Have a Merry Christmas, damn it!

You might think that, as a card-carrying agnostic or possibly atheist, I would be cheering the movement to change the words "Merry Christmas" to "Happy Holidays," or some other innocuous phrase like "Happy Neutral Non-secular Celebration." But I'm not. I think it's a load of ... well, reindeer manure.

The last time I checked, we live in the United States of America, a nation founded on the principles of freedom of speech, religion and actions within the law. When did we turn into a country that wants to control people's thoughts and words?

By going to court to force businesses to cease using the words "Merry Christmas," and to remove such horrifying images as angels and wise men from their Chri- excuse me, holiday trees, in favor of fruits and vegetables, these secular bigots without a life are forcing our government to play a role in dictating religious thought and celebration. That's a violation of our Constitution, which states that the government shall make no laws regulating religion.

As for our schools and public buildings, as long as it is the choice of the people therein, and not the policy of the institution, to have a Christmas Tree - or a lighted Menorah or any other religious artifact representing an important day or celebration - then it shouldn't be a problem. It is incumbent on the educational system to make it voluntary, and to open the building to celebrations of all religions, teaching our children tolerance and understanding. That is one way our children will learn about the diversity in our world.

As a nonbeliever, I have no more right to force the public at large to think and talk the way I do than the religious conservatives have to force me to think and behave in a way that they find acceptable. Hello! That's what freedom means.

We're talking about private businesses, owned by private citizens. If they want to display a Christmas tree, a Menorah, Buddha or any other symbol of their belief, we need to show respect, tolerance and, most of all, civility by celebrating their happiness with them.

Even I have a goodly number of Christian friends, and I consider it an honor and a sign of their friendship when they wish me a Merry Christmas. They know that I'm not a Christian, and yet I return that sentiment because I know it has a special meaning for them.

If I had a lot of Jewish friends (and I may have without even knowing it) and they wished me a Happy Hanukkah, I would feel that same way. The same applies to the Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims and all others, as long as theirs is a religion of peace and love.

I know an Egyptian musician named Maurice who, whenever I see him, always greets me with "Assalamualaikum," which I understand to mean "Peace be upon you." Personally, I can't imagine a nicer greeting than that; it beats the heck out of "Have a nice day."

How about we all start saying this to each other - if not in Arabic, then in English. And especially during this Christmas season, a season that we like to proclaim as standing for love, peace and happiness. I assume that sentiment applies to all people, not just a select few who go to one church or another.

I'm truly concerned about the direction our nation is going. We've become a society that is intolerant of those who look, speak or think differently from us. We've rounded others up into narrowly defined categories, in most cases without even knowing them, so that we can discriminate against them in one way or another. We are traveling the path that warring factions in other parts of the world have traveled in the past - a path that has led to violence and intolerance.

If we are truly the mightiest democracy in the history of the earth, and if we want to change the world for the better, we would do well to start right here at home by dropping the intolerance.

The first step would be to embrace the Christian holiday of Christmas with our Christian brothers, and do the same with our Jewish, Muslim and Hindu brothers, along with all people of all faiths.

Let's show the world that all religions, races and genders can live side by side in harmony in the United States, and let them follow our lead. Peace be upon you.

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