How Christian Privilege Shows Up During the Holiday Season

Merry Christmas to those who celebrate, Happy Chinese Food Day to those who don’t! I’ve got a piece up at Everyday Feminism about how this time of year makes Christian privilege easier to spot and understand.

As a kid growing up in a secular Russian-Jewish family in a particularly Christian part of Ohio, I dreaded Christmas.

It was the day all my friends and classmates got dozens of presents from all their family and relatives while I sat at home with no one to hang out with and nowhere to go.

Although my family celebrated our own holidays – Hanukkah, Purim, New Year’s Eve, and others – it was hard not to feel left out of the most wonderful time of the year.

As I got older, I got over my Christmas envy and started to take a lot more pride in my own celebrations, traditions, and rituals. But the experience of growing up as a religious and cultural outsider in my community stuck with me, and now I use it as a lens through which I can understand and analyze Christian privilege.

Like other forms of privilege, Christian privilege is the idea that Christians are afforded unearned benefits in our society that other religious groups and atheists do not receive.

These unearned benefits can be subtle, such as seeing their beliefs portrayed positively in the media, and not-so-subtle, such as being safe from the bullying and violence many non-Christians experience as a result of their beliefs (or lack thereof).

Non-Christians experience marginalization differently depending on their particular identity. Atheists are subject to certain stigmas and prejudices because they do not believe in a deity at all, while Muslims face Islamophobia, which intersects with racism.

Though my own experiences as a Jewish atheist have shaped my understanding of Christian privilege, they are not at all universal.

While examples of Christian privilege abound throughout the year, they can be especially easy to notice during the holiday season.

Here are five ways Christians and Christianity are privileged at this time of year that I’d like to highlight in order to help us understand how we can be more inclusive of people of other or no religions.

1. Christians Are Much More Likely to Have Their Holidays Off Work

Before I get into this, it’s important to note that getting paid time off work at all is a form of class privilege. Many people work jobs that don’t allow or guarantee paid time off for holidays.

Those are the people working long hours to make sure that you get your Black Friday deals and last-minute Christmas turkey from the supermarket, and we shouldn’t leave them out of this discussion.

But those workplaces that do close on holidays tend only to close on the Christian ones.

Christians with class privilege get to spend their holidays with loved ones; the rest of us often don’t, class privilege or not.

2. Christians With Hearing Privilege Encounter Music Celebrating Their Holiday Everywhere They Go This Month

Don’t get me wrong: I love Christmas music. I’m not entirely sure why – maybe it just brings positive memories of winter break and school band concerts and playing in the snow.

For many other non-Christians, though, the prevalence of Christmas music at this time of year is a constant, grating reminder of the fact that our traditions and celebrations remain largely invisible.

You’ll hear plenty of songs about baby Jesus and Santa Claus, but you won’t hear much about ancient wars in Jerusalem or about the seven principles of Kwanzaa.

And, sure, maybe there aren’t nearly as many songs out there about non-Christian holidays (though I’m sure there are more than we realize).

That’s why the ubiquitous Christmas music isn’t necessarily a problem in and of itself, but rather a very visible symptom of the deeper issue: the fact that one particular religion pervades American society so completely.

Read the rest here.

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How Christian Privilege Shows Up During the Holiday Season
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16 thoughts on “How Christian Privilege Shows Up During the Holiday Season

  1. 1

    I grew up in a semi-religious Hindu household and I too felt left out whilst my Christian friends had their tree, turkey and loads of presents. Heck my household didn’t even get the Chinese food! As I grew older and became an unbeliever my grievances over such matters dwindled. I occupy a position of financial privilege and put up a tree yearly for the kids and buy them presents at Christmas. What’s ironic is that one of my Christian patients is a poor African American whose dwelling is a squalid shelter beneath a semi. I find it hard to argue that this Christian man has some privilege over a well off former Hindu now atheist. Do you really think he has more privilege than me because he gets Christmas Day off from his low paying job whereas I have to work on say Diwali?

    1. 1.1

      I’ve come to view ‘privilege’ (and related concepts such as microaggressions) through a statistical lens. That you enjoy a better quality of life than your patient on most (perhaps all) dimensions is clear, but that doesn’t mean that Christians, as a group, do not enjoy privileges not afforded to non-Christians in the US. Privilege comes in many forms (benefit of the doubt, increased willingness of others to help, statistically better response rate to resume submissions), not all of which can be capitalized on by all people. To use an example from my own life: I live in Japan, where I have full and comprehensive medical insurance. That I’m not sick right now doesn’t make that worthless.

    2. 1.3

      Yes, to add to what Miki Z and A Noyd said, just because we’re talking about Christian privilege today doesn’t mean that Christian privilege is the one with the strongest effect on everyone’s life, or that we should forget about every other type of privilege, notably class/socioeconomic privilege in this case.

  2. 2

    There are no religious holidays here in Japan. Many many festivals and celebrations (some of the best Christmas lights I have ever seen, and wholehearted adoption of the feasting and commercialism which is fun – the religious part less so).

    I was working in the office on Christmas day (actually rather enjoyed it – no evening calls with people who would rather keep me in the office till the late evening than disturb their early morning coffee and call as soon as they get in). Plus the Japanese version of Chritmas cake (fresh cream shortcake, with strawberries – red and white, very seasonal) is so much nicer than the weighty slab of icing encrusted fruit cake that we have back in the UK. I miss decent mince pies though.

    Not that there is no privelige here (being white and male, I am accutely aware that I am the beneficiary of attitudes and advantages because of what I am), but at least the deity you do (or don’t) believe in is not much of an issue.

    1. 2.1

      I did a mini-lecture on “Christmas in America” for a few of my middle school classes in Japan. We actually went into the religious aspect a bit, like why the hell this Jesus dude is so special that everyone goes bonkers for his b-day. From an objective perspective, of course.

      One of the kids was so adorably Buddhist when I was explaining the whole sin angle. He was astonished to find out that Christians do not believe you can get to heaven just by doing good deeds.

      Anyway, it turned out that more kids knew that Santa brings coal to bad kids than knew who the hell Jesus is. (And even more kids decided that Santa probably brings a bunch of creepy insects to bad kids.)

      1. Anyway, it turned out that more kids knew that Santa brings coal to bad kids than knew who the hell Jesus is.

        That is probably true in the United States, as well. Everyone is familiar with the secular / non-Christian elements of Christmas (trees, wreaths, lights, Santa, presents) but few have more than a shallow understanding of the day’s religious importance.

  3. 3

    Miki Z,

    If you view privilege through a statistical lens, then what are the proper stats? It would be a mistake to compare Christians vs non-Chrstians by simply doing a t test. There is an intersection of privileges and you can’t discount the confounding impact of race, gender, class, sexual orientation, etc. ANOVA perhaps?

    The vast majority of African Americans are Christian and this well intentioned article can come across as a slap in their face. I would have liked to have seen a more nuanced critique of so called Christian privilege that distinguishes the white Christian Mitt Romney families that feast, sing carols and sip nog before the freshly cut tree from black Christians on skid row.

    1. 3.1

      I’m a mathematician, and a large portion of my training is in doing just this kind of analysis, so below is the way that I approach it. Others have provided more qualitative suggestions that may resonate (or not), but growing up with many privileges (white, academically gifted without effort, educated parents) and still having a relatively terrible childhood, it was difficult for me to reconcile the privilege argument for myself until I “looked at the numbers,” as it were.

      Typically, this type of testing is done via chi-square analysis or other non-parametric testing. Such analysis has been used in the US to show a basis for Title IX claims, and is considered the best among the straight statistical tests for detecting this kind of bias. It’s particularly powerful when you do have such unequal representation of the different combinations. You’re right that a simple t-test, or even ANOVA (which is fundamentally just the t-test on more dimensions) is too simple.

      A more intensive but sensitive measure is to build models to detect the effects. These models are tuned to mimic social outcomes, using the leave-one-out method to avoid overfitting and test for generality.

  4. 4

    ” I would have liked to have seen a more nuanced critique of so called Christian privilege that distinguishes the white Christian Mitt Romney families that feast, sing carols and sip nog before the freshly cut tree from black Christians on skid row.”

    1)the nuance is included where relevant.
    2)what you’re talking about is class privilege. you can bet your butt that even black, poor christians have christian privilege; but you’d only notice if you compared how that works for them vs. how that works for e.g. poor black muslims or poor black atheists (and why do you think there’s not that many of those…?). While individuals may even slip through the crack of the FAR larger social safety net for poor christians (compared to non-christians), overall there’s more resources for them.

  5. 5

    On class and race. I second comparing Black Christians with Black Muslims (or even Jews, they exist.) That’s sometimes how I think about privilege – try to mentally just alter one variable, and see how that plays out. In some cases you can find good examples that are easier to picture than a more statistical analysis, though the statistical one is more helpful.

    oddly enough, I worked this Xmas (totally by choice, I’m in academia and nobody was making me) simply because, given that this is one time when I’m getting no emails from graduate students or colleagues and can work without distractions. As an adult, Xmas is not so bad, though as a kid it was far worse since adults around you automatically assume ‘so, what are you doing for Xmas or getting for Xmas?” As a child, I hated being put on the spot as being different. I sometimes even thought about lying and making up an answer just to fit in.

    1. 5.1

      There are Black Jews, actually. There was a large community in Ethiopia for millennia: their oral history holds that they are the descendants of merchants and courtiers who moved there as part of King Solomon’s ties with the Queen of Sheba and her son, King Menelik I. That history also holds that Menelik was entrusted with the Ark of the Covenant, which is how it allegedly ended up in Axum (supposedly stolen by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church in the 11th century and now kept hidden away in a cathedral vault.)

      There are also the Sephardim, who in the Diaspora headed west into the Iberian Peninsula (what is now Spain and Portugal), the Maghrebim, who went south and west into northern Africa, and the Mizrahim, who went east into Turkey, Central Asia and India. These three groups largely share a body of interpretation and practices fairly different from the Ashkenazi of Europe and western Asia, and have darker complexions than the lighter skinned Ashkenazim. These ethicities are typically grouped together under the Sephardi label in modern Israeli politics.

  6. 6

    You are quite correct about the feeling of being attacked that many Christians feel just because they are losing their cultural dominance. Yet many Christians I know feel so safe in their belief that they feel no need to go around being “CHRISTIANY” all over the place. They don’t need everyone around them to agree with them to feel comfortable. They find ways to accommodate their beliefs to the fact that they know good people who are not Christian (I had a young fundamentalist friend who said “You’re not going to hell. God will find a way to save you”).

    What I am saying is that–those who make all the War on Christian noise notwithstanding–most Christians are about as responsible for Christian privilege as I am for white privilege. It is important to understand privilege that you have, and to try to take it into consideration in our interactions with people, but we are not at “fault” for whatever privileges we have.

    That does not mean we shouldn’t try to reduce the impact of that privilege. We should recognize those that celebrate different holidays or don’t celebrate holidays at all are still our neighbors. We should encourage the acceptance of those who are different than ourselves in this as in all things.

  7. 7

    Several years ago, the company I worked at had several big deadlines just before Christmas, so they decided to hold the annual Christmas party in January — right after the start of that year’s Ramadan. Well, this was in Silicon Valley, a very diverse place with plenty of Muslims. I pointed out to the HR person that throwing a feast for employees who couldn’t enjoy it was kind of rude, and the money could be spent on something like holiday bonuses instead… but she blew me off.

    The ironic thing is that the management were all Chinese-Americans, and very few of them were Christians; most were pretty secular, regardless of their beliefs. But they’d decided it was necessary for morale to have a Christmas party near Christmas. The truth is, we all could have celebrated Chinese New Year instead, and had a great time…

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