07 December 2007

Merry Christmas

Well, folks, it's that time of year again. There's snow on the sidewalk, wreaths on every lamppost, and toys in every window. Everything is decked out, lit up, turned on - and everyone seems to be walking around with a smile on their face (or, if you're in Cambridge, with a smile hiding beneath their manic end-of-the-semester caffeine scowl). But there's another sign of the season that comes every year - one that I'm always much less happy to see. And that's the rhetoric of the so-called "War on Christmas".

Did you know there was a war on Christmas? Apparently there is. (I guess it's just a bad time to be a concept; I'm talking to you, 'terrorism'.) And what's even more disturbing is the fact that I'm supposedly to blame for it. Yes, dear readers, you heard right - and if you hold the same non-theistic worldview that I do, then you're to blame too. Because this war isn't being waged by people whose only lesson learned from The Grinch was that a successful assault on the holiday requires more manpower than just a fuzzy green curmudgeon and his adorable little dog - apparently it's being waged by us. And by "us", of course, I mean the Godless Jewish Communist Fag Flag-Burning Freedom Hating Pinko Liberal Satans out there. Because, really, at the end of the day, all the forces of progressivism and liberalism are the same, aren't they? (For those of you keeping score, that was sarcasm)

Now, we all know where the problem comes from. For the last bunch of years, America has realized that, whether it likes it or not, it's living in a pluralistic society. Naturally, when this pluralism expresses itself, the people who were in cultural power (WASPs) are upset by it. (To be fair, let's face it, we would be upset too; imagine us heathens all living in Norway, or some other even more godless state, and having a group of immigrant Christians come and insist on putting up a manger scene on our town hall. There'd be heck to pay.) And so this all naturally gives the impression to the cultural majority that all the people who care about equal rights for all Americans are all in a conspiracy to get rid of "Merry Christmas" so as not to offend minority sensibilities, and replace it with something generalized, politically correct, and therefore meaningless.

But there's a catch. You see, I love Christmas. It has been my favorite time of year since before I could walk, and it still is. And even though I don't put up a manger anymore, and sometimes I wince whenever I sing a Christmas Carol that mentions Jesus (although that doesn't stop me from singing them. It helps if they're in other languages), I still put up a tree the day after Thanksgiving, there's a wreath in my window flanked by stockings, and I wouldn't have it any other way. So I object to the fact that I'm being blamed for hating Christmas and seeking to plot its ruin - almost as much as I object to the fact that nasty, reactionary assholes (read: Bill O'Reilly) are spoiling Christmas for me with their crotchety saber-rattling.

Because, you see, we Atheists aren't originally responsible for the "religious correctness" that is most at fault for this so-called War on Christmas. That particular honor belongs, as such honors often do, solely to the religious. After all, let's not forget that the first shots fired in the War on Christmas were fired in an altercation over the public display of religious icons. Nobody, to my knowledge, ever had a problem with the Christmas tree in the town square. It was the nativity scene on government property that made some people antsy. And then, after a while, there was a court battle, and then there were Menorahs on government property. And before long, we have Kwanzaa lights, Diwali lights, Ramadan somethingorothers, and "Happy Holidays" dominating the public discourse.

You know what this says to me? This is not a war between the secular and the religious. This, like all the other wars that man has ever fought, is a war between religions. And while Atheists will agree that having state-funded Jesus idols all up in their face is rather offensive and unconstitutional, the absolute last solution that we would ever endorse would be that instead of one type of religious icon, we replace it with an icon representing every single religious group in America!

Now I can understand both sides. As a Christmas-lover myself, I resent being told that I can't wish people a Merry Christmas while knowing that it will be received in the spirit it is intended. Yet I can certainly understand the feeling of the minority religions as well; being non-Christian myself, I would and do hate to see my elected representatives explicitly espousing faith biases that I do not share.

But the thing that everyone fails to understand is that the entity that most people celebrate as "Christmas" has nothing whatsoever to do with Jesus, apart from circumstance. I don't know about you all, but for me, most of what I ever learned about Christmas was secular - and I was raised Catholic. The meaning of Christmas, as far as I'm concerned, is the social gospel of Charles Dickens: that charity and generosity are the cornerstones of civilized society, and the measure of a person is his willingness to do good for his fellow man. It is joy and peace and love, family, and thankfulness. It is a celebration of the good things that life has given us. Even religious Christmas carols, when you come to think of it, mention Jesus only insofar as he is thought to be the bringer of these things: peace on earth, good will towards all mankind. Never mind that the Christians think that we must justify our altruism with God, whereas we godless justify it for the sake of each other. We all agree that peace, love, and prosperity is the central focus.

And the funniest thing to me is the fact that the Christian clergy have already recognized the fact that this holiday isn't all about Jesus - and they've been worried about it for years. Every single year for as long as I can remember, ministers have been saying two things to their congregations during Christmas: 1) "We're open 52 weeks a year, you know" and 2) "Don't succumb to the commercialization and secularization of the holiday; Jesus is the reason for the season." This points to the simple fact that most people are already much more secular than their religious leaders want them to be. They want their Santa Claus and they want their Egg Nog, they want their presents and their holiday specials and their gingerbread and mistletoe, and if they also want a little bit of religious pageantry, it's clear that most of them want it only on the eve of the great festival. Otherwise it's Rudolph and Frosty all the way.

And yet when people who don't understand that "Merry Christmas" is really *not* a religious statement nine times out of ten force a stilted, pluralistically-friendly "Happy Holidays" on these people - the ones who just want to celebrate the major festival of their culture in peace - it's only natural that these already secularized folks are going to get pushed into the religious camp. You can bet that when someone lashes out against "Happy Holidays" they aren't thinking of their Lord and SaviourTM -- they're remembering all those years as a little kid opening up presents on Christmas morning, and thinking about a world in which that kind of magic and joy and love is deprived from their children. "What?" they cry, "The Communist Atheist Jews are trying to take Santa Claus away from my little kid??!? Over my dead body!" And thus we have the war on Christmas. The dogma of religious pluralism is forcing already secularized moderates into the clutches of the radical religious all because somebody seems to think that red and green were Jesus' favorite colors.

So how can we fix it all? Is there a way that we can preserve Christmas as our cultural holiday, while at the same time not infringing on the rights and sensibilities of the religiously inclined? I think we can - and, predictably, I think the model for this can be found on Sesame Street. Specifically, I'm referring to the classic 1978 Christmas Eve on Sesame Street. In this film, the Sesame Street gang does what they do best: demonstrate how an incredibly diverse group of people and other things can get along so well together that they all spontaneously know the words and dance steps to all the show-stopping numbers. Now, the vast majority of the story arc of this special has to do with the secular mythology of Christmas, viz. Santa Claus and his chimney-descent abilities. And all of the musical numbers stress the secular message of Christmas, for example:
Christmas means the spirit of giving
Peace and joy to you,
The goodness of loving,
The gladness of living;
These are Christmas too.
Everything that everyone says is about joy and love and being good to each other. No Jesus there - but nevertheless, they call it Christmas. In other words, it's the perfect model for a pluralistic, secular existence in which nobody feels they have to restrain their joy.

But the most meaningful and hopeful thing for me came in a brief exchange between Mr. Hooper and Bob. Now, for those of you who don't remember, Mr. Hooper is Jewish, and Bob - well, I think I heard somewhere that he was a minister in real life, but I think maybe I'm getting him confused with Fred Rogers. Not important. Anyway, there's one point in the story where Mr. Hooper (who, by the way, has decorated his shop for Christmas, because he recognizes the secular nature of the holiday) runs into Bob on the street while on his way to play O. Henry to Bert and Ernie's Jim and Della . After a brief exchange, Bob, knowing that Mr. Hooper is Jewish, wishes him a Happy Hanukkah - a sentiment that Mr. Hooper demonstrably appreciates, and reciprocates by heartily wishing Bob a Merry Christmas. Now, I don't know whether Mr. Hooper is referring to an explicitly religious aspect of Christmas for Bob, or merely thanking Bob for his sensitivity...but in either case, I have always seen this exchange as the model for a Holiday Greeting Etiquette. Use "Merry Christmas" for everyone, if you so choose, because the holiday is secular. However, use religion-specific greetings with people who you know celebrate such holidays exclusively. And if you get corrected on accidentally wishing a Jew or a Muslim a "Merry Christmas," apologize, tell them you meant no offense, explain that you use the word to describe the secular holiday, but that you will remember their preference for the future. Maybe if we do that enough - maybe if we can make everybody understand that you don't have to be Christian to celebrate Christmas - and we can all just sit down and enjoy the tinsel.

So please, this holiday season, if you're so inclined, don't feel like you can't wish people a Merry Christmas. Because, after all, what's in a name? I'm sick to death of hearing people say, (to quote an email I just received forwarded from someone else's grandmother):
This is a Christmas tree.
It is not a Hanukkah bush,
it is not an Allah plant,
it is not a Holiday hedge.
It is a Christmas tree.
Say it... CHRISTmas , CHRISTmas , CHRISTmas
Yes. CHRISTmas - celebrating the Birth of Jesus Christ!!!
After all, depending on who you are, there's about as much Christ in Christmas as there is Thor in Thursday. It's really just a linguistic accident that the English language has happened to preserve "Christ" in the name for this holiday at all. If we were in France, we would be wishing each other Joyeux Noel. In Germany, Froeliche Weinachten, and in Norway God Jul. And as far as I'm concerned, if English-speaking Christians can suffer to call their highest holy day after the name of the pre-Christian goddess Easter, then there's no reason for us Atheists to shy away from the word Christmas.

So that's my two cents. Make of it what you will.

Happy Christmas to you all.
The war can be over, if you want it.


Anonymous said...

It is Anti-American to wish someone a Meryy Christmas. America has freedom of religion and not everyone has to celebrate it if they do not believe in it and have not been brainwashed. By the way, Happy Qwanza and Ramadan to you and yours!

Ben Cox said...

It's also against the conventions of English spelling to wish anyone a "Meryy" anything.

I'm trying to think of a way to respond to this comment, but I think it does a fine job making the anonymous poster look ridiculous on its own without my interference.

As a note to other readers: as far as I can tell, the above poster is not a believer. He is also a moron. Never let it be said that I play favorites.