Tuesday, December 13, 2005

A little common sense with that?

It's kind of funny to see far-right Christian organizations attack Walmart, for replacing "Merry Christmas" with "Happy Holidays". Don't they just deserve each other? Yes, the religious fanatics have worked themselves up into a righteous sense of persecution, no question about it. That sense of persecution has become a dangerous force, one that threatens the greatness of this country.

So why do progressives insist on feeding that sense of persecution? Is it really necessary to ban the 3rd-grade Christmas play? Is it really necessary to ban the Bible club from using schools after hours like any other interest group? It is one thing to insist that teachers teach science in science class. Any reader of this journal knows that I give no quarter on that issue. However, it is a whole different thing to ban cultural traditions that are, all in all, a positive influence on young lives as well as old.

Ok, my experiences may not be typical. I went to a big public school, in a grim industrial town with many ethnic groups and boatloads of tribal hostility and suspicion. The Candlelight Service, which was our version of the Christmas pageant, was one of the few times that kids of all ethnicities and religions participated together in something, with a feeling bordering on genuine love. I was neither Christian nor Jew. I often had heated debates with kids whom I thought were letting faith trump reason. That did not stop me from participating every year, with great joy, in the Candlelight Service.

No, it did not make me a believer. But I loved the message of peace and fellowship. I loved that so many of us, who were walled off most of the time in our little cliques (or, if we were geeks, no clique at all) could get together each winter to do something that did not engender posturing, threats, or one-upmanship, but instead fostered camaraderie and kindness. Most of all, I loved the music. Our music director was smart, and ahead of his time: every year we performed a few songs from other religious traditions, mostly Jewish (because there were a lot of Jews in our town, and in the choir and orchestra). All of it was gorgeous, and I was in awe that this bunch of scruffy kids could make something so wonderful together.

Never in all that time did I feel anyone was shoving anything down my throat. This is a largely Christian country, and it seemed natural that their big celebration would be the most visible ritual in our community. It was also the one time that I felt most Christians came closest to feeling and behaving as Christ would have wanted them to. To me that was a good thing.

Those of us who advocate rationality have a tough war ahead of us. But we must choose the right battles. Science education is a good one. Religious hazing in our military is another. Defining our nation's mission is another. Giving public funds to groups that proselytize is another. And there are more.

But banning Christmas from our public schools, or being offended because people wish us Merry Christmas, strikes me as pointless, if not downright sad.


Anonymous Brandon said...

As food for thought, related somewhat to your topic, I share this tidbit gleaned from going to school and not sleeping enough in New York City: Everywhere, Starbucks celebrates the holiday season with festively flavored coffee drinks and their famous "Christmas Blend" of coffee bean that is a holiday favorite. When I moved to NY however, I first noticed something interesting. SItting on the shelf, right next to the festive red and green bag containing the "Christmas Blend" beans was a silver bag, containing the same selection of beans, marked "Holiday Blend". Everyone I point this out to who is not originally from NY finds it anywhere from strange to hilarious. New York natives find it normal. Anyway, the larger point is, Christmas is, to a great many people, a completely secular celebration of the season. It includes everyone, and at least in my mind does not seek to exacerbate religious differences. Moreover, as you write, the holiday season is a time for people to look past trivial differences and embrace their friends and neighbors. Yet, in NY, which should be a culturally advanced place to be, Starbucks decided that there were enough people not buying coffee because it was labeled "Christmas" that it would be worthwhile to create a new label. I'm sure the day will come soon when we will see packages of Matzah, Latkes, or Smoked Sturgeon adorned with Santa Claus and nativity scenes.

December 14, 2005 7:27 AM  
Anonymous brandon said...

If you are a NY Times Select subscriber, check out this related article:


December 15, 2005 8:56 AM  

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