From The Ethics Alarms Archives: “Christmas: the Ethical Holiday”

Once again, I am re-posting the first Ethics Alarms Christmas post from way back in 2010, its first full year. (The last time I revived this post was in 2016.) I’m not inclined to change it, though I did fix some typos.

In the 2016 introduction, I wrote, “The ascendant attitude toward Christmas is both anti-religious and non-ethical.” That is still true.  In my extended neighborhood, there are giant penguins, snowmen, Santas, dragons, unicorns, the Grinch and Christmas Storm Troopers on lawns, and exactly one manger or reference to Jesus. There is no mention of peace, good will or love. My wishes of “Merry Christmas!” are returned, I’d estimate, about 20% of the time. Often I get glares, because saying “Merry Christmas!” must mean that I have a MAGA cap in my closet.

Those who might be otherwise tempted to show some signs of faith may be intimidated by  the Diversity Fascists, like this guy:


Yes, many people–they call themselves “progressives”— believe that a healthy national culture embracing love, charity, generosity and kindness is disrespectful. The culture seems to be capitulating to the bullying without a fight. The two most prominent Christmas movies on cable this year are the mildly cynical “A Christmas Story” and the wretched “Christmas Vacation,” which isn’t even a good Griswald movie, much less a decent Christmas movie. I have been searching for the original “Miracle on 34th Street”—yes, I know I haven’t finished the ethics review–and keep finding arguably the worst version, the one with Richard Attenborough playing Kris Kringle. “Four Christmases,” another bitter  comedy, has appeared many times. “A Christmas Carol” is now rare fare, but we get many showings of “Scrooged,” with Tiny Tim played by MaryLou Retton.

Some of the Hallmark Christmas stations have been playing a Whitney Houston version of “A Christmas Song” that interjects “Happy Kwanza” in the lyrics. Thanks to John Legend, we now have a Christmastime ditty that endorses abortion.

Think about that a minute.

I don’t know how to reverse the damage already inflicted on our society, but I do know that we have to try.

Here’s the post…

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 usually 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, careful 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 that gift, with thanks.

It is foolish and self-destructive for there to be a “war on Christmas.” Charles Dickens understood. There is hardly a word about religion anywhere in his story.  There doesn’t need to be. Christmas is the ethical holiday. Christians and non-Christians can celebrate it or not 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.

Christmas is important because it primes us to be good, be better, be more ethical, for the rest of the year. There should be nothing controversial about that.

20 thoughts on “From The Ethics Alarms Archives: “Christmas: the Ethical Holiday”

  1. With respect to reversing the damage:
    1. How can we have any really substantial reverence/respect/adherence to “Christmas” norms without a fundamental yielding to the presence of Christ/Jesus etc? The whole tragectory of our culture is individualistically self focussed and secular.
    2. As a Reformed-ish Christian, I understand that those in the vein of reformed theology(really conservative Christians) at one time outlawed the celebration Christmas for various reasons. I would find it absurd that anyone would expect me to say happy M****** day if one day our national demographic trended predominantly Muslim.
    3. Someone more elequent than myself that “christian” influence declining is possibly a form of the swamp in the church being drained. So why not let the traditions be drained from their position of dominance as well, and if so, what is the real damage that needs to be fixed

    • Chris,

      I agree. I didn’t read the post back in 2016, but I’m really glad I did today. We ran a few errands this morning and with the “Happy Holidays” thing fresh in my mind, I was sure to say “Merry Christmas” everywhere we went. We got “Merry Christmas” in return…every single time…with a smile…every time. It was more than a little refreshing.

      Merry Christmas, Jack. Merry Christmas, readers and responders. I am a little better person – and hopefully more capable of thinking ethically – thanks to all of you.

  2. Thankfully here where I live, Merry Christmas is still the greeting I hear most frequently. Jack, to you and your family. Merry Christmas.

  3. “Christmas is important because it primes us to be good, be better, be more ethical, for the rest of the year. There should be nothing controversial about that.”

    I think you hit the nail right on the head there, Jack. Christmas is one of those holidays that tells us there might be something greater than ourselves that stands for something greater than self-interest or narrow tribalism. The Christmas story is that the Son of God came into the world to save humanity from the wrongs it had done and was incapable of atoning for. Perfect sacrifice born of perfect love, pointing the way for we lesser mortals to aspire to that same love and to something more than just taking all we can take in this life and enjoying wine, women, and song until we go into the ground to be eaten by the worms. Truth be told, a lot of the holidays tell us that: Thanksgiving is about being thankful for the blessings we receive in this life. Veterans’ Day and Memorial Day remind us of the sacrifice others made for our freedom. Easter is the other side of Christmas, where One greater than all of us sacrifices himself for our good. Independence day points up the principles the Founding Fathers set up this nation on. Even Columbus Day points up the spirit of exploration and innovation.

    The left doesn’t like any of this. They don’t like the religious element of some of these holidays, because a lot of them view religion, at least Judeo-Christian religion, as the opiate of the masses, keeping them away from rising up, led by the left, of course. They don’t like the idea of there being Someone greater than man who sets the ultimate example, because then they can’t set the ultimate example themselves. They don’t like the idea of gratitude, especially not gratitude to a higher power, because gratitude blunts hunger for gain, which is what they are all about. They don’t like the idea of honoring heroes or sacrifice, because it takes the focus off them. They don’t like the Founding Fathers or the Constitution because it reminds them that there are limits to ultimate power.

    However, there are ways to attack all of these things, which sound theoretically reasonable. One is a weaponization of inclusivity. Saying that Christmas and Easter are based on myth won’t get you very far, but to say that “hey, maybe we should scale these holidays waaay back, or keep them out of the public eye more, since not everyone celebrates them,” makes a little more sense. After all, we all want Gertrude and Jake down the block whose family has been here forever as well as Bhavash who’s first generation here and Hamid who just got here to feel comfortable and welcome, right?

    Another is a weaponization of guilt. Saying the millennials are the first generation to get it morally right would just get you laughed at, but saying “hey, Columbus and the Pilgrims put the American Indian on the road to displacement, the American military has committed all kinds of atrocities for bad causes, and the Founding Fathers were all white, all rich, included some slave owners, and didn’t stand up to abolish slavery when they had the chance, so a lot of people are offended by them and maybe we should scale back their celebrations or eliminate them entirely” sounds better. After all, we all like to think we are decent people who don’t honor bad things, right? Suddenly that turkey doesn’t taste so good, those red, white and blue colors and uniforms don’t look so smart, those fireworks don’t look so bright, and those heroes and revered figures don’t look like heroes or revered figures any more.

    Yet another is a weaponization of progress. Saying history only started getting it right on the day Obama was elected president might get more than a few raised eyebrows. But saying “hey, a hundred fifty years ago people owned other people, a hundred years ago if you believed in equality of outcome you could be jailed, sixty years ago there was still institutionalized racism, thirty years ago we were ready to blow the world to pieces, fifteen years ago we went charging into Iraq on ginned-up intelligence, and four years ago not everyone could marry the person they loved, and people still can’t live their true selves and we’re still doing all kinds of damage to our planet, is there really anything here to be proud of?” That hits home. After all, we’ve made progress, right? We know better now, right? We’re not those racists and homophobes and other haters, right?

    Finally, there’s a weaponization of charity. Saying we need to rip the rich down and take what they have wouldn’t get you too far, but saying, “hey, some of you folks, in fact a lot of you folks who are doing well are doing well because you got there on someone else’s efforts and because some other folks didn’t get a fair shake for the wrong reasons, maybe you want to do something to make some of those old wrongs right?” That gets people’s attention. After all, we’d like to believe we got where we got to purely on our own merit, but who are we kidding. Maybe we have to work to undo our privilege.

    In the face of all of this, the idea of the Christmas holiday seems quaint at best, offensive and exclusory at worst. Maybe it’s time to revise the calendar and do away with all this offensive stuff.

  4. Merry Christmas to all y’all!!!! I am continuously appreciative of ethics alarms,. The dedication, the determination of getting out daily issues., the ethical perspective and all the comments from contributors is an important part of my continuing education in life. Everyday even weekends I look forward to reading it. A huge thank you for your time and effort.

    Merry merry Christmas and a joyful heart to all!

  5. There was a dismaying dearth of airings of a Christmas Carol this year. Our family regularly watches several and rates relative merits. The FX cable channel, a minor one, did a new one with Pierce and Sirkus. I’d noticed the Chase movie all over the place, but none of our usual channels had this story of goodwill and redemption.

    I suppose people facing how their own pettiness and greed, and seeing what it cost them is not a valued avenue of growth. The current paradigm cannot have a rich old guy change his ways and not punish him more harshly. Mercy and forgiveness are not something you give, but something you demand without changing your own ways. Unselfishness is out of fashion, its all about favored tribes if you’re not in them.

    Ah, there it is. that mandated Christmas blues.

  6. I tried to share only the archived portion of the post with one of my two nephews last night. One nephew is gay the other is a true member of the resistance who felt it necessary to make the point that Pence wants to take away his brother’s rights and the other said Pence would boil him in oil if given the opportunity. At which point my uber progressive sister in law clamped down demanding no politics. Both are in their thirties and lauded by others as very bright and erudite yet seem to be rather myopic and at times rather sophomoric.

    The one nephew that I has asked to read the essay scrolled down the text at about 60 miles an hour, made a sexual comment about priming, and moved on to distribute gifts. These two thought it appropriate to give a 68 year old aunt a t-shirt saying have a “Meowing Fucking Christmas” and me a mug printed with Merica, Fuck Yeah followed by an explanation it relates to MAGA. Nonetheless, we dutifully gave our required appreciative sentiments.

    I often hear how Trump is coarsening our society but I am beginning to believe that society is coarsening our presidents and elected leaders.

      • The only thing lamentable is the closed mindedness of a generation that has never truly had to fend for itself or suffered through real economic hardship.

        Perhaps one of the reasons the current generation will not be able to rise above their parent’s generation economically is because they have been taught to be dependent.

  7. To Jack, to all those who post here without exception, and especially (with sympathy) to Chris Marschner,

    from your friendly neighborhood atheist,

    ****M*E*R*R*Y C*H*R*I*S*T*M*A*S****

  8. It’s become an interesting exercise to do word swaps with discriminatory statements people make. So I looked at that tweet from “Male Feminist” and altered a few words to see what he’s really suggesting…

    “I’m okay with LGBTQ people celebrating during Gay Pride week, but it should be quietly and out of the public eye. That’s how you respect diversity.”


    “I’m okay with Muslims worshiping during Ramadan, but it should be quietly and out of the public eye. That’s how you respect diversity.”

    Maybe someone should try posting that to him and see what his response is. I bet I already know…

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