The holiday of Christmas has become a global social problem because it invites terrorism and other forms of violence. In fact, violence is a part of many religious holidays. On Purim in 1996, Palestinian terrorists killed 13 people and injured 125. During 2006 Ramadan, the spike in U.S. military deaths showed how religious holidays can motivate violence. Around the world, people remember Christmas violence—in the United States, Indonesia, Philippines, Tibet, Mexico, Romania, Algeria, the United Kingdom, Bosnia, Pakistan, Iraq, and Israel.
Puritans of colonial Massachusetts insisted that no proof existed of Jesus’ birth on December 25 and outlawed Christmas in the second half of the 17th century. They were also protesting what they considered the pagan orgy of Christmas misrule. Elsewhere, the commemorations often led to relaxed norms against public excess and worker unrest. Drinking and mumming were central commemorations between colonial and Civil War eras. Mummers were rowdy groups of poor young men who sang carols or shouted rhymes and demanded food and drink from the wealthy, whose homes they boisterously entered. Insufficient “gifts” would cause mummers to riot through homes. Such commemorations thus inverted and perpetuated violent class relations.
As industrialization developed, observance of the Christmas holiday changed. Mythmakers like Washington Irving and Clement Moore borrowed the image of Santa Claus from German immigrants, and stories, poems, and drawings popularized Santa, the Christmas tree, presents, and family. By the 19th century’s end, Christmas was codified in law, and a commercialized, family holiday replaced boisterous Christmas commemorations.
Throughout the 20th century, Christians continued periodic Christmas protest, fighting secularism and commercialism. In the contemporary United States, Christmas philanthropy increases, but conflict persists. Feminists target domestic violence even though scientists debate whether there are holiday spikes. Anti-suicide activists claim Christmas season as their bane, even though scientists deny a holiday spike. Christians resent deletion of Christmas carols from school assembly programs, while non-Christians object to nativity displays on municipal tax-supported property.
Recently, neoconservative Fox News anchors Bill O’Reilly and John Gibson and televangelists Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson organized a two-pronged Christmas campaign. First, a legal team zealously defended Christmas celebrations that had been banned. Second, a cultural team politicized Christmas commercialism. The televangelists’ previous campaign was “keep Christ in Christmas”; their newer campaign asked to keep Christ commercialized, sponsoring boycotts of stores that refused to change advertising or in-store greetings from “Happy Holidays” to “Merry Christmas.” By 2005, campaigns successfully changed advertising and store practices, and according to Gallup polls, induced a major change in public opinion.
U.S. Christians may protest on a peaceful Christmas, but elsewhere, Christians more likely link Christmas and overt violence. Christmas terrorism emerged in the Far East on Christmas Eve 2000, when bombs exploded during Catholic and Protestant church services in Jakarta and five other Indonesian cities, killing over a dozen people, wounding hundreds, and worsening religious relations in the predominantly Muslim country. In 2004, in a Philippine port city, a bomb exploded in a market packed with Christmas shoppers, killing 15 people, injuring 58. In this predominantly Christian nation that had seen little terrorism, authorities blamed Muslim terrorists from the South Philippines. On Christmas 1997, a bomb exploded in the Tibetan capital, the biggest explosion in a series of previously ignored terrorist incidents. This Christmas bombing, however, brought international attention and meant Beijing could no longer ignore the problem of Buddhist terrorism.
Christmas violence in Mexico helped topple a government. Repression of Zaptatista protesters occurred before, but the “Acteal massacre” was especially brutal. On Christmas Day 1997, in Acteal, Chiapas, Indians buried their dead after government paramilitary troops killed 45 unarmed Indian peasants, including 15 children. Politicians initially denied foreknowledge, defined it as a family feud, orchestrated arrests, and promised investigations. However, Christmas repression ignited the citizenry. Protests prompted the president to fire several top officials, but public outrage continued. Two weeks later, thousands protested the Christmas Day massacre; protesters threw rocks, and police returned fire, killing one woman and injuring her baby. That Christmas Day massacre and its aftermath sparked public outrage and created an electoral end to corrupt leadership.
In 1989, regime change deposed communist dictators in Hungary, Poland, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, and Bulgaria. None did so with the violence as the mostly Christian nation of Romania, whose citizens’ fight for freedom succeeded after a Christmas Day massacre that took hundreds of revolutionary victims. Romanians remember Christmas 1989 as the brutal day they overthrew an evil dictator.
Algerian Islamists specialized in Christmas terrorism. Between 1991 and 1994, Algerian radicals attempted a coup to remove Christian immigrants and instill a Muslim theocracy. On Christmas Eve 1994, they hijacked an Air France jet, demanded release of political prisoners, executed three passengers, dumped the bodies on the runway, and flew to France, where they planned to crash into the Eiffel Tower. When they landed to refuel, police stormed the plane and killed the terrorists. During Christmas 2000, a young Algerian Frenchman was arrested in a failed plot to bomb the cathedral in Strasbourg, France.
Christian terrorism has outpaced Muslim terrorism in the United Kingdom. While they promised an official Christmas Day ceasefire, the Irish Republican Army (IRA) or splinter groups such as the Irish National Liberation Army or Real IRA for decades annually planned to explode bombs during the Christmas season. The IRA vowed attacks until Ireland was liberated from British rule. Annual IRA promises of a Christmas Day ceasefire were overshadowed by increased violence around the holiday season. Bombings targeted London shopping areas and disrupted the economic system. Shoppers stayed home. Armed soldiers protected shopping areas. Bombs continued. For more than 20 years, until the peace accords in 1998, the pattern continued. In 2000, officers began an overt public relations campaign, including a holiday advertising campaign to warn of Real IRA violence. The following year, officers arrested six men who planned to detonate six car bombs during the Christmas season. The success story continued; in 2002, police arrested four Real IRA members for Christmas bombing plans.
Muslims in Bosnia consider warlord Naser Oric a hero for defending them, but Serbians (90 percent of whom are Christian) blame him for the “Bloody Christmas” massacre of January 1993. Oric’s men assassinated many Serbian leaders and led ethnic cleansing of many Serbian villages. The most notorious was the raid on Orthodox Christmas, when Oric’s men killed at least 30 Serbians and looted and burned the town. The brutality of the attack was not especially greater than others, but the symbolism motivated a massive Serbian retaliation that established the first demilitarized safe zone in the war. After the war, Muslim mujadeen regularly harassed returning Catholic Croatians; a mujadeen killed a Croat family as they were getting ready to attend Christmas Eve mass.
Most Jihadists were college educated, but in Pakistan this was less so. Al Qaeda and others recruited undereducated Pakistani to drive out the Christian minority. In 2002 on Christmas Day, two terrorists dressed in women’s clothing threw hand grenades into a Christian church, wounding 11 and killing 3. In 2003, Islamist terrorists attempted to assassinate the Pakistani president on Christmas Day.
Before the war began in 2003, Christian Iraqis (who make up less than 5 percent of the population) helped celebrate Ramadan, and Muslims regularly celebrated Christmas as a secular and religious holiday. Jesus the prophet was celebrated as Muslims attended Christmas pageants that reenacted the nativity scene. Muslim celebrations commonly included secular symbols like Christmas trees, gift exchanges, and the Muslim version of Santa, Baba Noel (who drove a reindeer and stopped only at good Muslims’ houses). However, churches experienced periodic bombing, and many Christians fled the country, essentially extinguishing Iraqis’ Christmas celebration.
After stabilizing leadership of the Palestinian Authority in 1995, Yasser Arafat regularly attended Christmas services in Bethlehem. However, he could not control radicals; their annual Christmas bombings and hijackings disrupted pilgrimages to Bethlehem. Beginning in 2002, Israel again occupied Bethlehem and banned Arafat from attending Bethlehem services. Palestinian attacks continued, and on Christmas Day 2003, Israel killed a senior Jihad militant in the Gaza Strip, preventing a major Christmas Day terror attack. In 2004, radical Palestinians claimed responsibility for killing four in a Tel Aviv Christmas Day suicide bombing.
Terrorists attack on religious holidays because they seek a moment defined as sacred by the terrorized. Taking part in Christmastime violence reinforces terrorists’ plans to join a cosmic war. Terrorists gain power if people view them as more evil, committed, dangerous, or powerful because they attack innocents on a sacred holiday. In part because of our reactions, usurping a sacred holiday increases the terror level of a potentially violent act. Religious holidays should be protected so that they retain sacred meaning and are enacted through free public expression. How that protection is secured can be debated, but one promising solution is institutional. Leaders must operate political, religious, cultural, and economic institutions in ways that acknowledge, empower, and incorporate religious outsiders. The public must demand that leaders transform institutions to incorporate religious outsiders. If institutions fail to incorporate religious outsiders, then religious holidays will likely be transformed into social problems.
- Juergensmeyer, Mark. 2004. Terror in the Mind of God. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
- Nissenbaum, Stephen. 1997. The Battle for Christmas. New York: Vintage Books.
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