Doc Bushwell's Chimpanzee Refuge

Friday, December 16, 2005

Gud Jul! Io, Saturnalia! And...Merry Christmas! Happy now, Jerry Falwell?

The fruit o' my womb, now some 14 and 18 years removed from that obsolescent organ, recently decorated the Christmas tree as I extracted several Swedish candelabra from storage boxes and placed them in the windows. I rummaged about in the piano bench and found selections of Christmas music. Later, I stretched out my fingers, tickled the ivories, and did not overly mangle various songs of the season. I plan to engage in a minor frenzy of baking this weekend, and will bring some greenery such as a poinsettia, cyclamen or pine branches into my abode. I have searched Amazon wish lists, clicking away with gift giving, and sent off delectables from the local gourmet food shop to friends and family on the West Coast. I anticipate standing to sing Handel's "Hallelujah Chorus" at the Princeton High School choir's winter concert. In spite of other stresses in my life, I am getting into the swing of the holidays.

All this holiday cheer from an agnostic with atheistic leanings. And why not? The "X" word in "Christmas" notwithstanding, this holiday is a truly ancient observance and dovetails with numerous other winter solstice celebrations. It is a cultural holiday, but predictably, "Merry Christmas" has become a nexus of controversy for fundagelical Christians.

The refrain, "Keep 'Christ' in Christmas" seems now to be drowned out by the more bellicose "The War on Christmas" as squalled by various reactionaries (see kemibe's November 30th entry, "We wish you a buried Christmas.") Their ire is absolutely perplexing to me because I, along with a complement of educated secularfolk and fundamentalist (and I mean fundamentalist) Christians, recognize that the holiday is as pagan as all get out. The real fundies forbid their congregants from observing the holiday, harking back to the mid- to late 1600s when the Puritan elders of Massachusetts outlawed the celebration of Christmas with its decidedly non-Christian trappings.

But we have the likes of Jerry Falwell who has issued a fatwa against those who would "secularize" a holiday which is as remote from Christianity as Yom Kippur is from St. Patrick's Day. Falwell's false jihad entails litigation and boycotts against groups which he perceives as muzzling Christmas. Falwell's binary "Friend or Foe Christmas Campaign" is aimed at public institutions which take pains to remove all Christian references to the holiday, even to the extent of not using the word "Christmas." It's a manufactured Christmacrisis, and yet another ruse for the right wing of Christianity to bleat over faux persecution.

The ACLU and Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AUSCS) are lightning rods for Falwell's campaign. A letter to Falwell from the Rev. Barry Lynn illustrates the reasoned stance of the AUSCS. Here's an excerpt from the Reverend Lynn's letter to Falwell:

Contrary to your wild allegations, Jerry, neither Americans United, nor any other civil liberties organization that I know of, is waging any kind of war on Christmas. The First Amendment of our Constitution ensures every American’s right to observe religious holidays or to refrain from doing so. We can wish each other a “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays,” and it’s really none of your business which term we choose. We can call our decorated tree a “Christmas tree” or a “holiday tree,” and that’s our right. (We can observe the holidays of other traditions as well.)

I think we all know what’s really going on with your campaign. You want an America where there is no separation of church and state and where your rather narrow interpretation of Christianity is forced on everyone. If you can convince Americans that their cherished Christmas traditions are under fire, you think maybe they will join your nefarious crusade to tear down the protective church-state wall that guarantees our freedoms.

A far more effective campaign for alarming Americans might be to cap credit cards at a $200 spending limit and close all malls from Nov. 24th through January 15h. This would put cherished Christmas traditions to the fire. Anyway...

Speaking for myself, I observe Christmas as cultural tradition, and not a religious one, and have done so for many years. My kids attend public school with a multiculty student population. Songs in their holiday concerts indeed mention "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring," but also "Dreidl, Dreidl." With a nod to the spinning top of the song and gelt given and gotten, Hanukkah is a quiet, warm holiday, and but seems to have risen to an artificial prominence as a Judaic answer to the loud wassailing of the goyim's Noel. [Post-publishing note, 12/18/2005: see this article from The Boston Globe, Hanukkah: It's big and it's beginning to look less like Christmas, for an informed update.] Diwali is another increasingly popular and visible fall/winter celebration carried to our community by Indian immigrants and their ABCD children (American Born Confused Desis). My daughter's French class dined on Morrocan delicacies when Ramadan (an observance more rooted in its originating religion than others) ended. Thus, when "Merry Christmas" is spoken, it is a given that the phrase is not a mechanism of proselytizing in our diverse community because more likely than not, it is accompanied by other greetings. A cheery "Happy holidays" in these parts is not a matter of political correctness, but borne of convenience since the easy phrase encompasses several celebrations which orbit the winter solstice. It's not a big deal.

It's hardly surprising that mankind in the Northern Hemisphere would weave holidays around this arc of the year's cycle as the sun's light wanes with every shortened day. Humankind lit bonfires and performed sacrifices to drive back the darkness. The Romans celebrated Saturnalia, a time of excess and when masters served their slaves, an old practice which is the predecessor of Boxing Day in more Brit flavored regions. Sir James George Frazer's definitive treatise,The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion delves into the rites and superstitions which parlayed themselves into Christmas as well as many other Christian beliefs and holidays.

Observing Christmas represents an ancient continuity to me. My deprived ancestors in colonial Massachusetts may have been forbidden to celebrate the holiday, but much further back in time during the long dark winters of Scotland and England, my forebearers lit the night with the Yule log, brought holly and ivy into their homes, and knocked back homebrew as they waited from the sun to return. This comic, from the odd "Electric Sheep" web site, saucily illustrates the enlightenment of one who believes that Christmas is a Christian holiday, and a family's wholesome observance of the season. Give it a read:

The Thompson Family Celebrates the Season & Mrs. Murray Learns about the True Meaning of Christmas!

With that, I wish my beloved bonobos a Gud Jul. I give my cherished chimpanzees a "Io! Saturnalia!" shoutout. I'll add a gentle "Happy Hanukkah" to the chosen. I offer a hearty "Merry Christmas!" because you know what I mean by that. Finally, to Jerry Falwell and his Friend or Foe minions, I have this to say:

Thumpa! Thumpa! Thumpa! ...YES!


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