My wife, oldest daughter, and I, along with several of our children and grandchildren, recently attended the Christmas Light Drive-Thru at the Defiance County Fairgrounds in Hicksville, Ohio. Attended by thousands of people from Northwest Ohio, Northeast Indiana, and Southern Michigan, the drive-thru is a mishmash of lighted secular and Christian displays. Thousands of dollars and man-hours go into putting on the largest Christmas light display in the area. Volunteers at the entrance held donation buckets for attendees to donate. Not knowing what awaited me beyond the entrance, I threw in a $5 bill.
While the trappings of secular Christmas were everywhere we looked, it became very clear to us that Jesus, along with Christian nationalism, were the true stars of the show. At both the entrance and exit, there were lighted American flag displays. Later in drive-thru, we passed a lighted memorial to the Twin Towers in New York (yeah, it struck me as bizarrely strange too). We later drove by a display that said that God gave the us two things: the cross Jesus died upon and the flag of the United States of America. This display, in particular, was a perfect example of how fused Christianity and right-wing political beliefs lie in the minds rural Midwesterners.
More than a few displays touted Christian clichés: Jesus is the Reason for the Season, Keep Christ in Christmas, to name two. My favorite display was one of a shirtless Santa lounging on a beach. After being assaulted by a barrage of Christian Christmas messages, Santa Bruce and Polly were ready for a trip to the beach too, along with a steady stream of alcoholic beverages.
There was nothing in the Christmas Light Drive-Thru that surprised me. I know rural Northwest Ohio quite well. It is, after all, the land of my birth and where I have spent most of my adult life. This is the land of conservative Christianity, right-wing politics, and Christian nationalism. Recent local outrage over Defiance College football players refusing to stand for the National Anthem revealed that Jesus and the GOP — God’s Only Party — are very much alive and well. Of the numerous letters written to the Defiance Crescent-News about the kneeling players, only three letter writers, including yours truly, supported their actions. The Christmas Light Drive-Thru, then, serves as a reminder of who rules the roost in rural Ohio — Jesus and right-wing politics. I am surprised that the Drive-Thru didn’t have a display of three wise men standing before a crèche while saluting an American flag flapping in the breeze over the white baby Jesus’ manger.
The people behind the Christmas Drive-Thru are decent, good people who simply in their actions reflect the tribal beliefs of most denizens of rural Northwest Ohio. I don’t find fault with the Christmas displays, except for the fact that there were no displays touting the Winter Solstice, Hanukkah, or Kwanzaa. I suspect the area’s whiteness and lack of religious diversity has a lot to do with why these “other” holiday themes were not represented. (And if any of the people behind the Christian Light Drive-Thru stumble upon this post, I would love to provide and pay for a Winter Solstice display next year.)
The Drive-Thru cost us $5 and an hour of our time. While it is not likely we will make a return visit, I certainly understand its appeal — a bright shining display touting the beliefs most locals hold dear. I know we are generations away from, if ever, locals seeing and understanding that both the Jesus and Santa on display at the Christmas Light Drive-Thru are myths. As long as the Jesus myth prevails, so will displays touting the rightness of rural, white, conservative Christianity.
About Bruce Gerencser
Bruce Gerencser, 60, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 39 years. He and his wife have six grown children and eleven grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist. For more information about Bruce, please read the About page.
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Starbucks is accused by the religious-right of waging war on Christmas. What better way for Starbucks to placate Jesus-is-the-Reason-for-the-Season Evangelicals than to put Bible verses on their signature red and green coffee cups. Nothing like a verse from the inspired, inerrant Word of God to go with your coffee, right?
“Tis the season for Christians to be upset over things that they feel profane the “true” meaning of Christmas — the birth of Jesus Christ. A recent scuffle in Boca Raton is case in point. CBS News reports:
A 300-pound metal sculpture of a satanic pentagram, erected as an atheist protest to a public park’s Nativity scene, was severely damaged on Tuesday when it was pulled to the ground by vandals.
Atheist Preston Smith’s 10-foot tall sculpture lay broken in Sanborn Square at noon. Tire tracks led from the twisted metal to the street.
It appeared vandals had attached a chain from a vehicle to the sculpture and yanked it down, dragging it several feet. As local television reporters prepared live broadcasts, two passersby stopped and pushed the sculpture back onto its base before walking away.
The sculpture sits about 20 feet from a traditional Nativity scene of Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus, and is backed by a banner from an atheist group reading “Keep Saturn in Saturnalias,” a reference to the belief that the early Christian church substituted Christmas for a Roman pagan holiday.
It is the latest Florida protest against manger scenes on public property, mirroring earlier battles inside the state capitol in Tallahassee.
Boca Raton police officer Sandra Boonenberg said the overnight strike was the third attack on Smith’s sculpture and its explanatory banner since he erected the display earlier this month. Someone painted the once-red sculpture black on Monday. Earlier, someone damaged the banner. Detectives are investigating.
Smith, a middle school English teacher, said that as an atheist, he does not believe in God nor Satan, but is using a symbol often associated with devil worship to highlight his belief that religious displays have no place on public property, because they make non-believers “feel like second-class citizens.”
“We are here to call out Christian hypocrisy and theistic bias in taxpayer-funded public arenas while advocating for the separation of church and state,” he told The Associated Press Monday night, before the latest act of vandalism. “Our ultimate goal is to return the government to its viewpoint neutral stance so that when an atheist takes a stroll through the park we aren’t assaulted by Bronze Age mythology.”
He could not be immediately reached Tuesday, but called the earlier acts of vandalism “examples of mob mentality toward minority faiths.”
The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that government agencies can allow religious displays on public property, but if they do, they cannot discriminate. Both the Nativity scene and the Pentagram were installed with city permits.
A group of local religious leaders — 14 ministers, two rabbis and the president of the local mosque — placed a banner next to Smith’s sculpture criticizing its placement.
“The use of satanic symbols is offensive and harmful to our community’s well-being,” the banner reads. “We find it a shameful and hypocritical way to advocate for freedom from religion.”
The city issued a statement saying that while it respects Smith’s free-speech rights, it doesn’t support his message.
“In years past, the seasonal, religious displays in Sanborn Square have contained messages projecting the themes of peace, forgiveness and harmony,” it said. “This display appears to be more about shock value, attention and challenging our commitment to constitutionally protected free speech rather than promoting goodwill, respect and tolerance during the holiday season.”
Passerby Judy Hill, a retired information technology worker, decried the vandalism but didn’t think Smith should have erected his sculpture next to the Nativity scene.
“I know there is freedom of speech, but there is a time and place for everything,” said Hill, a Methodist. “He just wanted to get publicity and he got it.”
Tina Yeager agreed.
“It is a very precious season and for someone to come and almost make fun of that, to just really negate the time of year, it’s inappropriate,” she told CBS Miami.
In 2013 and 2014, atheists erected protest displays in the Florida capitol after a Christian group placed a manger there. Those displays included a Festivus pole made of beer cans, a depiction of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, a mock god popular among non-believers, and one showing an angel falling into flames with the message “Happy Holidays from the Satanic Temple.” The latter was damaged by a vandal.
The quotes in this story reveal what I have known for a long time: that most Christians do not understand the freedom of speech and freedom of religion protections afforded to Americans by the U.S. Constitution. Most Christians wrongly think that their beliefs and practices should be protected from attack, ridicule, and mockery. This is why Christians get upset over things such as secular, atheist, or Satanist Christmas displays. Thinking that Christianity deserves protected, preferential treatment, followers of Jesus expect non-believers to defer to and respect their beliefs and practices. When non-Christians refuse to genuflect before the One True Faith, Christians often become what millennials call “butt hurt.” How dare atheists mock Jesus, Christians say. How dare Satanists put up a sacrilegious display right next to a crèche. How dare you heathens offend the sweet baby Jesus.
In the aforementioned article, a Methodist woman by the name of Judy Hill stated, “I know there is freedom of speech, but there is a time and place for everything.” What Hill really means is that there is a time and place for displays of Christianity — anywhere, any time. Other expressions of faith or godlessness? Only when Christians say it is okay. I wonder if Hill has bothered to consider that perhaps there is a time and place for expressions of Christianity too. Atheists – and indeed, all Americans – live in a culture where Christianity is frequently shoved in their faces everywhere they go. Atheists endure these public displays of Christianity because that’s the price of admission for living in a country that values freedom of religion and speech. If Hill truly wants public discourse regulated by “time and place for everything,” then how about Christians restricting their overt displays of love for Jesus to their homes and houses of worship. If Christians want atheists to stop hurting their feelings, then shouldn’t non-believers received reciprocal treatment? After all, the inerrant words of the sweet baby Jesus say, do unto others as you would have them do unto you!
The faulty premise of Boca Raton Christians is that Christmas is a sacred Christian holiday. It isn’t. Take a drive through any American community and what you’ll primarily find are Christmas light displays celebrating Santa Claus and generic winter holiday scenes. Yes, there will be crèches here and there, but most displays are secular in nature. Based on the evidence at hand, it is clear that Christmas is mostly a secular (capitalistic) holiday. Christians are certainly free, on their own properties and private spaces, to set up displays that scream to all who will listen, JESUS IS THE REASON FOR THE SEASON! Ironically, most Santa displays are put up by Christians themselves. It seems that it is really only a small percentage of Christians (mostly Evangelicals and other religious conservatives) who think there is some sort War on Christmas® or concerted attacks on religious freedom.
Secularists want governments to strictly enforce the separation of church and state. This means NO sectarian religious endorsement. If government entities are going to have invocations, benedictions, and public displays, they MUST — according to the U.S. Supreme Court — allow non-Christian groups to participate. This is why Satanists put up Christmas displays and humanists give invocations at government meetings. This is also why Satanists and secular groups are helping students to set up after-school meetings.
The goal is to expose hypocrisy and the preferential treatment given to Christianity. If Christians don’t want secular holiday displays next to their crèches, then all they need to do is take down their displays. Don’t want prayers to Satan or Mother Earth at council meetings? Stop having Christian ministers offer prayers to Jesus. Let’s all agree that government meetings and schools are no place for prayers of any kind, and that government property should be free of ANY displays of religion.
The separation of church and state means just that….a walled separation between government and religion. While government officials may freely live according to their religious beliefs, when it comes time to do the work of the people, religion has no part. President John F. Kennedy said it best:
These are the real issues which should decide this campaign. And they are not religious issues — for war and hunger and ignorance and despair know no religious barriers.
But because I am a Catholic, and no Catholic has ever been elected president, the real issues in this campaign have been obscured — perhaps deliberately, in some quarters less responsible than this. So it is apparently necessary for me to state once again not what kind of church I believe in — for that should be important only to me — but what kind of America I believe in.
I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute, where no Catholic prelate would tell the president (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote; where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference; and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the president who might appoint him or the people who might elect him.
I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish; where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source; where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials; and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all.
For while this year it may be a Catholic against whom the finger of suspicion is pointed, in other years it has been, and may someday be again, a Jew— or a Quaker or a Unitarian or a Baptist. It was Virginia’s harassment of Baptist preachers, for example, that helped lead to Jefferson’s statute of religious freedom. Today I may be the victim, but tomorrow it may be you — until the whole fabric of our harmonious society is ripped at a time of great national peril.
Finally, I believe in an America where religious intolerance will someday end; where all men and all churches are treated as equal; where every man has the same right to attend or not attend the church of his choice; where there is no Catholic vote, no anti-Catholic vote, no bloc voting of any kind; and where Catholics, Protestants and Jews, at both the lay and pastoral level, will refrain from those attitudes of disdain and division which have so often marred their works in the past, and promote instead the American ideal of brotherhood.
That is the kind of America in which I believe. And it represents the kind of presidency in which I believe — a great office that must neither be humbled by making it the instrument of any one religious group, nor tarnished by arbitrarily withholding its occupancy from the members of any one religious group. I believe in a president whose religious views are his own private affair, neither imposed by him upon the nation, or imposed by the nation upon him as a condition to holding that office.
I would not look with favor upon a president working to subvert the First Amendment’s guarantees of religious liberty. Nor would our system of checks and balances permit him to do so. And neither do I look with favor upon those who would work to subvert Article VI of the Constitution by requiring a religious test — even by indirection — for it. If they disagree with that safeguard, they should be out openly working to repeal it.
I want a chief executive whose public acts are responsible to all groups and obligated to none; who can attend any ceremony, service or dinner his office may appropriately require of him; and whose fulfillment of his presidential oath is not limited or conditioned by any religious oath, ritual or obligation.
But let me stress again that these are my views. For contrary to common newspaper usage, I am not the Catholic candidate for president. I am the Democratic Party’s candidate for president, who happens also to be a Catholic. I do not speak for my church on public matters, and the church does not speak for me.
Whatever issue may come before me as president — on birth control, divorce, censorship, gambling or any other subject — I will make my decision in accordance with these views, in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressures or dictates. And no power or threat of punishment could cause me to decide otherwise.
But if the time should ever come — and I do not concede any conflict to be even remotely possible — when my office would require me to either violate my conscience or violate the national interest, then I would resign the office; and I hope any conscientious public servant would do the same.
But I do not intend to apologize for these views to my critics of either Catholic or Protestant faith, nor do I intend to disavow either my views or my church in order to win this election.
Christians also need to understand that America is not a Muslim country where freedom of speech is limited, nor do we have religious blasphemy laws as do some European countries. Americans have the right to hold beliefs that others might find silly, stupid, ignorant, profane, or hateful. Some Americans believe that the Moon landing was a hoax, the earth is flat, and the sun revolves around the earth. Other Americans believe that aliens have visited earth, global climate change is a myth, and Caucasians are a superior race. And still others believe the earth is 6,021 years old, the earth was destroyed by a flood 4,000 years ago, and giant angel-human beings once roamed the earth. Throw in Christian beliefs about the virgin birth of Jesus, his miracles and resurrection from the dead – why, if some were so inclined, they could spend their waking hours doing nothing but mocking fantastical, ignorant beliefs.
As long as the U.S. Constitution stands, non-Christians have the freedom to mock, ridicule, and disparage Christian beliefs. They also have the freedom to attack, critique, and discredit such beliefs. While most non-Christians would never violate Christian homes or places of worship (unlike Evangelicals who invade homes to proselytize non-believers), once followers of Jesus engage in public speech (and crèches are public speech) then they should expect their utterances to be challenged. If Christians don’t like people saying things about their beliefs, then they should keep their religion to themselves. As long as Christians continue to demand preferential treatment and attempt to bulldoze the wall of separation of church and state, they should expect pushback from secularists, skeptics, atheists, humanists and those who value freedom of religion and speech.
Growing up in an Evangelical home, I knew that Christmas was all about the birth of our Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. Gifts were sparse, often just two or three packages, but never far from view was the most wondrous gift of all, salvation through the atoning work of Christ on the cross. The churches I attended spent significant time each holiday season reminding congregants that Jesus was the reason for the season. Sermons against Santa Claus, consumerism, and idolatry were common, as were pleas for money to help the poor and disadvantaged.
Polly and I started dating in September 1976. On Christmas Eve of that year I drove from my mother’s home in Bryan, Ohio to Newark to meet Polly’s parents and attend her family’s Christmas gathering. This was the first time I had the opportunity to be alone with Polly, and we took advantage of it, using trips to the apartment complex’s laundry room to get as much kissing in as possible before returning to Midwestern Baptist College and its thou-shalt-not-touch six-inch rule. The family gathering was held at the home of Polly’s aunt and uncle, Jim and Linda Dennis. Jim was the pastor of the Newark Baptist Temple. Prior to gathering at their house, we dutifully attended the Christmas Eve service at the Baptist Temple. During the service, Polly’s uncle decided to thoroughly embarrass both of us by pointing out that Polly had a special visitor with her. He then said, “Bruce and Polly have a shirt tail relationship. We just don’t know how long the shirt tail is.” I can imagine Polly’s Mom saying to herself, not very long if I have anything to do with it.
After Christmas Eve service, we drove over to the Dennis’ home. As I walked in the door, I couldn’t help but notice the largest pile of Christmas gifts I had ever seen in my life. Jesus may have been the reason for the season, but it was quite evident that receiving a lot of gifts came in a close second. Prior to the gift-giving orgy, someone — I can’t remember who — gave a quick devotional, reminding all of us, yet again, as if we haven’t heard before, that Christmas was all about Jesus — his virgin birth, death on the cross, resurrection from the dead. Once the Sermonette for Christianettes® was duly delivered, it was time for the gifts to be distributed. Polly and I had already traded gifts, so I didn’t expect anything for myself. I was surprised (and embarrassed), then, to receive a gift from Polly’s parents — a leather belt.
After Polly and I married, we settled into a holiday routine that had us celebrating Christmas Eve with her family and Christmas Day with mine. Things continue this way until the late 1980s. I had stumbled upon material that purported to reveal the pagan history and true meaning of Christmas. Wanting to be obedient to Christ and untainted by the world, I decided, as the head of the home, that we would no longer practice Christmas. I can only imagine how heartbroken Polly was when I gathered up all of her Christmas decorations and donated them to Goodwill. I did make an allowance for us attending family Christmas gatherings. We bought no gifts for our children, treating Christmas as if it were just another day. For several years, our family drove to the Charity Rescue Mission in Columbus to help serve food to the homeless. Several families from the church I was pastoring at the time — Somerset Baptist Church — went with us. While I deeply regret becoming the Grinch that stole Christmas, I do think feeding the homeless put Christmas into perspective.
Somewhere in the 1990s, I realized that you could make Christmas into whatever you wanted it to be. Much to the surprise and delight of our children, we bought a Christmas tree and decorations. We also allowed for limited gift-giving. As I look back on this, I realize that I did with Christmas exactly what the Catholics did when they took a pagan practice and repurposed it for Christian use. Yes, Christmas was originally a pagan holiday, as were many of the practices associated with it, but I believed that such things could be used to further the gospel of Christ and give witness to Jesus. From that point forward, in the churches I pastored I allowed Christmas decoration to be put in the church auditorium. For the next decade, our home and the churches I pastored celebrated Christmas as most other American families and churches did. Jesus may have been the reason for the season, but gift-giving was a close second. To assuage the lingering guilt I had over consumer-driven gift-giving, I made sure our family and the churches I pastored gave liberally to missionaries and the poor.
Eight years ago, on the last Sunday in November, Polly and I attended church for the last time. For the longest time, we found it impossible to attend anything remotely associated with religion. We had just gone through a nasty divorce with God, and we didn’t want to go anywhere that would remind us of our ex. After a few years, the distance between deconversion and the present was sufficient that we were able to attend Christmas programs and concerts without wanting to commit homicide. If I remember right, our first foray back into the religious world was attending the production of Handel’s Messiah at a nearby church. That same year, we attended a Christmas concert put on by a Trans-Siberian Orchestra cover band — Siberian Solstice. One of the mainstays of the group is my counselor.
Evangelicals often deride me for practicing Christmas. How can an atheist practice a religious holiday? they ask. Christmas is all about Jesus, and are you being hypocritical if you celebrate a holiday set aside to worship a God you don’t believe in! I suppose that this would be a valid question if the evidence at hand showed me that, indeed, Christmas was all about Jesus and his virgin birth in Bethlehem 2,000 years ago. However, the evidence clearly shows that Christmas is all about family, food, and gift-giving. While many Evangelical churches will attempt to put Christ back in Christmas, most church families will practice Christmas in the same manner as their non-Evangelical neighbors. While Polly’s family still practices Christmas just as they did 40 years ago, it is now evident that the obligatory attendance at the Christmas Eve service and the devotional before presents can be opened are mere formalities — things to be endured until the real reason for Christmas begins.
Christmas Eve and Christmas Day fall on a Saturday and Sunday this year. It will interesting to see what local churches will do since Christmas falls on Sunday. The last time this happened, many churches held a short Christmas Eve service (so the tithes and offerings could be collected) and canceled Christmas Day services so congregants could spend time with their families. Some Baptist churches who normally held two services on Sunday canceled their Sunday evening service. Of course, wanting to show that they are not like “liberal” churches, a few Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) churches maintained their regular schedule of services.
As atheists, we thoroughly enjoy the holiday season. In fact, Polly and I both say that Christmas is far more enjoyable now than it was when I was pastoring churches. Quite frankly, the days between Thanksgiving and New Year’s were so busy that we had little time to enjoy the holidays. Like many Christian churches, who once a year want to show the poor and disadvantaged that they really, really care, we put together several food baskets and delivered them to the poor. (Isn’t it amazing that the poor only need food and help during the holidays?) Not only did we have to do obligatory alms to the poor, we also had to prepare for special services such as Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve. By the time the new year rolled in, Polly and I were quite glad the holidays were over.
These days, we are free to enjoy Christmas without worrying about whether we are giving Jesus his just dues. For Polly and me, Christmas is all about family. We eat lots of food with no worries about waistlines. Polly loves to bake and I love to eat what she bakes, as do our children and grandchildren. For the next month, Christmas songs will waft through the air of our home — yes, even religious ones. You might be surprised if you stop by to hear us singing Joy to the World, Oh Come All Ye Faithful, or many of the other religious songs associated with Christmas. The lyrics of the songs are but reminders of our cultural heritage. This is why you will also find us singing Santa Claus is Coming to Town and Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer. For us, family and not Jesus is the reason for the season. If Christians want to focus on Jesus during Christmas, that is certainly their right to do so. However, I refuse to let them ignorantly suggest that Christmas is a Christian-only holiday. When confronted with such historical ignorance, I remind them that Christmas means different things to different people. It is a holiday that should bind all of us together, reminding us of the blessings of family and our common heritage. Evangelicals who stupidly say that there is a war against Christmas deserve a double barrel gun salute. There is no war against Christmas, and no matter how many times Sean Hannity says that there is, the fact remains that Christmas is a religious and a secular holiday. Christians are free to worship the baby Jesus and sing praises to his name, the rest of us are free to practice Christmas without the religious garb.
How do you practice Christmas now that you no longer a Christian? Are the holidays stressful for you? Do you still attend Christmas services? Please share your thoughts in the comment section.
This is the time of year when Evangelical soothsayers, psychics, and Nate Silver (ESPN 538) make predictions for the coming year. I thought, in keeping with the spirit of the New Year, that I, the atheist version of Carnac the Magnificent, would make a few predictions of my own. Here’s my 15 Astounding Predictions for 2016.
Richard Dawkins will say something stupid.
Neil deGrasse Tyson will say something brilliant.
The Pope will not get laid.
Evangelicals will continue to say the rapture is nigh.
At least three Evangelical preachers will be arrested and charged with molesting children and 25 others will be accused of sexual misconduct.
Evangelicals will continue to say atheists hate God and secretly want to have wanton, immoral sex.
Franklin Graham will be exposed as a cross dressing transvestite.
Evangelical Calvinists will continue to say their critics don’t understand Calvinism.
Donald Trump will say bat-shit crazy stuff and his followers will love it.
Evangelicals will continue to think that Christianity is under attack and that secularists are trying to make Christianity illegal.
Tea Party Republicans will continue to think that the lame stream media controls America and that Muslim socialist Barack Hussein Obama is coming to take their guns.
The day after Thanksgiving, Fox News will say that there is a War on Christmas.
One Million Moms will continue to be outraged over nudity, cursing, and gay kissing on TV. This year they will find their lost remote and learn that if they push the channel button it changes the channel.
Democrats will win the presidency, a sure sign that the Antichrist is preparing to usher in the new world order.