Christmas: the Ethical Holiday

Benjamin Franklin recognized the importance of regularly focusing one’s attention on ethical conduct rather than the usual non-ethical goals, needs, desires and impulses that occupy the thoughts of even the most virtuous among us. He suggested that every morning an individual should challenge himself to do good during the day. In the 21st century psychologists call this “priming,” a form of beneficial self-brain-washing that plants the seeds of future choices.

The Christmas season operates as an effective form of mass population priming, using tradition, lore, music, poetry, ritual, literature, art and entertainment to celebrate basic ethical virtues and exemplary conduct toward other human beings. Kindness, love, forgiveness, empathy, generosity, charity, sacrifice, selflessness, respect, caring, peacefulness…all of these are part of the message of Christmas, which has become more universal and influential in its societal and behavioral importance than its religious origins could have ever accomplished alone. Secular and cultural contributions have greatly strengthened the ethical lessons of Christmas. “It’s A Wonderful Life” urges us to value our ability to enrich the lives of others, and to appreciate the way they enrich ours.  “A Christmas Story” reminds us to make childhood a magical time when wishes can come true. O. Henry’s story “The Gift of the Magi” proves that it is not the value of gifts, but the love that motivates them that truly matters. Most powerful of all, Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” teaches that the admirable conduct the spirit of the season can inspire need not be short-lived, and that if we use Christmas properly, as Ben Franklin used his morning exhortation to good conduct, it can make all of us better, happier, more virtuous human beings.

At this point in civilization, the religious context of Christmas almost does more harm than good. Though the day chosen to celebrate Jesus of Nazareth’s birthday has been spectacularly successful in promoting the ethical and moral ideals he taught, the idea that Christmas is indistinguishable from the religion he founded has made it the object of yearly controversy, as if celebrating Christmas is an affront to other faiths. This is a tragedy, because every human being, regardless of religious belief, can benefit from a culture-wide exhortation to be good and to do good. “Happy Holidays!”—the bland, generic greeting of those afraid to offend those who should not be offended—does nothing to spur us toward love, kindness, peace and empathy. “Merry Christmas!” does. This is not just a religious  holiday; it is the culture-wide ethical holiday, the time when everything should be aligned to remind us to take stock of our lives, think about everyone else who lives on earth with us, and to try to live for others as well as ourselves. Christians should be proud that their religion gave such a valuable gift to humanity, and non-Christians should be eager to accept it.

It is foolish and self-destructive for there to be a “war on Christmas.” Charles Dickens understood. T there is hardly a word about religion anywhere in his story. Christmas is the ethical holiday. Christians can and should celebrate it as they choose, but whether they do or not, the Christmas season is more important than any one religion, even the one that gives the holiday its name.

It is important because it primes us to be good. There should be nothing controversial about that.

8 thoughts on “Christmas: the Ethical Holiday

  1. This is the blog that Myron’s roommate from his Georgetwon Law school days, Jack Marshall, puts out. Excellent reading. I highly recommend subscribing.
    Merry Christmas!

  2. Thank you, Jack, for absolving me of any guilt I might feel around saying Merry Christmas to folks I might not know. Tonight, as we were on our way into my sister-in-law’s house for our Christmas dinner, a family emerged from the house across the street. There were several children and one adult. They were scurrying around, stirring up the freshly fallen snow as the walked. As our paths got closer, I ventured to offer a “Merry Christmas” to this band of strangers. I took a chance that I might offend them, but I did it anyway. And, as if straight from Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”, the father replied, “Merry Christmas in return.” It was magical. It was healing, even though there was not any breach to excuse.

    I will now remember that simple exchange as the purifying and seminal event of our Christmas Day, 2010. I believe all who were walking and heard our simple greeting to one another were blessed by the freely given and freely received salutation in the middle of a Christmas evening snowfall.

    God bless you, one and all, and may you experience a very, very Merry Christmas!
    Rev. Kathy Dale McNair

  3. I agree in principle with everything you’ve said here, Jack, except for one point: your statement that Christmas’ religious context “almost does more harm than good”.

    Christmas brings out the best in people precisely because of its religious context. If people show kindness, love, forgiveness, empathy, generosity, charity, sacrifice, selflessness, respect, caring, peacefulness around this time of year, it’s because because of the example that has been set for them, both by Jesus Christ Himself, and his followers throughout the centuries.

    Stripped of that association, Christmas becomes a TV commercial, mouthing platitudes, while pushing the latest fads and gadgets.

    Christmas’ values are anchored to its historical origin, which is essentially and inextricably a religious celebration. To divorce Christmas from its religious context would hollow it out and carve it into another Valentine’s Day.

    Some people might see nothing wrong with that, but they’d be hard-pressed to argue that the contributions of February 14 to the social priming that you describe are hardly equal to the contributions of December 25.

  4. Dear Franco…of course. The Christian origins are the source of Christmas’s ethical power and integrity. The dilemma is to have a religion-based cultural holiday that can embrace all people without being perceived as a rejection of or opposition to any other religion in the process. I agree that you can’t take Christianity out of Christmas (hence the “almost”); it is just a shame that the best of a religion can’t be appreciated by non-practitioners without having the sense of propaganda about it.

    An analogy: it would be great for the world if a globe-wide celebration of the 4th of July was an annual e of human rights and liberty for all. But because it would also be scene as nationalistic chauvinism, this could never happen. And it’s too bad….for everyone.

    • I believe Franco points out the problems with this post well and the response doesn’t put those problems to rest.

      Christmas as a secular ethical holiday is a great idea, but it doesn’t exist for most of the world. I greatly enjoy Christmas, but that’s mostly due to the memories and traditions that I enjoy.

      For most people, Christmas is either a religious holiday (with some ethical backbone and some crazy backbone) or a secular holiday with very little of either trapping.

      For people without the traditions and good feelings I am lucky to have, Christmas cannot be as easily divorced from religion while maintaining the positive benefits. Yom Kippor could be a great ethical secular holiday as well, but would the generally Christian populace accept it? I don’t think so. Would the Jewish community be willing to relinquish the religious aspects? I doubt that as well.

  5. Pingback: End of Year Holidays Ethics and Compliance | NECB Alumni Association

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