Is Christmas racist? Here’s why Canadians recently debated it

A person walks past a Christmas tree at Queen’s Park in Toronto on Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2023.
A person walks past a Christmas tree at Queen’s Park in Toronto on Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2023. | Nathan Denette, The Canadian Press via Associated Press
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Is Christmas racist?

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau faced that question last month during an appearance in the House of Commons as lawmakers criticized a discussion paper on religious intolerance from the Canadian Human Rights Commission.

The paper, dated Oct. 23, questions Canada’s recognition of Christmas and Easter as official holidays, noting that they “are the only Canadian statutory holidays linked to religious holy days.”

“As a result, non-Christians may need to request special accommodations to observe their holy days and other times of the year where their religion requires them to abstain from work,” it says.

The discussion paper links the state’s support for Christmas and Easter to its past attacks on indigenous spirituality, arguing that indigenous communities “continue to face racism and intolerance of their spiritual practices to this day.”

Although Christmas is only mentioned once in the paper, which is about why religious intolerance is a problem and how to combat it, the one mention was enough to spark a backlash from Canadian lawmakers.

As mentioned above, on Nov. 29, one elected official urged the prime minister to address the paper. Trudeau said that, “Obviously, Christmas is not racist,” but called the question, not the paper, “totally ridiculous,” according to The Christian Post.

The next day, the House of Commons unanimously adopted a motion condemning the discussion paper’s comment on Christmas.

The motion “ask(ed) the House to ‘denounce all attempts to polarize events that have been part of Quebec and Canadian heritage for generations’ and ‘invite all Quebecers and Canadians to unite as we approach the Christmas season,’” Global News reported.

Amid the fallout, the Canadian Human Rights Commission attempted to clarify the discussion paper’s comment on Christmas, noting that its goal was not to criticize state recognition of Christmas, but to, instead, encourage support for those who celebrate non-Christian holidays.

“In an emailed response, the CHRC says Christmas is an important tradition for millions of Canadians, both Christians and non-Christians alike. The organization says that the paper is not about Christmas or any other religious tradition, but a discussion on how to ensure all Canadians can equally observe their religious holidays,” Global News reported.

As I read about the debate in Canada, I was reminded of the work I’ve done on faith-related employee initiatives in American workplaces and scheduling decisions in American schools. In those settings, too, some have questioned why Christians reap the benefits of automatically getting Christmas off of work, while members of other faiths often have to use PTO to ensure they can be with family on their holy days.

In the U.S., employers, school board members and others can use data to justify their holiday choices. Pew Research Center reported in 2017 that 90% of Americans celebrate Christmas and that a growing number of these adults think of it as a cultural, rather than religious, celebration.

Still, some U.S. companies and school districts are beginning to make changes in hopes of better serving those who want different holidays off. Some schools have added additional days off for major Jewish or Muslim holidays or created standardized rescheduling rules for cases in which an exam day conflicts with a religious observance.

And I recently wrote about a health care system in Georgia that’s doing away with its Christmas Eve holiday in order to make room for Juneteenth.

These shifts aren’t without controversy, but they strike me as laudable in the sense that it’s good to try new things in hopes of creating a more inclusive environment as long as you’re willing to make additional refinements in response to concerns.

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Term of the week: St. Nicholas Day

St. Nicholas, the religious precursor to the secular Santa Claus, is the patron saint of Russia and Greece, as well as children, sailors and a variety of other places and things. His feast day, Dec. 6, is also known as St. Nicholas Day.

For St. Nicholas Day, children or, in some cases, entire families leave out shoes or stockings in hopes that St. Nicholas will fill them with candy and other treats. It is more commonly celebrated in Europe than in the U.S., but I noticed several of my friends post about it on social media this year.

What I’m reading ...

As the number of couples using IVF to get pregnant grows, so too does the number of frozen embryos in storage facilities across the country. Christianity Today recently reported on evangelical-led efforts to facilitate the adoption of unused embryos, as well as the broader ethical debate surrounding fertility treatments.

Is marriage better for men than women? Women believe it is, according to data from the Survey Center on American Life. Center director Dan Cox highlighted this research in his American Storylines newsletter, noting that there’s a 21-point gap between the share of women who say that men who get married and have kids are happier than other men (53%) and the share of women who say the same about married women with kids (32%).

Odds and ends

What end-of-year stories would you like to see from me? A gift guide? A review of my top-performing articles (in terms of pageviews)? A list of movie/book/podcast recommendations? Let me know!