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"To evaluate (this) claim ... we must venture into the often-dreaded and certainly murky area of Establishment Clause jurisprudence..." 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, Koenick vs. Felton.

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The Establishment Clause of the 1st Amendment of the U.S. constitution, as interpreted by the U.S. Supreme Court, requires a wall of separation between church and state. This means that federal, state and local governments cannot establish an official religion; they cannot impede religious expression; they cannot promote religion as superior to secularism or vice-versa. However, one of the functions of the federal, state and local governments and the public school systems is to declare holidays. Three of them have significant religious connotations: Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. Although Thanksgiving has been essentially secularized, Christmas and Easter have retained much of their religious meaning. Thus, we find the term "C & E Christian" in common use. It refers to a person who attends church only on Christmas and Easter.

Some attempts have been made to have the declaration of these holidays declared unconstitutional. So far, results have been mixed.

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Origins of the timing of Christmas and Easter:

Christmas: The name is an abbreviation of "Christ's Mass." 

Numerous religions within the Roman Empire honored their gods' birth or rebirth on or about DEC-25. Their deities were typically called: Son of Man, Light of the World, Sun of Righteousness, Bridegroom, and Savior. Some examples within Pagan religions were the Roman god Attis, the Greek god Dionysus, the Egyptian god Osiris, and the Persian god Mithra. The Roman Emperor Aurelian blended the religious celebration of Saturnalia with a number of birth celebrations of savior Gods from other religions, into a single holy day: DEC-25. After much argument, the developing Christian church adopted this date as the birthday of their savior, Jesus. The people of the Roman Empire were accustomed to celebrating the birth of a God on that day. So, it was easy for the church to divert people's attention away from Pagan celebration and to the Jesus' birth. 

The Gospel of Luke 1:5 refers to a time when Zacharias' was on duty in the Temple. From this reference, one can compute that Jesus was born in the early fall. But Luke 2:8 seems to imply that Jesus was born in the springtime when the sheep were giving birth and the shepherds were "in the field keeping watch over their flocks by night." Since nobody at the time of Aurelian still remembered when Jesus was born, DEC-25 was as good as any other day to celebrate Jesus' birth. More details.

Easter was named after Eostre (a.k.a. Eastre). She was the Great Mother Goddess of the Saxon people in Northern Europe.  Similar "Teutonic dawn goddess of fertility [were] known variously as Ostare, Ostara, Ostern, Eostra, Eostre, Eostur, Eastra, Eastur, Austron and Ausos." 3 Her name was, in turn, derived from an ancient word for spring: "eastre." The timing of the Christian Easter is linked to the Jewish celebration of the Passover. Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread which were observed by the ancient Israelites early in each new year. (The Jewish people followed the Pagan Persian/Babylonian calendar and started each year with the Spring Equinox circa MAR-21). Passover was the most important feast of the Jewish calendar. It was originally based on Pagan sun and moon worship. This determined its timing. It is celebrated at the first full moon after the Vernal Equinox. More details.

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How Santa saved Christmas vacation for federal employees:

The United States Code, section 5 USC 6103 declares ten national, legal, public holidays, one of which is Christmas. Cincinnati attorney Richard Ganulin filed a lawsuit on 1998-AUG-4 in U.S. district court, 1 asking that the federal government be required to stop declaring future DEC-25 holidays. His goal was not to terminate Christmas. He wants Federal Employees to be given an extra vacation day which they could take on DEC-25, or on any other day if they wished. He feels that "Christmas is a religious holiday and the Congress of the United States is not constitutionally permitted to endorse or aid any religion, purposefully or otherwise, or [promote] entanglement between our government and religious beliefs." Judge Susan Dlott dismissed the suit. According to ReligionToday for 1999-DEC-8, Judge Dlott decided "that Christmas can be observed as a federal holiday because non-Christians also mark the holiday by celebrating the arrival of Santa Claus. Since nonreligious people also observe the holiday, giving federal workers a day off for Christmas does not elevate one religion over another." Ganulin has promised to appeal the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. 

Santa Claus has at least temporarily saved Christmas, both for Christians and for others!

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How travel plans, "shop 'till you drop" (and perhaps the Easter Bunny) saved Easter:

According to American Atheists, in 2000-JAN, 12 states (DE, FL, HI, IL, IN, LA, MD, NJ, NC, ND, PA, and TN) have a law that deals with a Good Friday holiday in public schools, and state offices. But the constitutionality of religiously-based holidays remains unclear. 

Some recent court decisions are:

bullet 1991: Both a federal district court and the 9th U.S.  Circuit Court ruled that a state declaration of a legal holiday on Good Friday was constitutional. Their ruling noted that the holiday "has become a popular shopping day in Hawaii and businesses have benefited from the three-day weekend created as a result of the holiday...Citizens are better able to enjoy the many recreational opportunities available in Hawaii."
bullet 1995: The 7th District Court of Appeals overturned on constitutional grounds a state law which ordered public schools to close on Good Friday. The ruling stated, in part, "The First Amendment does not allow a state to make it easier for adherents of one faith to practice their religion than for adherents of another faith to practice their religion unless there is a secular justification for the difference in treatment."
bullet 1995: A federal judge and, later, the 7th U.S. Circuit Court ruled on a Illinois Good Friday law passed in 1941. They found that the "legislature had acted improperly in declaring the day as a school holiday." 2 
bullet 1998: In the case BRIDENBAUGH vs.  O'BANNON, the plaintiff claimed that an Indiana Good Friday "established a religious holiday as a state holiday and represents the state favoring one religion over another and over non-religion."  The court disagreed, saying that the holiday served the secular purpose of giving state employees a day off work, and that the holiday had been sufficiently diluted of religious contents by having been referred to as the "spring" holiday. 2
bullet 1999: Judith Koenick, a retired Maryland public school teacher claimed that the state's 1865 Good Friday law "sends a message of inclusion to Christian schoolchildren and a message of exclusion to their Jewish, Muslim and non-believing classmates." Her attorneys asked a U.S. Circuit Court "to bring order to the lower courts' chaotic decisions concerning governmental recognition of Good Friday." Lawyers for the Montgomery County Board of Education claimed that the statute "is anchored around
the increasingly secularized holiday of Easter, which is a traditional
time for Marylanders, like other Americans, to begin Easter-related
" The court confirmed a 1997 U.S.  4th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling which found the law to be constitutional. The Circuit Court ruling commented: "A statute whose primary effect is to advance a secular purpose, rather than a religious one, is still constitutional even if it conveys an incidental benefit to those of a specific religion..." An Easter holiday "does not mention or imply that the holiday is to be spent attending religious services in recognition of this Christian holy day.  The statute merely gives people the days off to spend as they like..."
The ruling noted that:
bullet If the holiday were not observed in the schools, classes would have a very high absentee rate. 
bullet The law had a secular purpose in that it gave a day off work for state employees.
bullet The holiday is part of a larger, secular, vacation period observed each spring. 
bullet If the holiday were not observed, then the schools would have to go to the additional expense of hiring replacement teachers to fill in for teachers that observed the holiday.

The U.S. Supreme Court decided on 2000-JAN-19 to not review the Circuit Court decision. 

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  1. "Ganulin files latest  response in Christmas lawsuit," at: 
  3. Larry Boemler "Asherah and Easter," Biblical Archaeology Review, Vol. 18, Number 3, 1992-May/June reprinted at:

Copyright 2000 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2000-JAN-20
Latest update: 2000-JAN-20
Author: B.A. Robinson

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