Tuesday, December 14, 2010
God Help Us, Everyone
i love christmas. i love it fiercely, passionately, irrationally. i loved it as a catholic child, and i have loved it as much through my adult life as a quasi-pagan agnostic. i love the tackiness that has grown into it over the past century, as much as i hate the crass-materialism that infests it. capitalism and banal religion, those inevitable bedfellows, have tainted it, turning the impulse to give and the love of ceremony into greed, competitiveness, and pettyness of soul no grinch could possibly match. but they can't destroy it. for one thing, it's older than its specific origins. it goes far back into pagan, and probably pre-pagan, times. sun-worship, tree worship, fear of dark and of winter cold, huddling together for survival. for another, its own variant of the ancient myth is indescribably moving: hope, love, redemption, born where it is least expected, and in the least expected form, the birth of a lower-class infant. that child in the manger. that poverty-born outcast of the rich. i can never understand how so many apparent believers in that child can claim in his name the right to be rich, the right to throw away the health and lives of other children. anyway, i'm digressing, and this is about to turn into a different piece than i want to write now. the point is, i love christmas and its images of faith-hope-and, the greatest of these, charity.
so, 'tis the season. for a lot of stuff, including the annual battle to keep christ in christmas, by god! it starts each year with the first signs that anyone who isn't christian dares to challenge the celebration of the myth. one of the glories of this country is that we are not a theocracy. no one denies that christianity is the dominant belief system; that the puritan forefolk were christians determined to live out their own form of christianity but whose beliefs didn't appear to extend to those who lived out other visions of ultimate truth. nonetheless, as the various states and statelets started moving toward nationhood, someone figured out that it was a bad idea to have any religion control the law.
we have continued growing into a multi-beliefed society. most christians seem to accept that. some have even learned to respect the range of other beliefs. but too often this apparent tolerance is merely condescension. if you're dumb enough to believe something different, go right ahead. just let me do everything i want. don't impose your belief, or even worse, your disbelief, on my awareness. we are 'tolerant,' as long as nothing gets in our way.
christmas brings this out, bigtime. some jews, some atheists, some agnostics don't want christianity shoved in their faces. they know it will be--they're not stupid. they walk past churches every day. they realize that people's lawns will have plastic mangers with haloed virgins and haloed babies with kings and shepherds kneeling plastically in front of them.
but some unChristians prefer not to see such images in spaces defined as public. it's one thing to walk past neighbors' homes and churches; it's another to be accosted by an alien faith in non-parochial schools, courthouses, or other places that are part of all our lives.
it isn't really a lot to ask. if citizenry is shared, it has no business being represented by symbols of a specific religious creed. and for the most, that's all the nonbelievers are asking. whether santa claus has much of the 'saint' remaining in his iconography is dabateable, but who really suffers when we get frosty the snowman in his place?
i have an uncle who is a lovely person, but who gets upset when people want to eliminate christian iconography from public places. he is convinced that they are trying to eliminate it from private places. last year he told me that he was going to put a christmas tree up in his living room, and no one could stop him. i assured him that no one was trying to. finally i offered a promise. if anyone tried to stop him from having a tree in his house or indeed anywhere on his property, i would enlist the help of the ACLU to defend his christmas tree.
personally i like the trees. and i love the creches. as a kid, i went with my mother and brothers to 6 o'clock mass on christmas morning--we walked in the dark, and at the end of the sparsely attended mass we went up the creche and lit candles to the baby jesus and his mother. when we left, it had turned light, and that banal, daily miracle of morning merged with the miracle of jesus's birth. the church, and the world around it, smelled of holiness. it's one of my few happy catholic memories. i'm glad there are christians who have creches in their churches, in their houses, on their lawns. i get to see them there; why do i have to see them in community spaces?
of course, the hard core atheists can be something of a bore. and sometimes, inadvertantly comical. a friend once told me of her neighbor, a very serious marxist, who in mockery of religion, put up a tree one christmas and decorated it with hammers-and-sickels. point made, she thought, looking at the tree through his window. she thought the same thing the next year--and every year thereafter. she wondered when it had ceased to be mere mockery and became instead a ritual followed...well, religiously.
but atheists, like followers of any religion, vary greatly, as H.L. Mencken showed in a wonderfully funny 1944 New Yorker story. 'there are as many variations in doctrine between infidels as between christians,' he wrote. i have seen such variations among my atheist friends, some of whom i think of as fundamentalists. two such freinds, unacquainted with each other, faced serious and life-threatening illnesses, and each declared that we were not to pray for them. the less orthodox of them softened his ultimatum: if we wanted to pray for him, he couldn't stop us, but he insisted that we do it quietly and not tell him about it. i refrained from asking him if that was also true of sending healing light, and assumed that i had the same rights as his prayer-prone acquaintances. i have sent light for years.
i made the mistake of reassuring my other friend that i didn't pray, i sent light. she was appalled and made me promise never to send her light. i asked if i could wish her luck, and she said, certainly, and she wished me luck as well. i have honored the promise i made her, and in my daily ritual, i lurch out of the white light long enough to silently wish her luck. if a little light sometimes seeps into the luck, there's nothing i can do about it.
my other atheist friends are fine with it; pray, send light, invoke the roman or hindu gods; it doesn't bother them. they like people wishing them well.
though these freinds are scions of a long line of atheist jews, they have no problem with christmas. in fact, we always spend christmas together, along with my ex-catholic brother and his culturally jewish wife, who have too much skepticism to embrace atheism. my freinds enjoy my wishing them merry christmas, and they wish me the same. they could as easily wish me happy hanukkah or happy Eid or happy Saturnalia--they like happy.
i have other jewish friends who dislike christmas intensely; for them, the birth of jesus was the beginning of centuries of oppression, and they try to get past the season with as little attention to it as possible. they don't like hearing 'merry christmas.' astonishingly, to me, they have friends who insist on wishing them merry christmas and even on giving them christmas presents.
it seems to me to a deeply unchristian, and bizarre, thing to do. why, celebrating the idea of love of one's fellow human, would they inflict discomfort on others? if you're going to make someone feel less merry, haven't you pretty much defeated your own purpose?
if this is 'politically correct,' as so many people love to say with a sneer, so be it. 'p.c.' is an unfortunate expression, whose inventors have no doubt lived to regret it. what politically correct really comes down to is doing unto others as you would have them do unto you. i don't want people to shove their ideals down my throat. i don't want to use an expression of joy as a slap in the face. if this means saying 'happy holidays' instead of 'merry christmas' to people who might find that phrase offensive, i can manage that [though i find it funny that religious people object to hearing wishes for happy holy-days]. if i have reason to think someone doesn't like even 'happy holidays', i can try to shut up about it altogether.
one of my favorite small, perfect moments occured a few years ago at the end of the semester. as the students dribbled out of the last class, i wished most of them a happy holiday. one was a boston-irish lad, and i grinned and said, 'you, i can wish a merry christmas!' and he beamed at me. he was followed by a quiet young muslim; i was pretty sure there wasn't a muslim holiday upcoming, so i wished him a good break from classes. he smiled gravely and said, 'merry christmas.'
that was a gift, a magi-worthy gift. it was offered in the spirit of whatever good force exists among us, from whatever source it comes. and i remember it and cherish it every year. is this politically correct? sentimental? i can plead guilty to both. and to anyone who reads this, i wish the joy of every season, in whatever way joy offers itself to you. you can't get much merrier than that.