The greatest gift has been bequeathed to us

Posted: Dec 28, 2004 12:00 AM

The holiday season brings an element of predictability each year into our otherwise tumultuous lives. We know what to expect. Parties, food, shopping, resolutions and debates on cable shows about the constitutionality of public displays of nativity scenes.

So what about it? Is Christmas itself unconstitutional? Is it a religious holiday? Is it a once religious holiday that we retain because it rivals tax cuts as a stimulant to economic activity?

Do we keep Christmas as a national holiday for practical reasons? Surveys indicate that roughly 80 percent of Americans identify themselves as Christians. The country couldn't function if, on December 25 each year, eight out of ten Americans took the day off.

I think the discussions we Americans have with ourselves every year about Christmas and religion and the constitution retain elements of self-delusion. Christmas is clearly a Christian event. Although the various means and symbols through which the holiday is celebrated have different histories and traditions, they are all associated with Christianity.

The Christmas trees that stand on the nation's ellipse and in the White House do not stand in Tel Aviv or Tokyo or Cairo. We delude ourselves to think that it is possible to remove all religious content from Christmas or that Americans want to. So, instead, we fend off relentless ACLU assaults, make concessions here and there, and tacitly go on every year doing what we supposedly in principle can't do _ recognizing the inseparability of the values that Christians brought to this land from our national being and identity.

There is the notion that a free society is a society of law and not of men. The founders of our country did as good a job as humanly possible to construct a constitutional foundation that gives our nation these characteristics. Legal barriers stand at every corner that prevent intrusion of one person on the life, liberty and property of others.

But, as we can see from experience and from what is going on today, it is impossible to have a society that is totally insulated from human judgment and values. The most beautifully constructed legal system will still need human judges to interpret the laws, and human elected officials to govern and administer.

The words may say that "All men are created equal," but we have had contentious times in our nation's history defining who is a man and what is equal. The words may say "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness," but we have bitter debates today about defining life.

Certainly the drafters of our constitution would never have dreamt that one day the definition of marriage would be a point of contention.

So, in truth we have a society of laws AND men.

Perhaps we can say that, at minimum, Christmas is one day we Americans insist on setting aside to remind ourselves that who we are as a nation goes beyond the particular laws we have, but also reflects who we choose to be as human beings.

No law will force anyone to care about his neighbor, will force the fortunate to care about the unfortunate, or force the unfortunate to have the faith to continue and overcome. No law can require humility, graciousness, understanding, empathy or tolerance.

Our laws assure that no one can prevent others from "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." But our values dictate what we do with these freedoms we protect. Our laws protect us from the worst, but our values point the way to our best.

It is good that, in our free society, our values are constantly challenged. It forces us to readdress them and get back in touch with them. As I stood in a crowded line of Christmas shoppers in a department store the other day, I couldn't help but see irony as impatient customers berated the poor elderly gentleman fumbling with the computerized cash register he was trying to operate. If this is what Christmas has become, perhaps we should let the ACLU declare victory and pack away our ornaments.

We remember at Christmastime that our success hinges on our connection to that which is greater than ourselves. Through our Christian holiday we reach forth to the universal values that touch us all.

This often grates on American individualism. In the last half-century we thought we could invent programs that would solve all our social problems. Instead we made them worse. Failure is too often the only path to humility.

Americans will not relinquish Christmas because of an inherent knowledge and conviction that the greatest gift we have is what has been bequeathed to us. To understand that is to be humble and to be free.