The war on (the war on) Christmas

It’s that time of year again, when Christmas cheer clashes mightily and noisily with the debate over the “war against Christmas.”  I am, and this probably won’t come as any surprise, a skeptic.

Not about the value and beauty of this holiday season, with all its many secular and sacred traditions, but about the political hub-bub that has come to festoon these weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year’s.

I generally share Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chaffee’s sentiment about Fox News’ annual festival of hand-wringing and chest-thumping. “Your show, Fox News, you’re too angry,” he told a shouting, red-faced Bill O’Reilly.

Dan Alexander, publisher of Denton Publications in Elizabethtown, is far more reasoned, thoughtful and temperate in his latest essay on the whole matter.

But he clearly endorses the idea that faith is “under so much fire today. But it’s clear the non-believers and atheists have chosen to draw a line in the sand.”

Yes and no.  From the story Alexander tells in his column — which I urge you to read here — and from the narratives that inevitably accompany these debates, the issue isn’t really Christmas.

The issue is Christmas in government settings.  Public schools, courtrooms, city parks.  These are the places where non-Christians, atheists and civil liberties groups are, in fact, trying to draw lines in the sand.

More about that in a moment, but first some context.

Bill O’Reilly and Dan Alexander are — in their very different tones — absolutely right about one thing.  America is changing.  Dramatically.  The age when we were all various stripes and brands of Christian is over.

These days, we are a truly motley bunch, espousing a thousand different faiths and non-faiths.   People describing themselves as “non-religous” make up the fastest growing “faith” category in America.

Which means that new questions will inevitably be raised when, say, a public school in Arkansas organizes a class trip to a nearby church to see a play about Christmas — which is, after all, a holiday that celebrates the sacred birth of a deity.

Now it’s important to note that there have been times and places in the world where Christmas has actually been banned.  Churches have been forcibly closed, bombed, or burned.  There are countries right now where Christians face real persecution.

I have never met an American who would stand for that kind of behavior in this country.  The idea of an actual war on free individuals practicing their faith on their own property and their own places of worship is unacceptable.

We have nothing like that now, that I’m aware of. Which leaves us with a pretty narrow, but still complex, important and hopefully civil debate.

Should the beautiful, wonderful trappings of this sacred holiday be presented on government property?  How should school kids experience the Christmas season in classrooms and assemblies?

What part of the holiday is a valued American cultural tradition, and when might the activities of government employees be construed as the kind of proselytizing or evangelizing that might make non-Christians uncomfortable?

As a final aside, it’s worth pointing out that thorny questions of this type aren’t entirely novel to our evolving society.

In the 1840s, New York state was rocked by protests and debates between Christians over what type of Bible should be read in classrooms — with Protestants and Roman Catholics pitted against one-another.

In those days, it was Bishop John Hughes who wanted to keep public schools from using the Protestant King James Bible when teaching religion to Irish Catholic immigrants.

Archbishop John Hughes (Source: Wikipedia)

“If the public schools could have been constituted on a principle which would have secured a perfect neutrality of influence on the subject of religion, then we should have no reason to complain,” Bishop Hughes argued.

“But this has not been done, and we respectfully submit that it is impossible.”

Bishop Hughes wasn’t “waging war on the Bible,” as many Protestants claimed.  He just didn’t want taxpayer-funded public schools teaching a brand of faith to kids from his church that he was uncomfortable with.

This is the narrow, but still important conversation that continues today — and will likely continue as long as we are a free and evolving people.

Not a war over Christmas, but legitimate questions over how and when the trappings, symbols and messages of one particular faith should be taken up by government entities.


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119 Comments on “The war on (the war on) Christmas”

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  1. The Original Larry says:

    What do you expect from people who believe in nothing? They want everyone else to embrace the nothingness. Government should be an expression of the will of the people; most people believe in something and their communities should display whatever expresses those beliefs even if they have religious symbolism. If you don’t believe, pay no attention and leave those who do alone.

  2. Pete Klein says:

    If there is any war being waged against Christmas, it is being waged by the retailers who have equated Christmas with buying stuff to the Christians who have gone along with “Let’s make this the best Christmas ever” by buying more and more stuff.

  3. Peter Hahn says:

    It’s is a ratings booster for the conservative entertainment industry. It’s great that it is showing up in the in-box too. Larry – the problem is the constitution. It’s pretty clear about separation of church and state. Originally that was presumably in there because all the Christian sects would have been trying to make each other illegal otherwise.

  4. To start I’ll state that I am not a Christina, despite being the son of a Methodist minister I long ago abandoned Christianity. However Larry’s notion that I, and people like me, believe in nothing is utterly false. I consider myself to be more “religious” than I ever was as a Methodist but my belief system does not readily fit into any organized religion’s theological dogma. On to the topic at hand.

    As I see the debate it is about how much of religion (any religion) can our government and its various entities tacitly endorse through participation in religious activity or display. Contrary to the beliefs of many conservatives the US was not founded to be a Christian nation. They tend to go back to the founding of individual colonies under British rule for their evidence, forgetting that there was a revolution, articles of confederation and a constitution after that. It was those later events that defined what the country was to be, not the intentions of the pilgrims at Plymouth Rock who, while seeking “religious freedom” denied the same to others. A lot of the contemporary angst by non-Christians is, I think, the result of a creeping tendency of conservatives to “establish” Christianity (meaning make Christianity the “official” religion) in the US. That tendency began with the insertion of “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance and “In God we trust” on money in the 1950s. It gained new momentum under George W. Bush with his overt support of government funding of religiously based social programs. I see the current debate as a backlash on this long process of moving toward making this a Christian nation.

    This isn’t new. What we call Christmas isn’t when the person we call Jesus was born. no one really knws when he was born. It was originally a pagan (meaning “not Christian”) holiday celebrating the solstice which was seen as the death and rebirth of the sun, symbolic of rebirth and renewal. The Roman church saw this as a perfect fit with their gospel and simply “re-branded” it as the birth of their Christ for the purpose of “establishing” Christianity as the official religion. I celebrate the holiday but do so in it’s original sense as a time of rebirth and new beginnings, part of the cycle of life. I would suggest that Christians be a little less defensive about their ownership of the holiday and sensitive to the fact that many who don’t share their particular beliefs do share a belief in peace and goodwill toward men. They should welcome that rather than using the holiday to either proselytize or exclude others.

  5. Peter Hahn says:

    Christmas has become the major secular holiday, followed by thanksgiving, Halloween, and maybe 4th of July. New Years is sort of rolled into Christmas. I don’t think most of us enjoy all the little decorations that go with it. The tree, Santa and the reindeers, the angels on the street lights, the crèches with the little Jesus Mary and Josephs. I think we recognize that Christmas has evolved from a Christian religious holiday, and before that it was somebody else’s holiday.

    But there is still the constitution. If anyone objects to something they go to court. That’s something we believe in too.

  6. Peter Hahn says:

    Should be we DO enjoy the decorations.

  7. The Original Larry says:

    The Constitution isn’t the problem. It says: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” and that’s in there to prevent the establishment of an “official” national religion. If the people of a particular town want to put a Nativity scene in the park, or a menorah in a courtroom or light off firecrackers on Chinese New Year how is that not the “free exercise” of religion that we are guaranteed?

  8. The Original Larry says:

    Don’t be so sensitive James, I was referring to “non-believers and atheists”.

  9. But Larry, I am “a non-believer”. At least in the sense that most formal religions mean it. And even the atheists I know don’t object to celebrating the solstice. They just don’t like having the religious trappings forced on them.

    BTW I’ve been thinking that capitalism is just the latest “ism” to co-opt the holiday. To a certain extent it has even co-opted Christianity itself what with the “prosperity gospel” that many churches are so fond of, despite it having zero basis in the teachings of Jesus.

  10. The Original Larry says:

    “They just don’t like having the religious trappings forced on them.”

    I don’t like having nothingness forced on me. We are all free to embrace or ignore, as we please.

  11. Peter Hahn says:

    Larry – Im a “non-believer and atheist” too. But we celebrated Christmas when I was growing up. There was a huge family and friend Christmas party at our house every christmas because my mother was the only Christian in the group. The Christmas tree and the gifts were a big part of it. I wasnt really aware of the religious aspects until much later, even though there were all those christmas carols in school.

    There are a few people who really really object to religious stuff in official government/public places. It is their right to object, and the courts have generally agreed that the constitution prohibits placing religious items (other than archeological artifacts) in public display.

  12. Mervel says:

    Well as long as Christians can embrace our celebration of the Birth of the Savior, of God made flesh, born of a Virgin, in public with joy and without interference, I have no problems and certainly don’t want to force anyone to do anything they don’t want to do. I don’t have a problem not having nativity scenes on public grounds or public spaces. I do think it is rather sad to sing all of those depressing secular winter songs in place of true Christmas Carols for the kids “holiday” celebrations in public schools but it is not that big of a deal to me.

    Christians are called to live fully our faith in all walks of our life which means in public and in private.

  13. Mervel says:

    As long as we have that basic right protected, to fully express our faith at work, at home and at school, I think it is fine.

  14. The Original Larry says:

    “the courts have generally agreed that the constitution prohibits placing religious items (other than archeological artifacts) in public display.”

    Not true, despite what many people think. In fact, judicial opinion on this issue is somewhat confused. The Supreme Court decision in County of Allegheny v. American Civil Liberties Union, 492 U.S. 573 (1989) centered on whether or not religious displays advanced a particular religion to exclusion of others and whether or not those displays were secular in nature. Inclusion of multiple religious symbols and/or secular symbols (Christmas trees) caused one display to be approved but in the same decision an exclusively christian display was not. Bottom line: religious displays that are inclusive and that celebrate the secular nature of a holiday are OK.

  15. The Original Larry says:

    To take it a step further, consider the recent book by Pope Benedict which states that the date of Christmas is a mistake and that neither angels nor animals were present at the Nativity. He also acknowledges that although these traditions are important to people, they have no religious basis. Consequently, I think that a traditional nativity scene displayed at the end of December is a secular display and within the Supreme Court’s definition of what is accepatable in public places.

  16. Peter Hahn says:

    Larry there are literally thousands of religious art objects on display in public places. The only time there is a problem, as you point out, is when the religious artifact is interpreted as officially supporting one religion as an official religion. But it’s not pope Benedict who gets to decide, it’s the US courts, and they can have slightly differing opinions.

  17. Peter Hahn says:

    I did not mean to imply above that religious artifacts cannot be on public display.

  18. Arlo T. Ledbetter says:

    This is so depressing. People arguing over non-existent rules in the Constitution, going on about how offensive peace on earth and good will towards men is, getting all wrapped up in their defense of their hate. It’s Christmas! I don’t care if you’re a staunch believer or an atheist, Christmas stopped being about religion a long time ago. It’s a holiday, a big commercial venture, an excuse to party and take a long weekend and about as offensive as Labor Day or Independence Day. It’s only the perpetually indignant that get all bent about it, but I bet every one of the PI takes Christmas off. Hypocrites!

    Hey, lets outlaw all holidays altogether. That way no one will get offended over any of them. So be sure to show up for work on 12/25 bright and early. New Years too, that has roots in pagan religious beliefs, same for Ground Hog Day, Easter, etc. No more holidays of any type and no more celebrating your birthday since that’s just self worship.

    There, we can all be equally and equitably miserable together. Problem solved.

  19. wj says:

    Good lord-

    It’s simply wrong to allow any public authority to endorse any religious or anti-religious display.

    When I was in 6th grade, my public school took all the kids caroling one day (yes, with the singing of Xmas carols). My Jewish mother didn’t like that. Why would she? It seemed to scream, “You will conform to THIS (Christian) religion and its practices, no matter what your family or clerical leaders have to say about it.”

    That’s the beef with religious displays in the park. Larry says to ignore them. This completely misses the point: Any public display of anything representing any religion appears to favor or endorse that religion over all the others.

    If you’re a believer, knock yourself out. You’re free to do anything you want on your private property. You can even display your religiosity for all to see (like that nutcase with the “Are you washed in His blood” banner on the semi-truck trailer parked along Rte 11 near Gouverneur).

    But you’re not allowed to use public space or resources to tell me what or how I should believe.

    Besides, the arguments from Larry, Bill-O and others just seem like whining now that a significant portion of the population has grown enough spine to say “Extraordinary claims demand extraordinary proof.”

    The religious and anti-theists alike need to substantiate their positions first, then I might give a damn about what either has to say.

  20. Peter Hahn says:

    The idea that there truly is a “war on Christmas” is absurd. The day after Thanksgiving Christmas decorations go up in every commercial district in the US.

  21. Walker says:

    “I don’t like having nothingness forced on me.”

    Larry, would you please explain how nothingness can be forced upon one?

    And let us all (or at least those who profess faith in the Bible) not forget Christ instructing his followers to pray only in private.

  22. The Original Larry says:

    I agree that forcing children to sing Christmas carols is wrong. However, it is not whining to insist on what the Supreme Court has said is acceptable, as noted in an earlier post. Good thing you don’t get to decide what is “simply wrong”.

  23. It's Still All Bush's Fault says:

    Only 21 more shopping days ’til the winter solstice!

  24. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    I’m an atheist and when you celebrate Christmas I’m on the inside with you. I’ll be drinking egg nog and singing carols and kissing anyone who gets caught for an instant under the mistletoe. Ha-ha-ha-ha! You can’t stop me!
    I’ll be there wishing everyone a Merry Christmas, or Happy Holidays to Bill O’Reilly, Larry and the whole Crabtree family. I’m sending out Christmas cards and donating to charities – even the religious ones. I’m buying presents for everyone and wrapping them carefully to put under the tree. I might even show up for Midnight Mass.

    I am with the War on Christmas underground. We’re here to take over your Christmas!

  25. Hmm? One of the best Christmas music albums out there was recorded by Barbara Streisand. Of course no one forced her to do it but I’ve often wondered how she felt about it.

  26. Mervel says:

    It is interesting though about what is “allowed” in public or not. Is celebrating the Birth of Christ part of our cultural identity or is it purely religious? In general as a Christian I would say both.

    But the question is, does the use of public space equal government endorsement?

  27. Peter Hahn says:

    Mervel – its pretty rare that anyone cares one way or the other.

  28. tootightmike says:

    Larry- Far from having no beliefs, I do indeed have my own well developed set of beliefs, and I hold them so strongly that I’m sure they should be forced onto every American…especially types like you. My beliefs are better than yours and their logic superior to anything they spout in your little pin-headed church.
    How’s that feel?
    What a way to start a discussion…..

  29. The religious nature of Christmas has been completely eradicated not by evil liberals but by the mindless capitalism Fox News (sic) loves to fetishize.

  30. The “war on Christmas” is really just a variation on the broader martyr fantasy that Christians and Christianity in general are somehow under threat in America. Viewed objectively, it’s absurd. Christians are under threat in Iraq. Muslims are under threat in Nigeria. No religious group is under threat in the United States.

    It kind of reminds me of how whites in South Africa whined about similar “persecution” following the demise of apartheid and the installation of majority rule. In reality, Christianity in this country (just as whiteness in South Africa) are not persecuted. But they have lost to some degree their exalted place of special privilege. Not completely, of course. It’s still inconceivable that an atheist or religious non-Christian could be elected president.

    But Christianity’s unchallenged domination is increasingly being challenged by a more diverse America that is beginning to understand the dangers of theocracy. And when you used to be the elite, deluded into thinking you were special, and now you are treated the same as everyone else, it can feel like persecution.

  31. The Original Larry says:

    I said: “What do you expect from people who believe in nothing?” If that’s not you, what are you worried about?

  32. mervel says:

    I know Peter it’s more about arguing; tribalism etc.

    But there is some interesting questions underneath the whole issue. For example if I go in a public space and on my own and pray openly or walk through a park for example holding a cross in a procession. Well is that government endorsement or is it me freely showing who I am and exercising my right to free expression?

  33. mervel says:

    For me I think the idea that certain “space” in this country must be totally sanitized of all religious expression, is an incorrect view of what the Bill of Rights protects and is about. Which is different than saying that the government is establishing some sort of official state religion.

  34. mervel says:

    What is funny about the picture of O’Reilly above is that he is in front of a Christmas tree. The Christmas tree is a nice western custom, we have one I love them; but in general it is not Christian in any unique sense, it is culturally German. Much of this we Christians have brought upon ourselves by the adoption of all of the secular trappings while at the same time essentially blowing off our own Christian celebrations, I mean the center of Christmas should be worshipping Christ either on Christmas eve or Christmas day either at Mass or Church. Santa is nice, but defending Christmas is not about defending Santa.

  35. bluette says:

    Every morning, this time of year, I pass a large lawn sign proclaiming “IT’S NOT HAPPY HOLIDAYS, IT’S MERRY CHRISTMAS”, next to a human sized Santa plywood cutout. Nothing sucks the joy out of the Christmas season like that sign. OK, you want the religious aspect of Christmas recognized, then put a nativity scene in your yard. Everyone who feels like Christianity is under attack should have a hand made nativity scene in their own yard. Don’t expect government to do it for you.

  36. Walker says:

    “…the idea that certain “space” in this country must be totally sanitized of all religious expression, is an incorrect view of what the Bill of Rights protects and is about.”

    I don’t think anyone is trying to sanitize any particular space: it’s not about space, it’s about under whose auspices an act is being performed. So in your example, of course you could walk through a park holding a cross in a procession. But if the city that owns the park is putting the parade on, that’s a different matter. That’s why what goes on in public schools is problematic.

    It’s true that Christmas trees and Santa have become all but totally secularized, but their origin is certainly Christian, not secular, even if it does come from one particular corner of Christiandom. I do, though, think it would be reasonable to recognize the extent to which they have become secular symbols, and not ban them. But what is reasonable and what is legal often bear little resemblance to one another.

  37. The Original Larry says:

    The Wikipedia article on County of Allegheny v. American Civil Liberties Union, 492 U.S. 573 (1989) is interesting reading and gives insight into the Supreme Court’s ruling on this issue.

  38. Arlo T. Ledbetter says:

    Why is it we can’t talk about Christmas in school, but I see kids come home with paperwork instructing them in Muslim, Hindu and other religions. They also bring home very clearly political papers to. They aren’t taught patriotic songs like “America the Beautiful” anymore, but they know the words to the Barrack Obama praise songs. I mean, really, isn’t this Obama worship just another sort of religion? How come that’s okay?

    Sheesh, I’m gonna go watch “A Charlie Brown Christmas”, if it hasn’t been outlawed.

  39. I saw a clip from a Bill O’Reilly show where he told an atheist guest that “Christianity is not a religion. It’s a philosophy.” Wow! A lot of Christian ministers must be feeling pretty foolish now for having studied theology instead of philosophy.

    And it isn’t that the Christmas tree has been secularized, rather that decorated trees have been Christianized. The Prophet Jeremiah referred to it as a heathen practice:
    Jeremiah 10:2-4: “Thus saith the LORD, Learn not the way of the heathen, and be not dismayed at the signs of heaven; for the heathen are dismayed at them. For the customs of the people are vain: for one cutteth a tree out of the forest, the work of the hands of the workman, with the axe. They deck it with silver and with gold; they fasten it with nails and with hammers, that it move not.” (King James Version).
    And Romans celebrating Saturnalia (the solstice) decorated their homes with boughs and exchanged gifts. What goes around comes around folks.

  40. mervel says:

    Oh yes Christianity has indeed absorbed different traditions, I don’t have a problem with that, but you have a point about how we think about these issues.

    Advent starts tomorrow, that is the beginning of the Christmas season, not black Friday.

    Maybe some of this is that we are so upset with ourselves as Christians for forgetting the point, that we do the logical human thing, blame others.

  41. Marlo Stanfield says:

    I haven’t gone to church with any consistency since I was a kid; I’m not even sure if I believe in God anymore. However, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a municipality putting up a Christmas tree, nativity scene or whatever else, and it annoys me when people complain about it. The Constitution says you have a right to freely practice whatever religion you want, and it says there can’t be an established state religion. It doesn’t mean every reference to God or religion needs to be completely removed from every aspect of government. We are a majority-Christian nation, these things are part of our culture, we shouldn’t whitewash or deny them.

    That said, I do think the right hypes up the “War on Christmas” to something bigger than it actually is.

  42. Walker says:

    You’re right, Larry, County of Allegheny v. American Civil Liberties Union, 492 U.S. 573 is interesting, and it shows just how divided the court is on these issues. It seems to me that the sensible approach to these issues is for each religion to erect their own displays on their own property, and for the various branches of government to display nothing having to do with any religion. Much less complicated.

  43. Walker says:

    Arlo, have you actually read the text of the “Barrack Obama praise song?”

    It’s actual title is “Praise Song for the Day,” and it doesn’t mention Obama at all. Its only connection to Obama is that it was read at his inauguration. Claiming that it amounts to “Obama worship” amounts to a classic Bill O’Reilly distortion of reality, like his absurd attack on Sandra Fluke.

  44. Walker says:

    Hmmm, sorry Arlo, I hadn’t seen those other videos (like this one). I wouldn’t much want to defend stuff like that, other than to say that the comparison to the Hitler Youth at the end seems vastly overblown.

  45. Arlo T. Ledbetter says:

    Glad you took the time to look Walker. I don’t care if it’s Bush praise or Obama praise or Earth Mother Gia praise or teaching kids that Islam is good but Christianity is bad or anything else, it can all have it’s down side. Whenever education becomes indoctrination there is a problem. Whenever gov’t can decide that one form of religion/belief system/agenda is okay but another isn’t you’ll have problems. This is why I find it wrong that things like gay pride parades are allowed, even embraced by gov’t, but should a straight pride parade or event be attempted it would be termed a hate event. You can have a racially based parade and gov’t supports it, NYCs Blacka nd Hispanic parade for instance, but if the KKK wanted to have a parade it would meet very stiff resistance.

    There is nothing wrong in my mind with having a Christmas tree in a Town square or a gov’t employee wishing someone a Merry Christmas. It’s the spirit of kindness and good will being displayed, not an order to obey.

  46. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    I am surprised that people want government to be spending tax money on frivolous things like putting up holiday decorations and paying the electric bill for municipal Christmas trees. In my town we have an Electric Menorah too.
    Which, by the way, would be a great name for a band. And all those decorations take up room in storage – which costs taxpayers money. Why should I have to pay taxes for all the Takers who want me to subsidize their Christmas habit?

    If we are going to spend public money on religious symbols in the public sphere we should make sure that all religions are covered. How about a big blow-up Buddha down in the park. That’d be pretty cool. And a nice light up Crescent Moon for our Muslim brothers and sisters?

  47. Walker says:

    “You can have a racially based parade and gov’t supports it, NYCs Black and Hispanic parade for instance, but if the KKK wanted to have a parade it would meet very stiff resistance.”

    It might meet some resistance, but it would be permitted– they’re in the news from time to time.

    And there are significant differences between a Hispanic pride parade and a KKK event– the Hispanic groups don’t have a long tradition of lynching folk to “keep them in their place.” So this is another false equivalence, and I can’t believe you really see them as identical.

    I happen to agree with your last paragraph entirely. But I understand why the courts wrestle with it. It has to do with the many decades when being Jewish or Catholic or Mormon was a real basis for discrimination, as being Muslim is today. It is human nature to bend over backwards to redress wrongs that a society has taken a very long time to recognize, just as it is human nature for oppressed groups to take a while to get over taking offense at slights. I think we’ll all get over it eventually.

  48. Walker says:

    “Whenever education becomes indoctrination there is a problem. Whenever gov’t can decide that one form of religion/belief system/agenda is okay but another isn’t you’ll have problems.”

    Agreed. But that first video says that it was shot at “a neighbor’s house,” so there’s no government involvement. (Still seems like a bad idea, but what people do in their own homes is their own business.)

    And KHL, yeah, I noticed that taxpayer angle in all this, too. And if we’re going to start recognizing all religions, it’s gonna get expensive. What about Jainism and Zoroastrianism? Check out Wikipedia’s list of religions.

  49. mervel says:

    I don’t think the government should be involved in erecting or maintaining Nativity scenes or other religious symbols using public this I totally agree with. However a greyer area is that a variety of private groups would be more than happy to erect and maintain Nativity scenes in a public park for example. Just like you have say the DAR maintain statues. The question is what can be done by private citizens in expressing their faith in a public area or space?

    For me I think we do live in a religiously diverse country, thus a variety of faiths should be welcomed to express what they would like to express in our public spaces as long as it does not interfere with government business.

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