Every year around this time, the United States is subject to increasingly acrimonious “Christmas wars,” over whether the time of year should be called Christmas as it used to be, or a more generic “holidays.” Canada has not escaped these battles, but they seem to be a much smaller issue there, which I think is a very good thing.
Many people in the United States, of course, do not celebrate Christmas. Most often, such people are Jews, and perhaps sometimes Muslims and followers of Asian traditions. It is the rare atheist or agnostic who refuses to celebrate Christmas – a fact I find somewhat telling. In my own Canadian childhood I found that refusal somewhat bizarre. My family never went to church, my parents never believed or taught any ideas they recognized as Christian; but we nevertheless celebrated Christmas, as North Americans in North America, and nobody thought that was weird. When we went to India we always celebrated Diwali and Holi without thinking of ourselves as Hindus, and nobody seemed to think that was weird either.
The first people to challenge my non-Christian celebration of Christmas were Jewish friends during my undergrad days at McGill. “The word is Christ-mass,” they would say. “It doesn’t make sense to celebrate that if you’re not Christian.” The argument didn’t ring true with me then, and still doesn’t. First there’s the point that Christmas in the West was not Christian to begin with: the date of Christmas was set in the fourth century to follow the feast of the Roman sun deity, and the traditions of pagan Saturnalia became part of typical European Christian celebrations. But even if we think of Christmas’s origins as Christian, the festival of Christmas has become part of North American life, like Thanksgiving. Should I avoid celebrating Hallowe’en because I’m not a Celtic pagan?
I respect the desire of modern Jews to retain their status and identity as a separate, unassimilated people. For them the non-celebration of Christmas could be seen as a deliberate self-denial for the sake of preserving distinctness; modern Jews often view the kosher laws the same way. What makes us who we are is that we don’t eat pork, we don’t celebrate Christmas. (I’ve heard it said that such an oppositional conception of identity is weak and limiting, but I do personally feel sympathetic to it, coming from a place that defines itself above all in terms of not being American.) And I respect the attempt to honour that self-denial by saying “happy holidays” rather than “merry Christmas.”
I’m less sympathetic to the idea that one is obliged to say “happy holidays” to avoid offence, that there’s something wrong with saying “merry Christmas” to people whose background you’re not sure of. Oppositional identity has consequences, including negative ones. Because Canadians are determined to be a separate people with a separate state, we didn’t get to vote for John Kerry in 2004, though our votes would have tipped the election to him; and we face many difficulties trying to find paid work in the United States. We have chosen in important ways to avoid the North American mainstream, and that choice has consequences. If one doesn’t celebrate the mainstream celebrations where one lives, one shouldn’t feel insulted when others assume that mainstream as the norm. If a North American restaurant has its employees say “Merry Christmas,” that’s no more an insult to Jews and Muslims than if it puts bacon on the menu.
michael reidy said:
In a curious and rather miserable inversion I read that it is the spiritualising of secularity that causes the observant Jew to recoil from Christmas.
This is the extreme edge of the activist spectrum I would imagine which in mostly homogeneous Ireland we are spared. I note that some people are using 7 branched candlesticks (electric variety) as Christmas decoration though I doubt if they have any idea about its provenance.
Early I know but whatever you’re having yourself have a good one.
Speaking as an American Jew who finds the christmas season largely intolerable, I’ll agree with the core of your formulation here, and expand upon it…
Christmas appears to have a dual message in our culture. “Rampant consumerism” is one half, and “The True Meaning Of Christmas ™” is the second.
While there are exceptions that focus more on family and loved ones and generosity, references to TTMOC largely also include references to the birth of Jesus. Many Jews have no interest in celebrating that, but more specifically they see no value in that. I’ve no interest in celebrating a holiday about Jesus. Importantly, given the frequency of Jesus-based TTMOC images, claims about the holiday’s secularization ring false.
As I mentioned, TTMOC is not all about religion; it’s also about all that generosity and love stuff, in theory. But “what it’s about” for any given person is an individual thing, based on the associations in their life and childhood. Unlike an atheist, a Jew is likely to learn growing up that Christmas is about Christ which is That Thing We Don’t Do. The results of, as Amod said, having a minority/oppositional identity.
If you come to a point where you see no value in TTMOC, then all you’re left with is the consumerism. In the absence of positive TTMOC associations, I don’t think I need to elaborate much on how obnoxious that level of all-pervading consumerism can be. A truly secularized Christmas is just a month of treacly music (emotionally associated only with sales pitches) and the sales pitches themselves.
As for “Merry Christmas”, I think the restaurant analogy is a bad one. The bacon isn’t on the menu, it’s being served to you- there’s no choice about it. Nevertheless, I agree that the oppositional/minority position has costs; if I don’t like being served bacon, it is my responsibility to suck it up, return it, or order something else. People do not need to be trained to cater to my idiosyncratic sensitivities. Just because I will be (extremely mildly) discomfited does not mean everyone else has to change their behavior.
Amod Lele said:
I tend to think there’s more than just a dual meaning to Christmas: there are many elements of Christmas tradition that don’t have much to do with either of the alternatives you mention. If you put up a Christmas tree from your own property using last year’s ornaments, and existing stockings, and wreaths you collected from your yard, there’s no consumerism in any of that – you haven’t bought anything! It doesn’t have much of a deeper meaning, either – at least, nothing explicit, any more than a jack o’lantern. There’s also no consumerism in a singalong of “Deck The Halls” or “We Wish You A Merry Christmas” either, and neither is there any reference to anything Christian beyond the name of the holiday. “Deck The Halls” doesn’t even have that – it refers to “Yuletide,” a name that predates Christianity in the regions that use the term (and it’s at least argued that customs like the tree do as well).
So I don’t think that consumerism is all you’re left with if you take out references to “The True Meaning of Christmas.” Is Thanksgiving all about consumerism if you don’t say grace and talk about pilgrims?
Just because those songs don’t fit into A or B doesn’t mean there’s a C. Do those songs mean anything? Or do people put up the old tree and sing the songs just because they’re traditions that feel warm and fuzzy and joyful? I suspect that’s the the real (but totally non-philosophical) reason why most non-Christian-believers celebrate Christmas: because they did so when they were young, and it’s full of wonderful associations and memories. Which is perfectly fine, but it’s not going to convince anyone to start the tradition.
Also, I surely conflated two things into TTMOC: there is the Jesus version, and there is also the enjoyment of family and loved ones and generosity. However, those two get conflated in popular culture as well: “TTMOC” can refer to either. Therefore, if I’m trying to avoid celebrating the birth of Jesus, it ends up feeling like I need to avoid the broader theme of TTMOC. Partly that’s a wariness about christianity being snuck in, but it’s really just more about associations: which things feel pleasant and joyful, and which things feel uncomfortable.
Amod Lele said:
Repeating a longstanding and joyful tradition is the meaning. As you say, that’s good enough for people who grew up with it; but it’s also good enough for many of those who didn’t. I know Hindus who come to North America and celebrate Christmas without having any intent to convert – because that’s what people do here, like Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July, and it helps them be a part of the culture.
Same reason we celebrated Diwali in India, without any intent of becoming Hindu. I think Diwali is kind of instructive here. When I went to India as a kid, nobody ever said anything about the meaning of Diwali, in terms of its significance to the gods or to history: we just lit the fireworks and made the sweets (and boy was that fun). But here’s the thing: nobody really knows the significance of it in those intellectual kinds of senses. Even the Wikipedia page can’t agree on the meaning of Diwali. It means the killing of the demon Narakāsura, it means invoking the blessing of Lakṣmi, it’s the time of the harvest. The page tries to pull it all together by saying “While the story behind Diwali varies from region to region, the essence is the same – to rejoice in the inner light (Atman) or the underlying reality of all things (Brahman).” But then further down it talks about how Divali is also very important for Jains, who don’t believe in Brahman and rarely use the concept of ātman. The ritual itself comes first, the meaning is secondary.
The Confucians love to talk about how traditional ritual is one of the things that civilizes us, makes us part of the community – it’s the act of participating in the ritual itself that does this, not a historical or theological meaning that the ritual has. And… I think Confucians like their traditional rituals for exactly the same reasons many North Americans hate Christmas (or Thanksgiving, or Passover for that matter): the whole idea is to share activity with family, including family who are very different from us, family who have poor character, family we don’t like. In our individualistic small-household culture, the holidays are among the few large-family rituals we have, which is why many people understandably would rather not bother with them.
I’ve been backtracking lately from some of the things I said in my (too strongly worded) post on performance theory, and I suppose this is another example. In the case of rituals like Christmas or Diwali, the important thing (even in a philosophical sense, to some extent) really is what the ritual does, not what people say about its meaning.
Amod Lele said:
I looked up the whole context of the quote you mentioned, and found it very interesting food for thought:
The author’s reasoning is that Jews do many “secular” things at their holidays, whose significance is not obvious, but the fact that they’re part of the holiday makes them “religious.” I can see that: Jews (and to some extent Muslims) tend to emphasize practice over belief much more than Christians do. The oversimplified version of official Conservative Judaism, as I understand it, says you have to follow traditional Jewish law but it doesn’t matter whether you believe any of it (even in God). So if what makes you Jewish is practising rituals with Jewish origins whether or not you have any Jewish faith, then practising rituals with Christian origins would seem to make you Christian whether or not you have any Christian faith. From that perspective there’s a good reason not to have a tree or stockings or mistletoe; but it also doesn’t mean that those of us who do put up trees and mistletoe are doing something Christian.
And a happy whatever to you too, Michael! :) Thanks for your contributions to the blog this year.
michael reidy said:
Amod re jew.faq:
We have to consider that the now sacralised elements of Yuletide such as eggnogg and plum pudding are operating as vile blandishments that would erode the Jewish soul. Vertiginous thought.
You don’t want the Christian bit. Is that because the Messiah claim is contra yours as an observent jew or you have no time for religion as such? How do you feel that you are being invited to celebrate the birth of Jesus? And even if you were by some enthusiast could you not respectfully decline?
Amod Lele said:
I’m not sure I get your meaning about eggnog and plum pudding: just that they’re overly sweet and treacly?
Sabio Lantz said:
In Japan, the customer service is excellent. Upon entering a shop, the employees will say “Welcome !” and on leaving “Thank You !”
How about daily brightness and politeness instead of just being nice on Christmas.
I agree with you, good post
Amod Lele said:
In the US that seems like more of a regional thing. In Boston strangers are generally brusque and matter-of-fact to each other, getting things done quickly with few pleasantries. But in the South, it’s normal for employees and customers to strike up whole conversations in the supermarket.
As a scientific aside, I’m not sure how much of that cultural difference (particularly North vs. South) is real. Now, I’m sure it’s partly true. But it’s also the case that warm weather changes our perception of how friendly people are!
One of my newer favorite scientific anecdotes is that if you ask people to judge faces in photographs for personality traits, they will score the same faces more highly on friendly/outgoing traits if you make them hold a cup of hot coffee in their hands beforehand.
I think when “North American” society begins to think of Christmas as a time of year like Halloween or Thanksgiving or in the context of a holiday, they are missing the most important aspect of this time of year… a celebration in the birth of Jesus Christ who I might add died on the cross to forgive us for our sins. It is not a holiday. It is not a time of year when we all receive presents under the tree. These are fleeting moments that do not last. What does last is a deeper understanding of our chosen Christian faith.
Amod Lele said:
Welcome to the blog, Jon! Important points here – but premised on the idea that Jesus did indeed die in a way that allows for the forgiveness of all our sins. If one accepts that premise (as you clearly do), then it does make sense as the most important part of the Christmas season. There remains the question of Christmas’s significance if one does not accept this premies – as I don’t, and Ben does not.