Blog / 2023 / Judicial Grinches and Irreligious Santas

November 13, 2023

As we come into the Christmas season with the Santas and the songs permeating every aspect of public life, I feel it’s important to let you know that you’re in the presence of a bonafide grinch. Not a killjoy or a scrooge, but a Judicial Grinch who’s obsessed with fairness—and with shoring up our unsteady democracy.

I was a teen when my grinchy tendencies started to show. I was finishing my first semester at a Catholic high school when the question popped into my head:

Why has the government of the United States made Christmas an official day off?

The US has twelve official holidays, and only this one has a religious origin. This special status given to a Christian celebration acts as an endorsement of one religion over all others. That’s not only unlawful according to our Bill of Rights, but it also very clearly puts the US on Santa’s naughty list. Because naming a religion’s big day as an official holiday can make Americans who don’t celebrate feel excluded, and Santa is most definitely not into anyone being ostracized for their differences. (For legal precedence in the Supreme Court of Santaland, see: Rudolph v. the Other Reindeer.)*

Of course, a lot of people don’t view Christmas as religious anymore. They’ve X-ed that Mas in their minds, and they just want to go into their own personal gingerbread house and leave all legal considerations behind.

I get it.

drawing of the Grinch as a judge, by Gwenn Seemel
Gwenn Seemel
Judicial Grinch
marker on paper
9 x 7 inches

The Judicial Grinch in me acknowledges the Irreligious Santa in you. I see your desire to celebrate, and I raise you another way to party: HumanLight! Instead of commemorating the birth of a religious prophet, this secular celebration is a way to take a day to honor reason, compassion, hope, and humanity itself.

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HumanLight coincides with Christmas, with parties happening on or around December 23rd specifically so that non-religious people can have their own thing and still be able to attend Christmas festivities if they want.

Like with many secular celebrations, there isn’t a lot of prescribed iconography or required rituals to go with HumanLight. Still, since its start in 2001, HumanLight events tend to include a lighting of candles. Sometimes there are three candles and sometimes four. They’re often red, yellow, blue, and white, but not always. The idea is to reflect on reason, compassion, hope, and humanity as the candles are lit.

I’m still new to HumanLight, having celebrated for the first time in 2021 with this painting, but the fact of its existence soothes the Judicial Grinch in me a little bit. Of course, what would truly make my democracy-loving heart grow three sizes is to have HumanLight as well as Yom Kippur, Eid al-Adha, Holi, the Lunar New Year, and International Women’s Day added to the official holidays of the United States. Hey, a grinch can dream, can’t she?

HumanLight candles by humanist artist Gwenn Seemel: trans symbol and peace sign on a white candle, recycle earth on a blue candle, heart in a heart on a red candle, atom symbol in a light bulb on a yellow candle
Gwenn Seemel
HumanLight (Humanity, Hope, Compassion, Reason)
acrylic on paper
14 x 11 inches

The original painting has already sold, but there are prints and pretty things with this image here in my print shop.

* For actual legal information on why we have one religion’s holiday imposed on us by a State that’s supposed to be separate from all Churches, we have to go back to 1870, when President Grant made Christmas a federal holiday. In the same piece of legislation, he also made New Year’s Day, the 4th of July, and Thanksgiving official. According to some legal minds, because Christmas was bundled with a few other secular holidays, because the wording doesn’t establish Christmas as a religious holiday but simply a day off, and because closing offices for a day doesn’t require workers to do anything religious, no one’s rights or dignity are violated by Christmas being the only official holiday with religious origins.

Still, I can’t help but think that the reason why lots of people feel like Christmas is secular-ish enough so as not to be a violation of the Establishment Clause is because it was named a federal holiday 153 years ago. And the longer we keep Christmas enshrined in this way, the more momentum this feeling gains.

Maybe this post made you think of something you want to share with me? Or perhaps you have a question about my art? I’d love to hear from you!


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