Editorial: Joy to Some of the World, Some of the Time By BECKY O'MALLEY

Tuesday December 13, 2005

Oy vey! The winter solstice is upon us, and the Christians are at it again. A friend has e-mailed me what he calls an “outline” for an editorial—it’s a collection of unbelievable stories about silly things being done in the name of Christ as the holidays approach. Top billing this year goes to the campaign by elements of the organized Christian (self-described) right wing to ban the use of the greeting “Happy Holidays” by the president. Huh? As much as I dislike the man, surely he does retain the right to greet his friends anyway he wants at any time of the year, with the possible exception of saying “Sieg Heil,” which might be considered in bad taste.  

Women, the traditional arbiters of culture and tradition, usually try to make nice when people start squabbling. My e-mail outline included a sensible column by Ellen Goodman on the real roots of the Christmas celebration we’ve come to consider “traditional,” pointing out that all that stuff about the evergreens and the mistletoe actually goes back to the definitely not-Christian Druids. That’s why my Puritan ancestors in New England thought that Christmas-keeping needed to be banned. They also disliked the unseemly joviality that characterized the festivities of the Catholics in England, which they’d come to America to escape: all that “merry gentlemen” stuff. Goodman characterizes her own extended family as heirs to all the various cultures that have gone into our holiday celebrations. Cynthia Tucker, who writes for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, is another sensible woman who comes from a Christian cultural tradition not too different from that of the religious right, though from the African-American branch. She reminds us that “there’s nothing in the Gospels about …knocking down other shoppers to get to discounted personal computers.” She also points out that the celebration of the birth of Jesus was moved to December in the first place in order to provide a distraction from the excesses of the Saturnalia solstice festivities of the Romans. 

But not all Christians agree, it seems. Another piece in my e-mail stocking from my correspondent was an article noting that many of the megachurches which have sprung up everywhere under quasi-Christian auspices will have no Sunday services on Dec. 25 this year, presumably to allow parishioners to give the gift-orgy their undivided attention. One can’t help cynically concluding that they’ve calculated a possible decline in the contents of the collection basket and concluded that the take is not worth the cost of the heating bill to stay open. 

Farther afield, a subset of Christians is suing the State of California because the University of California won’t give admission unit credit to courses from a Protestant Christian high school which uses textbooks reflecting, shall we say, a particular slant on science and history. The nutty attack on evolution comes from a tiny minority of Protestants—the few Catholics who thought they were on the same team had their hands discretely slapped by the Vatican in a little-publicized rebuke a couple of weeks ago. The hierarchy seems to have learned a bit from losing the fight with Galileo—you shouldn’t expect to see a Catholic school teaching that the sun revolves around the earth anytime soon.  

Not, of course, that similar silliness has not sometimes been perpetrated by non-Christians in the name of cultural homogeneity. The Christian over-reaction to inclusive holiday greetings was probably provoked in the first place by the desire of some non-Christmas-keepers to ban any mention of the religious underpinnings of Christmas from the public forum, and especially from the public schools. It’s a tricky question: It’s sad for some kids to feel left out, but it’s a shame to ban the story of a prophet and leader being born in a barn to a homeless migrant mother who “had to get married,” whether it’s true or not. And Hanukkah without the Maccabees, which is a logical extension of the sanitization of holidays, is pointless. School kids can learn about all of the stories which are told about holidays by people around them without the teacher endorsing some stories as being truer than others.  

The unintended consequence of either tactic—subtracting the religious content from holiday stories or limiting legitimacy to the beliefs of one sect of the majority religion—is the Wal-Martization of Christmas. The right wing thinks they’re on the side of good since they’ve successfully lobbied to put Christ back into Wal-Mart. My correspondent has a colorful description of what they’ve done: “They’ve mau-mau’ed Hell-Mart into retreating from their inclusive greeting ‘Happy Holidays, always lower prices on products of Chinese slave labor.’ ” They’re trying to get the Jesus Christ brand for greedy exploitation, not the first time this has been tried, and not the last, for sure.  

One might ask why my correspondent who turns such colorful phrases didn’t write his own rant on this topic. “I can’t actually write this piece up, because I’m Heathen,” he says. “Heathen” is the term used by both the Christian right and Osama to brand unbelievers. Actually, of course, he’s not Heathen, whatever that might be, but simply a not-particularly-observant modern multi-national person with Jewish roots, like many of us in Berkeley.  

Well, the custom at our house is to have an insanely large Christmas tree (free-range, organic) which traditionally requires the assistance of many participants to erect as we get too old to lift it. We’ve noticed that some of our most enthusiastic helpers over the years have been people raised in slightly Jewish homes who missed out on Christmas trees because their parents mistakenly thought they were part of the Christian religion. My correspondent would fit right in. 

On such occasions, as on other festive occasions during the dark season, we traditionally offer the greeting preferred by our ancestors: “Merry Christmas!” (that’s the Anglicans and the Catholics, not the Puritans, of course.) Some participants respond with the neutral “Happy Holidays”; others use the more committed “Happy Hanukkah.” We don’t turn anyone away, regardless of what greeting they prefer, because we really need their help in putting the damn thing up. This might be a metaphor for the America condition. Or not.