As far as I understand it from my experience living in the United States during my undergraduate years, the Christian right, which is a loose socially conservative religious group, believes that there is a social war going on. It is a war on Christmas.
The war is really about the secularization of Christmas. It is a symbol of a wider conflict between the social conservatives and the liberals.
Putting that aside, an example of the secularization involves greetings associated with Christmas. In place of the phrase “Merry Christmas”, many liberals are resorting to wishing “Happy Holidays” instead.
The very phrase “Happy Holidays” is partly an effort to be inclusive by those who embrace liberal, cosmopolitan values that are inclusive. That is so because Christmas is not only a celebration that takes place in December. There is the Jewish celebration of Hanukkah. There is Thanksgiving at the end of November. Soon after Dec 25, there is the New Year’s Eve. And given the nature of the Muslim calendar, it is very possible that Ramadan can fall around the same time as Christmas.
The point is that non-Christian holidays do and can happen around the same time as Christmas. So, the greeting “Happy Holidays” sounds inclusive, especially when one wants to be polite but does not know the other person well. This is particularly a relevant point to mass communication when tailored messages can be a little hard to deliver with precision.
The more important point is that the end-of-the-year holidays – at the risk of committing tautology – are the end-of-the-year holidays. Schools end, professionals take their leave and families or friends go to somewhere together if they do not spend it at home. Even non-believers do this.
So, the time that is traditionally celebrated as Christmas holidays becomes the common great holidays for all. For many Christians in America, Christmas is about Christianity. For many non-Christians, Christmas is a secular holiday devoid of any religious connotation. So secular that if the political left had their way, they would have labeled Christmas as a capitalist holiday for all of the shopping sprees that happen all around the world.
Apparently, the secularization of Christmas does not only happen in America. Some years ago, several of my French friends wished “Merry Christmas” to me. I told one of the friends that I am not a Christian. She replied, “Neither am I. I am an atheist.”
“Oh. Then Merry Christmas to you too,” I said while smiling at her.
There we were, two non-Christians wishing each other “Merry Christmas”.
We were just being nice to each other and we had no Christian image of Nativity in our heads.
This is only a data point but it is a proof of secularization of Christmas nevertheless.
Some secularization also happens in Malaysia.
There are nominal Muslims who celebrate the end of Ramadan not because they consider it as a particularly religious day. In fact, a lot of them do not observe strict fasting during the month of Ramadan. Still they celebrate Hari Raya because it is a tradition to do so and because everybody is in their gayest of all moods, dressed in their best bright-colored baju Melayu and baju kurung. It is effectively a nationwide party. It is hard not to get afflicted by the ambience comes to being only in the month of Syawal. Never mind that there are also non-Muslims who celebrate Hari Raya by visiting friends in the days after Syawal 1.
That is the seed of secularisation that to some extent divorces the holiday from its religious significance.
The full separation between those holidays and its religious significance however is unlikely to happen anytime soon as long as religion continues to play an important role in any society.
In Malaysia, religion will continue to be relevant for a long time.
While that is so, there are celebrations that have been fully divorced from their original religious connotation. One of such celebrations is just around the corner and it is St Valentine’s Day. Despite the name, Valentine’s in its popular conception in Malaysia and in many other places has nothing to do with religion.
The simplest way to ascertain that is to run a survey. Ask any couple out on Valentine’s and see if they have religion in mind. More likely than not. They are likely to have each other in their mind instead. The truth is that Valentine’s of modern times is a very secular romantic celebration of each other.
And secularization has allowed the idea of Valentine’s to come closest it has ever been to becoming universal.
Yet, many conservative Muslims in Malaysia in one way or another believe that Valentine’s is about Christianity. Like the Christian right which suffers from make-believe assault and siege mentality, the Malaysian Muslim conservatives suffer from the same delusion. In their mind, this is yet another conspiracy against them.
But it is not.
It is an evolution within society. Society takes what it thinks good from within it. Through secularization, society makes whatever that was confined within a restrictive four-wall more universal so that all can benefit from it.
So, to take Valentine’s as celebrated today within a religious context and then to oppose it is truly to miss the point of it all.