Tuesday, December 24, 2013

On Saying "Merry Christmas!"

I've come across a few recent bits of writing from people who think we should do away with "Merry Christmas."  Even though I'm an atheist, I love Christmas, and I really hope I don't offend people with the following because it is Christmas and all!

The rules around what's allowed during Christmas at my public school seem to change from year to year.  This year, there were carols and a tree without any debate, but some years we can only celebrate Christmas and put up a tree in the foyer if we have something there also commemorating Kwanzaa, Hanukkah, and Ramadan, the latter two not always falling at the same time as Christmas.  It's unfortunate a Festivus pole was never a requirement.  That none of these have anything to do with Christmas beyond a semblance of timing (some years closer than others) isn't necessarily a problem, except we typically don't celebrate anything else from any other culture at any other time.  It's a grab bag of festivities that we use to permit a Christian celebration in a pubic school.

But this is an argument that suggests either we celebrate everything or nothing demanding a show of equality through equal time given.  My counterargument is that this celebration is a part of the dominant culture and, more importantly, that it's a tradition worth fostering.

John Cabot, an Evangelist
When all those Catholic and Protestant, French and British settlers took over land from the original inhabitants, this tradition settled in with them.  Our country all but shuts down on days of Christian commemoration, so it's really unavoidable.  Pretending that it's somehow inclusive is untenable.  It's not.  But I don't think it has to be.  We live in a country in which the traditions stem from the religious groups that dominated (through numbers or weapons) when this current culture was being formed, and it's not unreasonable that we still follow those religious traditions today even though the Christian population is receding (though still the vast majority).

What would be a problem is if other religions weren't allowed to openly mark special days, and I don't see that as the case here.  Students in public schools are excused from classes for observances or celebrations.  They have to make up the work they miss, though, because we're not closing schools for every religious holiday, only those traditions observed by the majority.  Religious freedom doesn't necessitate equal time or space given to mark holy days as if the religious groups are political advertisements adhering to the equal-time rule.  Observing a holy day isn't primarily a means towards gaining a following.

But I also don't adhere to the notion that if it’s always been therefore it should always be. I think we should look at the traditions we follow, question them, and determine if they’re worthwhile to continue following.  And I think Christmas is a keeper.

A couple thousand years ago, the early Christians crashed the parties already going on and said, "It's not about the birth of the sun, as we notice the days starting to get longer, but the birth of the son."  I'm paraphrasing, but that's the idea.  So, similar to the finding of the new world, it didn't have a necessarily laudable beginning to be emulated or revered.  But there's a couple of associated things that do invite a following.

It's all about Jesus.  I don't believe in God, and, need I clarify further, I don't believe Jesus is the son of God.  I'm also not really sure whether or not Jesus existed, and, as Tom Harpur explains so well, I don't think it even matters.  At a time with so few role models of virtuous living, many of the stories of Jesus offer profound examples of how to live.  Granted a few of the stories in the canon require a faith in something larger than ourselves, in some of the Gnostic Gospels that idea is written as the cultivation of an inner source of strength and goodness, as Jesus says,
"If you bring forth what is within you, what you have will save you. If you do not bring it forth, what you do not have within you will kill you."
Hell becomes a hell on earth that we live when we're selfish, ungrateful, and unkind, when we allow for human suffering to continue unabated.  Yes horrible things have been done in his name, but those entirely miss the point of his teachings.  Christmas is a holiday celebrating the birth of an idea of how we can live together, about non-judgmental love, forgiveness, and endless compassion.

And there's another guy worthy of celebration.  I never told my kids about Santa the way many parents do: as a mythical being who hangs out at the mall and B&Es his way through the world dropping off crap in exchange for cookies.  I told them that at Christmas time, the spirit of St. Nicholas gets in everyone, and it makes us want to do nice things for one another.  Everyone's a little friendlier, a little more thoughtful, and a little more generous than usual.  Historically, as far as we know, he was a wealthy man who gave his money to the poor, and the most famous story claims he saved a trio girls from being sold into prostitution.  He was seen as a miracle worker, but he was just a rich dude willing to live with the bare necessities in order to help others.  It's not a miracle even if might seem like it is; it's just really rare.

Jolly Old St. Nick.
St. Nicholas didn't, however, give money and gifts, and countless scarves and sweaters, and gift bags full of trivial trinkets to his wealthy friends and family.  He gave only to poor children.  So we messed up on that bit big time. And because of this consumerist shift that serves only the corporations, Christmas in the first world is embarrassingly anxiety-filled for many desperate to find just the right thing to adequately express their love.  That things have become a measure of love is a problem larger than Christmas, but it finds a communal expression at this time of year.  It goes something like this:
If you don't buy me just the right thing, then it shows you don't know me at all, and our relationship is a sham, and if you don't spend enough, then it shows you don't really care.  
There's a grain of truth to it that keeps the notion festering, but it's not good for anything (except the corporations).  But, if we can keep the right kind of spirit of Christmas, then that stressor can be obliterated.  It's all attitude, this.

That being said, have a very merry Christmas!

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