To hear certain people in the news tell it, there’s a concerted effort on the part of atheists, socialists, and whatever other group you’d care to name to tear down any reference to Christmas in the public square, and Christians are under attack from Black Friday till Boxing Week. Secular humanists are suing schools to keep kids from getting presents, atheists are banding together to force people to say “Happy Holidays” instead of a Christmas greeting, cheeky Seinfeld fans are erecting Festivus poles beside nativity scenes, and it’s all a part of the ongoing culture war being fought in classrooms, courtrooms, and most of all in living rooms on the 24 hour TV news. It’s gotten to the point where Christians are feeling attacked at every turn, like they need to run everything they say or do past political correctness censors to avoid blowback over every little crèche and marble monument to the Ten Commandments on public property. And it’s not enough just to gag them, even Satanists have gotten into the act, petitioning to add a monument to the Oklahoma state legislature, and a Hindu group is proposing the same for their monkey god, Hanuman. As if that wasn’t enough, people are even talking about giving Santa Claus a serious makeover!
Or, could it be a group that has enjoyed a cultural hegemony for centuries is facing a changing demographic landscape in a world they used to unconsciously dominate, and the adjustment just isn’t going very smoothly for various reasons?
I remember back in junior high, as we were moving up to the big school on the hill, legends of Freshie Week and the hazing that would go on for small, vulnerable 7th graders at the hands of the almost-men in grade 12 was a source of profound terror. Stories of paddling, of humiliating ceremonies designed to strip you of not just your clothing but your basic human dignity, of . . . rose bowls, were whispered among us as we counted down the last days of that summer of 1986. But all that fear turned out to be over nothing (nearly) because as we entered the big school, word came down that there were some new policies banning all the tortures we’d been spending the summer in fear of, we were to be put through nothing but some mildly messy games in the gym, and that’s it. No paddles, no cracker walks, and unbelievably, no rose bowls, just some tricycle races, a slip and slide, and egg balancing, that’s it! However, while we were elated not to have to go through the gauntlet, there were some who were more than a little upset at the move, particularly the students who had recently gone through it and were looking forward to inflicting everything they’d gone through on a new batch of freshmen. They claimed it wasn’t fair that they had to go through it and now weren’t allowed to enjoy being on the giving end of things, and that the school was destroying a tradition that had stood for as long as any 17-year-old could remember. This is not to say that hazing had been completely eliminated, it’s still the reason I never went out for football, despite being one of the bigger guys in my class, out of fear of what I’d heard the gym teachers were turning a blind eye to. As much as I did want to play (big kid in Saskatchewan in 1989? How could you not have Grey Cup dreams?), the fear I had of walking into that locker room, of entering that culture and all that entailed, it was more than enough to balance off my desire to score a touchdown or make a sack, so I never played until college rec league.
That dominant culture, the one that had hazing, humiliation and all the cool kids, it was a big factor in making me feel like an outsider even though nobody could have spotted a visible difference. The fact that this culture was “under attack”, that their traditions were being overwritten against their will by the “politically correct” people of the day, meant that they responded by pushing back and taking out their frustrations on guys like me. I was one of the lucky ones, I was big enough to protect myself and had a few friends, and after a few fights I was pretty much left alone by the bullies, but others weren’t so lucky and paid the price for progress. Looking back, I can see things with an adult’s eyes and know that the bullies were acting on motivations not so different from what’s motivating the “War on Christmas” uproar. Their status quo was changing, and they didn’t like it so they acted in order to maintain it; what was hazing then is not so different from the way Christian culture has been imposed in the past, and it’s easy to forget that at times when you’re celebrating the nice bits of the tradition. Is it really so hard to understand how those on the outside might feel about having reminders of their “other-ness” plastered all over every public space, especially in a country where everyone’s faith is supposed to be seen as equal?
Something tragically missing from the talk about the “War on Christmas” is any sort of recognition for what it’s like for people who aren’t part of the dominant religion/culture in society, except to dismiss them with pejorative terms like “Scrooge”, “Grinch” or “Politically Correct”, often with some reference to the Nazis or Gestapo, as if objecting to having public funds spent promoting one religion’s traditions over all others was something Hitler was a big supporter of. Anyone expressing discomfort at being pressured into participating with traditions that aren’t her own is just being oversensitive, or morally defective in some sinister way that means we should look down on her, because good, moral, upright citizens say “Merry Christmas”, not “Happy Holidays”. Telling people that they need to take part in celebrating the birth of a saviour they don’t believe in or face social repercussions and ostracism is hardly what I’d call in keeping with the Christmas spirit of love and sharing. When people stand up for themselves and assert their rights not to participate, have their children participate, or have their tax dollars pay for the traditions of a faith they don’t share, it’s not political correctness, it’s not being a Grinch, it’s standing on one of the rights our society claims it was built on, the right to freely follow your own conscience in religious matters, and to not be co-opted into the festivals of others as if it was the default for all.
Speaking of being co-opted, Christians, and particularly white Christians, have had their way in the public forum for a really long time, traditions are entrenched, and for some most importantly, an awful lot of money is made on this stuff. Christmas advertising starts at 11:59 Thanksgiving night in the States, and the shopping frenzy kicked off by Black Friday is something retailers and advertising executives have come to bank on every year. More than a threat to tradition, muddying the Christmas brand poses the greatest threat of all, which is why news outlets are paid by those advertisers to devote so much time and effort into shoring up the bulwarks of the shopping season against anyone who would dare to take Santa away from Coca-Cola’s marketing department or encourage consumers not to go out and buy the latest piece of shiny disposable plastic and glass being sold this year because the same thing in a different box didn’t make them happy last year. To my view, this is the real underpinning of the whole “war”, the desire to protect profits related to a brand, not anything to do with the birth of God’s son. If it really was about deep-rooted Christmas tradition, North American Christians would be encouraged to observe Advent, a solemn time of reflection and self-denial in preparation of the coming Christ, not an orgy of consumer feeding frenzies and company Christmas party excesses. The real threat posed by people standing up for themselves in the face of this merry monolith isn’t to a baby in a manger, it’s to the bottom line of the market, and that is why so much time and hand-wringing is devoted to this farce. By playing on the fears of a vocal minority of Christians and hammering further on the anxieties that come with social change, marketing has replaced theology, and the whole thing becomes just one more way we’re being played against each other for the profit of the people writing copy for news channels, politicians and ad companies.
The person wishing you a Happy Holiday isn’t spitting in your face, he’s meeting you half-way and greeting you as a person; any offense at such a greeting is a kind of stealing, taking something that wasn’t being offered to you. The person standing up for her right not to pay for your religious observance isn’t attacking you, she’s asking you to extend the same respect to her as you’d like given to you in such matters. It’s funny to watch the reactions of Oklahoma legislators after the consequences of their Ten Commandments monument came back to them in the form of Satanists and Hindus asking for equal representation in the public space. Well, I say funny, but in the sense that seeing hypocrisy come into full bloom is kind of amusing to watch as the mental gymnastics involved twist the speaker’s logic in elegant loops of special pleading and self-reference. Nothing any of the atheists, Satanists, or Hindus have done to take back their public spaces is an attack on any Christian’s right to celebrate their holiday; by all means, go to church, put up decorations, sing songs and be merry, just don’t do it in a way that hooks in people who don’t want to be included. Nobody is saying they want to ban Christmas or anything remotely of the kind, they just want to keep the public forum open to all, and unless you’re willing to pop up a Festivus pole and a Hanuman statue next to your Nativity down at city hall, maybe just enjoy it in your own churches and homes, the way you insist other faiths do with their holy days and traditions.
And maybe don’t buy quite so much plastic and glass crap you don’t actually need this year.