Saturday, December 4, 2010
Reason and the Holiday Season
The holiday season’s coming around, and I mean every holiday. Christmas, or Xmas as prefer to call it, might be the most popular, but Hanukkah, Kwanzaa and Chinese/Japanese/American New Year deserve consideration as well. I thought I’d return to blogging schedule with a billboard in New Jersey that many have taken offense to, for a variety of reasons, most of them confusing atheists with antitheists or anti-religionists. But American Atheists, as far as I can tell, even with Madalyn Murray O’Hair still leaving its reputation somewhat in tatters for especially curious people digging up dirt on atheism, is a reputable organization. They even spelled out their basic intent with the sign as threefold: “1) To address those atheists who “go along to get along”, and to encourage them to come out of their closets, 2) To attack the myth that Christianity owns the solstice season, and 3) To raise the awareness of the organization and the movement.” The third is not unlike what any group does, like Answers in Genesis told me in no certain terms by slapping their name on multiple billboards. Or the Catholic League in response to this particular billboard, asserting that Jesus is to be celebrated instead of reason.
The American Humanist Association’s ad campaign still tops American Atheists’ billboard price, mostly because the latter is centered on a highway in the Northeast United States. Not to mention this one has more direction than just comparisons of misogyny and bigotry in Christian thought with humanist notions that are ironically shared by many Christians today, particularly Episcopalians on the ordination of women, causing a whole other scandal I won’t speak on. Criticizing people going along with the ancient fabrication that Jesus was born in the winter in Jerusalem is something I imagine many Christians, particularly those that disagree with Christians celebrating Christmas on scriptural and theological grounds, would find some agreement with. The latter part of the message advocating the celebration of reason is what would make people less than comfortable.
The discomfort lies in people attempting to connect reason in any sense with their celebration of togetherness and family, which generally leans more towards the emotional and faith based aspects of life. I honestly liked the bus campaign two years ago calling to “Be good for goodness’ sake” in relation to the Santa Claus is Coming to Town carol better, but creativity can be tricky when you’re focusing on rhymes. It’s not as if people couldn’t celebrate Christmas in the sense we celebrate it now anyway; emphasizing the spirit of generosity and love, parts of this being emphasized in more religious carols I grew up with, but the overall message not really foreign to anyone. The notion that Christmas has to have an explicitly religious and faith based aspect to it seems to bring the holiday down. The warnings year after year around this time about a “war on Christmas” makes me remember the legal issues that have arisen over nativity scenes and a menorah sharing public space. There are Christmas holiday parallels around the world, such as the Festival of Lights in Hinduism, called Diwali, though technically it’s already long since finished. The Japanese celebration of Christmas is probably a better example to use, since the Japanese have such a minority Christian population, their use of “Merry Christmas” is more religiously neutral and doesn’t have any of the tone of some Christians in America who’d bite my face off if I referred to Christmas as Xmas. Even if I tried to calm them by noting that it’s an abbreviation, not a crossing out, of Jesus’ name, they’d be so incensed they’d still try to proverbially crucify me for my blasphemy. As I recall, the letter X was used historically for an abbreviation of Jesus’ name, at least the first letter of his name in Greek. It’s where we get the mnemonic device still somewhat popular today of IXOYE, using the first letters of the Greek words for “Jesus Christ God Son Savior” in that order.
I can’t say there’s a direct way to celebrate reason during Xmas, but I can see an advocacy of using reason in the context of approaching Christmas. Instead of seeing the reason for the season as a real historical event, we should focus more on Santa Claus, Frosty the Snowman and such to represent the aspects of the holiday season that coexist across the religious borders we arbitrarily create in such a time when there’s little opportunity for children to really learn about these different holidays as they’re celebrated. Children at my native church, much younger than me, had some exposure to other flavors of the Abrahamic faith and even a few non Christian faiths, but I fear that their learning about it was more in the sense of the cultural practice and not seeing them as belief systems people held to. It’s that kind of sheltering of kids from inquiry and skepticism about such things like Christmas or Easter being celebrated in ways different from your parents that drives families apart as the children grow out of it or reluctantly conform so as not to confront those issues in a reasonable and respectful fashion.
I probably won’t emphasize the Christian elements of Christmas with my children, though I will tell them about it for basic education’s sake. We might even lean more towards the “pagan” Winter Solstice celebration that emphasizes the use of things like the Yule Log and other more ancient European practices. Or just incorporate practices give a similar sense of togetherness, like the practice in Japan of giving Christmas cakes. In any case, it’s not as if someone who doesn’t celebrate Christmas with any real connection to supernatural events is being hateful towards the holiday. Just pointing out that Jesus was historically not born on the 25th of December is hardly cause for offense, since, when you think about it, he would’ve frozen to death and with some research, you see a correlation of dates showing that the tradition was more than likely associated with Saturnalia in Rome instead of any genuine date of birth of Yeshua. And I should emphasize again that there are Christians that share many of the sentiments of this billboard ironically. So, nearly a month still from Christmas Eve, I wish everyone happy holidays and good fortune for the New Year as well, so I don’t forget in the future. Until next time, Namaste and aloha.