Friday, December 19, 2008

Seasons Greetings?

So, I was interviewed by USA Today religion reporter Cathy Grossman, and quoted in her piece, "Mandatory 'Merry Christmas' line may lose its lilt" (and yeah, you can click on the article name to go see it on the USA Today website, and yeah, I will review it here as well). The question that started things off was, should store employees be forced to say Merry Christmas to their customers, as some would like them to. And more generally, what are we to make of the campaign in recent years to get people to say Merry Christmas all the time again, as opposed to Happy Holidays.

So, okay, here's how Cathy starts her article:

Despite the four years of Bill O'Reilly and Christian groups insisting that "Merry Christmas" turn up in every TV commercial, sign and salutation, the phrase may be losing its spiked-eggnog punch.

Has it been four years already? Well, I have to admit that when it all began, I did feel some sympathy to O'Reilly and his crew. In the aftermath of 9/11, somehow rallying around the flag got associated with rallying around Christmas as a traditional American holiday, and I have to admit to feeling more connected to and defensive of Christmas than I had ever felt before. Even though I am not a Christian, or maybe it's because I'm not a Christian, I do realize that "the holidays" are pretty much all about Christmas. It's nice that they add Chanukah into the mix, but after all, Chanukah is a minor holiday and only became significant because of its juxtaposition to Christmas. So yes, the holiday is Christmas, and there are many aspects of the holiday that are aesthetically pleasing, even if you are not part of the religious celebration.

Having said that, after four years (has it really been four years?) of hearing about The War on Christmas, I cannot help but conclude that it is a phony, trumped up accusation (no, I am not suggesting any kind of pattern here regarding phony, trumped up wars). There is no war, if anything, Christmas is more pervasive and overwhelming than ever before. It is more in your face, harder to escape from, more of a national obsession than it has ever been. It may not be the religious sense of Christmas that some would like, it may involve euphemistic terms for Christmas, like the holidays, but it is still all about Christmas.

Now, let's go back to the article and see what Cathy has to say:

First, the "War on Christmas" cultural campaign may not be working any more. This year Costco, the grocery warehouse chain, has left Christmas off its national advertising, according to the American Family Association.

"We say, put religious beliefs aside, it doesn't make good logical business sense not to acknowledge what your customers care about," says marketing expert Bob Hutchins, co-author of an upcoming book, Faith-Based Marketing: The Guide to Reaching 140 Million Christian Customers.

Now, let me interrupt just to note that much of the concern has to do with business and marketing. For example, should businesses mandate that they employees employ a particular greeting, whether it's requiring them to say Happy Holidays and not Merry Christmas, or requiring them to say Merry Christmas and not Happy Holidays? Or should the salespeople be allowed to make their own decisions as to holiday greetings? I think the natural inclination is support freedom of choice, but on the other hand don't businesses have a right to choose how their employees represent their business to their customers, have a right to determine the image they will project to the public? This goes beyond retail, as a friend related to me that someone she knows was required to sign and mail several hundred Christmas cards to company clients, even though he is Jewish. Anyway, let's get back to Cathy's piece:

Anne Graham Lotz, Bible teacher and daughter of evangelist Billy Graham, was unsettled after a swing through decorations-drenched Manhattan last week. She heard several clerks mumble "Happy Holidays" rather than offer a cheery "Merry Christmas." Lotz says:

People just seem to have a problem with Jesus. It's as if people invited you to a birthday party for me but wouldn't let you acknowledge it was for me and my name was blacked out on the invitations. It's CHRIST-mas.

You know, that Christ, the foundation-of-Christianity Christ.

So, note again, this is particularly about retail. And let's recall that corporations are all about the bottom line, they are machines, technologies whose sole concern is the maximization of efficiency and profit. Okay, now, it's time to hear from the expert (LOL):

But Lance Strate, professor of communications and media studies at Fordham University in New York City, says hammering home "Merry Christmas" as a mandatory greeting in the marketplace can turn people into "Christmas robots."

When you say something over and over again it becomes a kind of ritual and becomes emptied of meaning, particularly if it becomes an employment requirement, not a choice. You are just deploying it as a euphemism for saying, 'Hello,'" says Strate.

Christmas robots? A little harsh. I think he's exaggerating to make a point, however, about whether people sense a degree of sincerity in your Christmas or Hanukkah best wishes.

Maybe it was harsh, but it wasn't in the larger context of the interview, just when the statement is isolated. I did get some feedback from friends and colleagues to the effect that it wasn't harsh at all, and folks seemed to like the phrase, "Christmas robots," for some reason. So anyway, I made my point about freedom of choice, and also about how, when a symbol is repeated over and over again, it is drained of meaning. To the extent that Christmas is all about Jesus Christ, shouldn't people be saying "Merry Christmas" because they mean to celebrate the birth of their saviour, not as an empty gesture that simply serves to acknowledge one's existence and presence? That's what phatic communication is all about, small talk like hello and how are you, where no one is really inquiring as to the other person's health, we just are confirming each other as fellow human beings, recognizing one another as members of our society. Which brings me to the end of Cathy's article, and what a perfect ending it is:

I asked staunchly conservative Christian Michael Horton, a theology professor and an associate pastor, how he greets strangers he meets in December. Horton reports, "I say 'Hello.'"

Horton's strategy insures that Christmas greetings are only exchanged in contexts in which they are meaningful, and only when he is mindful of the meaning of the greeting. This concern, it seems to me, relates to the larger issue that I've been hearing about since I was a kid, people complaining that most people seem to have lost sight of the true meaning of Christmas, and just get caught up in all the celebrating and shopping. Perhaps nothing captures that struggle better than that wonderful animated special TV program that first aired when I was a kid, A Charlie Brown Christmas.

Of course, in talking about meaning, whether it's the meaning of words like "Christmas" or the meaning of rituals, holidays, or events in general, we have moved into the terrain of general semantics. So, we can start by noting that there is no "thing" that the word "Christmas" refers to, no objective reality behind the term, just a myriad of subjective experiences. And it makes sense then to use the general semantics technique of turning a singular noun into a plural, and talk about the different Christmases that exist, or at least some of them.

Putting the Christ back in Christmas, there is of course the religious Christmas, the holiday that actually involves a Christ mass, that celebrates the birth of Jesus, who is identified as the savior, the Messiah (meshiach meaning "anointed one" referring to a descendant of the House of David who would restore the monarchy and independence of the Jewish nation, the Kingdom of Judah or Judea as it was known to the Romans, or the combined Kingdoms of Judah and Israel (aka Samaria), so it reflected a combination of religious vision and political aspirations) or Christ. The narrative surrounding the Christmas holiday is a beautiful one, even if you are not a believer or Christian, and it is an often-unacknowledged product of ancient Jewish culture, one of many compelling narratives that have originated from our people. Personally, I have no problem with the religious Christmas (unless it's forced upon me), I can appreciate it as an outsider. And if there is any kind of war on the religious Christmas, it's one from within, as people generally have been turning away from all kinds of organized religion, including Christianity.

Of course, there are many variations on the religious Christmas, a major distinction being between the Roman Catholic and Protestant Christmases, not to mention the fact that the Eastern Orthodox Christmas is celebrated on January 6th rather than December 25th. And also there are different Christmases in different time periods, so that the Christmas of the Colonial period in America was a low key affair, compared to the religious significance of the holiday today. Then there is the pagan Christmas, not really Christmas at all, but the Christian overlay on pagan rites of season, the celebration of the winter solstice, the pagan holidays of Yule, and the Saturnalia. This has special added resonance in the temperate zones (no doubt even more as you get closer to the poles), and is much less meaningful closer to the equator (where the Christian holiday began). There is also much beauty in the celebration of winter, the Christmas tree, the lights (although they can become terribly overdone), the fire, the snow, the cold, all of that! We know it as the great northern holiday, associated with northern European cultures, English, Dutch, German, Scandinavian, as opposed to the hot desert climate of the Middle East, or the warm weather of the Mediterranean region. And to the extent that some people, in the New Age movement for example, want to reclaim and renew paganism and separate it from the Christmas overlay, while others just want to celebrate the holiday as being about a winter wonderland rather than religion, saying happy holidays makes sense.

Along these lines, we can also isolate a cultural Christmas that is not necessarily religious, although never entirely separate from religion. This is the most widely celebrated and lauded type of Christmas, often tied to rites of season so that it becomes a celebration of winter as well (is Jingle Bells about Christmas?). There's all that stuff about sleighs, snowmen, snow itself (I'm dreaming of a white Christmas wrote Jewish songwriter Irving Berlin). There's green and red as the colors that symbolize the holiday, there's the Christmas tree, the Yule log and fire burning, the lights, Christmas lights on trees and on homes. And of course there is Santa Claus, rooted in a religious figure, Saint Nicholas, turned into a broader symbol of an almost-secular (to some, though, a truly secular) Christmas. Obviously, the cultural Christmas will differ significantly from one culture to another. Christmas in American culture is pretty much of a norm, taken for granted, whether people do or do not wish each other a merry Christmas or not. It is not an endangered species. And while parts of it are heartwarming, families getting together for example, and winter vacations, it's also in the cultural arena where things start to get out of hand (competition over house and lawn decorations being a well known example), and it starts to feel like Christmas is being forced on you, in your face so to speak, regardless of your beliefs.

One thing that I have found offensive is the assumption that everyone should love Santa Claus and embrace the childlike wonder associated with this seemingly innocent symbol. And it is true that through Santa Claus, the cultural Christmas alone, uncoupled from the religious Christmas, has been adopted by many people who are not believers and not Christians (maybe it helps that in English Christmas is pronounced Chris'mas, not Christ-mas). There are Jews who do the Santa thing, do the lights, have a tree (sometimes using the euphemism of the Chanukah bush), etc. My son has a friend whose an Albanian Moslem who also celebrates the American cultural Christmas. And, hey, I have no desire to ruin anyone else's fun, but think about how it comes across to a non-Christian when you say that Santa only comes to the house of good boys and girls? Are my children bad because we don't do the Santa Claus thing? Sorry, I don't consider this "saint" to be all that innocent and, well, saintly.

So, there is also the secular holiday of Christmas, one that is recognized by the federal, state and local governments, so that government offices are closed, many services shut down and others on a holiday schedule, etc. This is cause for some to argue that Christmas is indeed an American holiday, and if nothing else, it is a pragmatic concession to a cultural institution that the vast majority of Americans take part in, in one way or another. There is an inherent contradiction here, though, between the official acknowledgement of a religious holiday, and the principle of separation of church and state. That's why you get the tendency in recent years for local governments to decide not to have nativity scenes on government grounds (e.g., city hall), no Jesus in the manger, although typically they still display non-religious Christmas decorations, the Christmas tree, Christmas lights (green and red specifically connoting Christmas), and of course good old Santa Claus. And that's why you also see public schools abandoning traditional Christmas pageants. In some instances we have an attempt at pluralism and inclusiveness by including Chanukah, the recently invented holiday of Kwanza, and other religious celebrations, along with Christmas. The separation of church and state that does raise the ire of many conservative Christians, but given that it is recognized as an official holiday, I don't think there's much cause for complaint here. And it really is awful when a child is made to feel like an outsider because his school is teaching about the religious holiday celebrated by the majority.

Cathy Grossman's piece was already talking about Christmas as a commercial event, so let's return to that point, and note that commercialization is the source of much of the discontent surrounding Christmas. Essentially, the holiday has been turned into an orgy of consumption, so much so that the "official" opening of the Christmas shopping season, the day after Thanksgiving, is now commonly referred to as Black Friday, black because it is the day when retailers finally get out of the red and show a profit, the extent of their annual profit being determined by the remainder of the shopping season. At this time of year, stores, shopping centers and districts, and malls, are a nightmare. Everyone seems to be under a lot of pressure, there's competition for a limited number of hot toys for children, it all seems to be Christmas at its ugliest. Gift-giving is not necessarily a bad thing, if done in moderation and with taste, of course. But the point is that the commercial Christmas, which involves the extended Christmas shopping season (and the days following Christmas for returns and exchanges), has much to do with the sense of the holiday being out of control and being forced on everyone. And sure, the whole point of commercial Christmas being to generate profit, they have generalized the commericalization to everyone, hence the commercialization of Chanukah (eight nights of presents? it used to be a few chocolate coins!), and to the generic holiday season. And that may be perceived as a step away from Christmas, but in truth it is the triumph of Christmas, it's penetration into places where Christmas itself was never celebrated before.

Closely related to the commercial Christmas is the mass-mediated Christmas, which contributes to the sense of the holiday being in your face, particularly through the ads and commercials (anyone else out there really despise the Lexus commercials they run this time of year, with these rich people waking up to get a new luxury car with a giant bow on top?). Aside from advertising, the regular programming becomes obsessed with Christmas, especially on the news because there's little else to report on during the final weeks of the year. Look, I'm not talking about the Peanuts special or any of those sweet animated bits from when I was a kid, or showing It's A Wonderful Life, or anything like that. It's all a matter of proportion, after all. But when it comes to the mass-mediated Christmas and the commercial Christmas, we are decidedly out of proportion, and rather than a War on Christmas, Christmas makes war on all of us.

All right, a bit of a rant I'm afraid, but I didn't bring up the subject, I was just asked to comment on it. And it all relates to a sense of time. The "War against Christmas" folks are fond of saying that, when greeted with "Happy Holidays" they ask, which holiday would that be?, only to then be told it's Christmas. But the traditional formulation is, "Have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year," and those are the holidays that everyone refers to. Everyone knows that the Christmas or Holiday Season mainly runs from Christmas Eve to New Year's Day. And maybe Chanukah intersects with that week, but if it doesn't, no one starts to say "Happy Holidays" any earlier. Unless "Happy Holidays" are invoked in reference to the Christmas shopping season that starts the day after Thanksgiving, and Chanukah almost certainly falls within that period of 5 weeks or so that ends with New Year's Day.

So, I wish you Happy Holidays, a Happy Chanukah, a Lovely Winter Solstice, a Merry Christmas, a Joyous Yule, and a Happy New Year.

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