analyzing this as a utilitarian, it’s not clear that the benefits of blanket public expressions (including trees in the workplace, etc.) are justified.

    But for those of us less inclined towards utilitarian reasoning, one might simply seek not to inflict harm with our speech. To give a similar example: I will wish people a “Happy Thanksgiving” if they have wished me one, or if already I know they celebrate, but I will not, for example, wish my class a Happy Thanksgiving. (Instead, I say something like “enjoy the break.”). Why? Because I know that for many Native Americans, or for those sympathetic to their history, Thanksgiving is a painful issue. I myself celebrate American Thanksgiving, but I certainly understand those who do not, and I don’t want to cause them harm. I certainly don’t want to make them feel bad for not celebrating, or to emphasize their minority status, or to point out that some Native Americans do celebrate Thanksgiving (implying that there is something wrong with them or that they are overly sensitive).

  72. Like others here I’m surprised by the reported psychological effects, but I have to consider a deeper idea. Really, are we not all just over-thinking every persons (and minorities) even slightest response to such things in this modern age ?

    I am 100% not religious, as far as I am concerned, religion is a choice of hobby, a thought provoked my a magical belief brought on by children and those who ‘will’ believe in ghosts, martians, and just about anything else, given enough guidance at an early age (or a major life experience in many cases).

    But in my world, yes I do have a tree in my own home, not as religious sign of any kind (I do not believe it has one thing to do with Christianity anyway, it’s a self-adjusted idea for over 2 thousand years from one generation to another).

    My tree represents purely the good side to humanity. At the end of a year, from 24th December till the beginning of a new year, when i celebrate a new beginning each year for friends & families the world over. I have felt this way since before I was 10 years old, and feel the same way now at 40+.

    To me, if a person feels bad about having a tree nearby, well as a non-religious person, I in turn should feel offended 100% at the wearing a specific clothing, the use of any religious signs, either worn, adorned on walls/building, shoe types, in fact you name it, i should be offended.

    Yet, in my own belief, and the respect of other humans, I will never cross that line of sillyness, and the man next to me can wear whatever he wishes, and pray to what or who he wishes. He is a human, and he has my friendship & as far as warranted, my respect till he does me wrong to remove that.

    If we give 100% consideration to every other person for every little thing, it will all get sooo bad, we won’t be able to step out side without offending one person or another, and maybe even get arrested for it.

    That will be a sad day when it gets so bad its out of control completely.

    Happy Christmas and Best Wishes to us all.

  73. I think we can all acknowledge
    1) that minority disadvantage, particularly that linked to historic cultural oppression, is a particularly unjust form of harm.
    Further that 2) Xmas is linked, in US, UK and Canada, to a dominant culture that has been, and continues to be, a part of a system that oppresses minorities.

    Given this I agree we should take the possible harm of Xmas decorations within public spaces seriously.

    Where I disagree is that I don’t think people are taking seriously enough the possible harm of reducing shared public celebration. In this respect Kymlicker’s work (though there is no doubt much we could dispute) seems to be getting at something important.

    The best solution would of course be if we could create a fresh unsullied public holiday with no problematic associations. Though this might still annoy those who feel that celebration should only be an individual choice I think many of us would agree that their is a certain value in things being collective that cannot be replicated through only individual choice.

    Unfortunately, we can’t. We have to start from the world that we have got:
    A world in which Xmas does have troubling connections with domination but is becoming more and more secular (and also has connections with per-Cristian celebrations).
    A world in which people need collective celebration to avoid the onslaught of the oppressive neo-liberal culture of individualism and this have to start from the celebrations,that already exist.

  74. Here here Joseph.

    All holidays exclude some at the expense of others. Some exclude the majority (Labor Day) but most exclude different minorities. Some of that exclusion is objectionable but this shouldn’t lead us to dump the holiday or its language en masse. That’s silly and impossible anyway.

  75. Just skimming through all this, awed at its sheer volume along with the strength of emotions that emerge in such discussions……….breaks my heart with pain while it also fills me with fear over the power and depth of strong and deeply personal emotions that all religious material evokes in so many of us.

    My pain is over the failure of all and any religions to have even begun to bring peace to our world……….while so many of their various adherents have and still are willing to go to war in the name of their one religion ruling over the world…..

    Speakers here are not belligerent, but out there, everywhere, there appear the zealots and many leaders of most of these religions with followers who easily threaten our world with bullying abuses and/or wars……each one in the name of their own religion’s sanctity…….

  76. I appreciate this discussion and the tree issue only real emerged for our family when we had a child. My partner and I did not really ‘do it up’ for Christmas prior (though both of us were raised in Christian homes where Christmas was a very, very big deal). Once we had a child we wanted to share traditions that were meaningful and both of us had very strong and happy memories of Christmas music, decorations, the beauty of the season, etc. In addition we had surrounding family that were definitely participating. Since we decided to include Christmas in our lives we went the Unitarian route and had our child participate in world religion programs (including paganism and humanism). We treat Christmas as a cultural family tradition, one that highlights family time, down time at home, gifts, and stories and music. We emphasize that this is our ‘cultural’ tradition but we also talk about how it is not, for us, a specifically Christian tradition and that it is not everyone’s tradition. We also talk about how it has to be hard for other families who do not share this – given the media explosion everywhere! We have found that it is a good time to be critical of the commercialization of the holiday and how it is exclusionary for non-celebrators. That said, respect and understanding for those who do not celebrate and who must endure the dominance of Christmas marketing everywhere, still is not reason for our family not to celebrate our culture and history. Respect and standpoint and awareness of privilege and social inequality can still be consistent with valuing aspects of one’s own history and culture even if that history and culture has oppressive elements. In a way, we celebrate a ‘deconstructed’ Christmas perhaps in the same way that we are ‘deconstructed’ citizens of the U.S. – who value some aspects of our country’ s history and traditions but are also critical.

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