A look at the laws of Christmas

Do you remember “The Law of Toyland”? It was an advertising campaign from many, many years ago by the then shopping retailer, Zellers. If you remember Zellers then you remember the days when the Christmas season did not really begin until officiated by the Eaton’s Santa Claus Parade every November. And if you remember Eaton’s, then you remember the days before there were things like internet boycotts of companies like Starbucks for using only a red jacket on their paper cups – as in 2015 – rather than images of snowflakes and holiday icons.

The laws of Christmas have taken on many forms over the centuries – both to impose and oppose the faith. There has also been the modern movement – associated with atheism – to fight for freedom from religion. In our modern secular world, we associate this freedom with the separation of church and state.

In Canada – unlike the United States – there is no actual constitutional separation of “church and state”. In the US constitution, the wording is: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion”, with the purpose of preventing federal government interference with personal religious freedom.

The intent was to protect citizens from interference with their religion and practices and to ensure that there was no government denomination established.

There is no equivalent provision in Canada. But our Charter of Rights and Freedoms begins with recognition of the Supremacy of God and then provides for freedom of conscience and religion.

In the bigger picture, we are blessed to have religious freedom and conscience in Canada – a basic human right denied in much of the world. The extent of state persecution around the world based on religious practice, conscience, and identity, could – sadly – fill a book.

The early Christians were law breakers. Rome generally incorporated the local gods of a newly conquered area. The Romans viewed religion as foremost a social activity to promote unity and loyalty to the state. Christianity was not trusted for its lack of piety to the gods, for breaking the social bonds of not embracing Roman gods and the belief that bad things will happen if you do not respect the gods.

However, Christianity was eventually adopted as the official religion of the Roman Empire in the 4th century AD. This meant the persecuted became to a certain extent the establishment – a recurring movement throughout history.

Many merry Christians over the centuries made too much merry and found Christmas banished. Notably, the Puritans in America banished Christmas celebrations, and it was their persecution in England that helped found a new world based on religious freedom.

Even in modern day life the legal battles continue to banish religious symbols from public spaces – or the fight to bring them back as we are now seeing. President-elect Trump has promised he will make it possible for all to say “Merry Christmas” again without fear of prosecution or being politically incorrect by causing offence on the basis of exclusion. It was one of many populist grass roots promises that hit a strong nerve during the U.S. election.

In 2013, the State of Texas introduced its very own “Merry Christmas Law”. The law means students can say Merry Christmas, display Christmas Trees, menorahs, nativity scenes – as long as more than one religion and a secular symbol is displayed. The actual law is worth repeating as we may be seeing it adopted in some form south of the border over the next four years.

Sec. 29.920. WINTER CELEBRATIONS. (a) A school district may educate students about the history of traditional winter celebrations, and allow students and district staff to offer traditional greetings regarding the celebrations, including:

(1) “Merry Christmas”;

(2) “Happy Hanukkah”; and

(3) “happy holidays.”

(b) Except as provided by Subsection (c), a school district may display on school property scenes or symbols associated with traditional winter celebrations, including a menorah or a Christmas image such as a nativity scene or Christmas tree, if the display includes a scene or symbol of:

(1) more than one religion; or

(2) one religion and at least one secular scene or symbol.

(c) A display relating to a traditional winter celebration may not include a message that encourages adherence to a particular religious belief.

In theory, all is free speech and expression and is protected. But “although it’s been said many times, many ways…” I hope everyone has a Merry Christmas, a Happy Hanukkah, and a healthy and happy holiday.

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