Here we go again, "The Christmas Wars, Ho, Ho, Ho... Hum"
Happy Holidays to all you folks out there who have outgrown the Christ myth, but still want to hang onto some cultural rituals and celebrate winter holidays in peace and harmony with families, friends, and neighbors.
As far as I can tell, Christians are mostly fighting amongst themselves, with one exception of course. When issues of separation between religion and government are involved we atheists get our dander up. Judging by the volume of their protests to our demands for equal time on the courthouse lawn, we must be scaring the hell into them.
Jeremy Gunn, A fictional war on Christmas, USA Today, 12/18/05, states that religious groups have assembled hundreds of lawyers to protect Christmas against an imaginary threat. "Nor is this a joyful effort to encourage the Christmas spirit in the millions of places where it can be promoted without any conflict: in people's hearts, in their homes, with families, in churches, or with friend and neighbors. No", he says, "This is a campaign of military-infused rhetoric demanding that everyone accept one politically correct version of 'Christmas'."
The question is when should we dig our heels in and protest the Christian Right's attempt to take over of the winter holidays, and when should we practice tolerance and good will by participating in rituals that are more cultural than religious?
I rise more than a few eyebrows when I cheerfully admit that I am an atheist who loves Santa Claus.
I must respectfully disagree with Edwin Kagin when he states, in his letter to Virginia, "No, Virginia, there is no Santa Claus". Baubles of Blasphemy, Freethought Press, Atlanta Freethought Society, inc., 2005. "It's a myth that has been cruelly used to deceive children for the pleasure of adults who unwittingly destroy children's sense of basic trust by teaching them that the world is something other than it really is."
We were just leaving a mutual friend's house after a winter solstice party where the host had displayed on his lawn a lighted Santa, sled, reindeer and all. I laughed and shouted back to him, "Yes, me too, Kevin, I love Santa too." As we were walking to his car on a very cold winter night, my friend, Eli, laughed out loud. "You don't celebrate Christmas, Marilyn. Why this thing for Santa Claus?"
"I love Santa Claus," I insisted. "How can you be so silly, Eli. Santa Claus doesn't have anything to do with Christmas-in the religious sense, it's a cultural thing."
"But..." Eli waved a hand at me to stop, however, I just kept talking as I settled myself into the passenger seat of his car and fastened my seat belt. "Oh I know there's something about Santa being connected to a real historical person that some Christians call a saint. Never mind all that. That's not even the same guy, that guy didn't have flying reindeer. Lighten up. I like what Santa Claus stands for. His image is fun-and loving, and generous."
I could see the puzzled look on Eli's face as he turned the key in the ignition. I don't think he knew what to say next.
Eager to make my point, I sighed. "Yes, I do. I love Santa. 'The Night Before Christmas' is a story I loved telling my children. And I really played up the Brownies thing."
"I thought that as an atheist, you valued truth, and truth telling, Marilyn. How could you have lied to your children like that?" Eli looked so somber I was tempted to tell him to be careful his face could freeze like that. It was below zero.
"Kids love fantasy, and they love solving puzzles", I insisted before he could start shaking his finger at me like an angry father. "I will always remember the day my oldest daughter confronted me with the facts. She was six years old. "How come there are so many of them? What does he do when a kid's house doesn't have a fireplace? Does he drink milk and eat cookies at every house? Is that why he's so fat? If he keeps eating all those cookies, will he get stuck in somebody's chimney? How can reindeer fly, they don't have wings?" Both of us burst out laughing. She was so proud of herself. After our laughter settled down, she had a twinkle in her eye as she smiled shyly and said, "the Easter Bunny too, Momie, Is the Easter Bunny just a story?"
Eli slammed the brakes and looked at me. "No, you didn't. The Easter Bunny too?"
"Yup, the Easter Bunny too. You see, Eli, children are expected to out grow their belief in Santa and the Easter Bunny. They are encouraged to use their developing skills of critical thinking to figure it out. And, when they do, they can have a feeling of pride in their accomplishment. I hugged my daughter and told how proud I was of her problem solving skills. I told her I hope she keeps on using them when she encounters other things that don't make sense."
Eli pulled up to an intersection and asked, "left, or right, Marilyn. I said, "left." We had a bit of a laugh. As we turned toward my street, Eli commented, "In a way, it's the same with the Jesus story. Except that it takes a lot more effort to outgrow that myth. Perhaps we ought to have some sort of rite of passage when a person achieves a personal enlightenment, sort of like the religious rite of confirmation, don't you think, Marilyn"
"The problem with the Jesus story is that children are expected to continue to believe in the myth as though it was truth itself. They are expected to accept without question, to stay children throughout their adult lives. Adult Christians even call themselves 'children of God'."
Eli pulled into my driveway. He left the car heater running so we could continue our conversation.
" Santa Clause, I explained "is a fun myth, one that every child who reaches the age of reason, seven in the Catholic Church, no longer believes as a literal fact. Kids are meant to figure it out. Critical thinking is encouraged as early as age four. The right of passage from toddler to kid comes with the achievement of discovering the facts do not match with the story. Look at it this way, Eli, questioning the Santa myth is good practice for questioning the Jesus myth. It's never too early to begin teaching the skills of critical thinking. Want to come in for a cup of coffee?"
"Sure." Eli turned off the ignition and we headed for the house.
After we'd settled at my kitchen table we continued our conversation.
"How do you think we should handle the Christmas wars, Marilyn?" Eli reached for a slice of fruit and nut loaf and dunked it in his coffee. "Before Evangelicals took over the Republican Party it seems that mainstream Christians were more friendly...less hostile. They were out there buying gifts and glitzy fake trees already decorated. You know the ones, the ones you could take out of a box and prop up all fully decorated lights and all, and you know, singing Jingle Bells and Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer and watching reruns of Miracle on Thirty Fourth Street on the tube. They knew the true meaning of Christmas, party, have fun, give stuff to others, the true meaning". He got up and did a little jig, "of love between our brothers and our sisters." He sat down and got serious again, "Never mind tribal differences. During holidays we were all one. E pluribus Unum; that was the spirit of the holidays when I was a kid some many years ago. That was when "one nation indivisible" united us. That was before Red Scare and McCarthyism and before the Republicans courted the Christian right winged evangelicals and the evangelicals in turn demanded their due."
"I agree, Eli. Before the Republicans married evangelicals, Christians were quite happily secularizing their own holiday season. They didn't need any help from us. Mainstream Christians didn't seem offended by a sincere Happy Holidays greeting and were content to offer the same in return, especially to their non-Christian friends. Many of us atheists joined them in the secular rituals. Atheists and Christians could celebrate Jingle Bells together." I winked, "We shared Santa."
Eli poured more coffee in my cup. " I suppose you could say Christians were victims of the big bad wolf, commercialism, and atheists were victims of the politically correct eleventh commandment "Thou Shalt Not Criticize Religion". It was a time of benign cooperation between the majority of mainstream Christians and others, the ones who checked the box marked none on the hospital intake form."
"Yup." Again, I agreed. "It was a fringe element within Christianity that was raining on the parade of holiday cheer with their "Jesus is the reason" whining and accusing mainstream Christians of not being "Christian" enough. They might have remained a fringe element... But..."
Eli finished my sentence, "Then came the Evangelicals and they got sucked in by the Republicans, or was it vice versa. Sometimes in a complementary relationship it becomes difficult to figure out who is the user and who is being used. Now we have a war on our hands."
"It's a muddle, Eli. Last year, the principal of a public high school in Illinois, insulted perhaps twenty or thirty per cent of the families in his district. It was the beginning of winter break. He sent a recorded telephone 'Merry Christmas' message to 'all' the families in his district. It seems to me that the more born-agains, evangelicals, and fundamentalist Christians insist that Holidays be celebrated in one way only, the more we atheists get our backs up. And maybe that's a good thing.
I love the tree of knowledge, and I applauded when Margaret Downey challenged Father Jonathan Morris on Fox and Friends. He accused her of sabotaging the religious holiday and she came back with, "What makes you think the winter holidays belong exclusively to Christians?"
"I love the billboards that encourage people to consider reason over dogma. And, if truth be known I love giving those Christians who think they own the season a run for their money. Recently the governor of Oregon has established a day of reason. Darwin Day is getting more and more press. Reason is making inroads into the public square. I'm hyped."
"Phew, Marilyn, you sure are passionate about these things. Perhaps it's a good thing that the evangelicals and the Republican Party put us on the defensive, and we've found a voice in the public square. Perhaps we are making a dent in the irrational acceptance of mythology as fact and the dumbing down of the masses."
"But I do still love Santa Clause, decorated trees, and exchanging gifts, the bright lights, our shared cultural heritage that dates back to the Druids, and others who were not celebrating the birth of a mythical savior, but rather the end of the dark days and the beginning of spring with new foliage poking through the dormant earth to feed our bellies and our minds."
"Yeah, yeah, I get it, Marilyn. Make nice with the mainstream Christians. Join them in celebrating cultural rituals. Make everybody happy."
Eli looked sour again. His shoulders drooped. I had to think of something that would put things in a better frame, something that would help him to understand my point. I touched his shoulder and said, "Our survival as a species depends on our ability to cooperate with one another, but that doesn't mean we should capitulate to bullying."
"You do have a point, Marilyn. I know a few Jews who would agree with you."
"Besides", I said, attempting to leave the evening on a positive note, "December twenty fifth is my birth-date. I love celebrating that too. I find it mildly amusing when I show my drivers license as proof of identity when cashing a check and the clerk asks, "Do you feel cheated because your birthday is on Christmas". My pat answer is "No, nobody ever forgets my birthday."
Eli retrieved his coat from the rack and headed toward the door. When he reached his car I shouted "Happy Holidays to all, and to all a good night."
Eli called back, "Happy Birthday, Marilyn."
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