"Holiday Conflicts," a Commentary by Martin E. Marty

April 13, 2009

Author: Martin E. Marty

Source: Sightings


America got past the seasonal holidays and festivals relatively unscathed this month. Such an observation may sound surprising, because one would not expect holidays or festivals to scathe anyone. "Holiday," says definition one in the dictionary, is HOLY DAY. "Festival," says the same authority, is "a time of celebration marked by special observances." Religions, like nations, cannot not observe special days. Observing is in their lifeblood, and holidays and festivals breed loyalty and inspire passion. All positive.

Yet observance of holidays can breed conflict. People get killed in clashes over holidays. An observation from Voltaire about England, one that James Madison picked up on: In societies with one religion (in my translation), everyone who does not belong gets killed. Holiday-observers bring out the knives. More Voltaire: In two-religion societies, they kill each other. We see this relationship between Protestant and Catholic in the Thirty Years War and in Northern Ireland's recent past, or between Shi'ite and Sunni Iraq. However, wrote Voltaire, because England had thirty religions, they had to find ways to get along.

The United States has more than thirty, and for decades if not centuries, citizens have been learning to get along, to accommodate each other, to refrain from killing "the other." We are far from being at ease about pluralism and diversity at festival time, so to get through relatively unscathed (with fewer court cases, fewer interrupted school board meetings, and less gnashing of teeth about neighbors' ways) is something about which to cheer. The religious might some day be able to concentrate on HOLY DAY and celebration.