Merry Christmas… or Happy Holidays? Which do you say? Do you think it matters? How do you celebrate Christmas in an inclusive way? You may have seen the Ben Stein piece on Christmas that aired on the CBS Sunday Morning show, and has since been passed on by email multiple times. In it he said that as a Jew he wishes people would leave Christmas alone. Say “Merry Christmas”, and call them “Christmas trees” without apology. That’s what they are, so stop being so politically correct. He suggested that we have grown to worship Hollywood personalities more than traditions and because of that we have lost our values. What do you think? It’s an interesting commentary coming from a high profile Jewish man.
What does it mean to be inclusive at Christmas? Just as there is more than one way to skin a cat, there is also more than one way to be inclusive. You can be inclusive in a way that removes points of substance so as not to offend anyone. Or you can be inclusive by creating such a broad perspective on Christmas that many people and possibilities are included. The latter might be better known as Universal Christmas. The former is what we often call political correctness.
Take for example the story of one company’s attempt to create an inclusive Christmas party. A Human Resources Manager sent a memo to all staff about the Christmas party, scheduled to take place on December 23 at the Grill House; with a cash bar and small band playing. Gifts, not exceeding $10, were to be exchanged on the night.
Staff received another memo the next day- “In no way was yesterday’s memo intended to exclude our Jewish employees. From now on we’re calling it our ‘Holiday Party’. There will be no Christmas tree or Christmas carols sung. Happy now? Happy Holidays to you and your family, Pauline.”
The next day another memo was sent- “Regarding the note I received from a member of Alcoholics
Anonymous requesting a non-drinking table, I’m happy to accommodate this request, but if I put a
sign on a table that reads, “AA Only”, you wouldn’t be anonymous anymore!!!! How am I supposed to handle this? Somebody? Oh, and forget about the gift exchange. No gift exchange allowed now since the Union officials feel that $10.00 is too much money and Management believe $10.00 is a little cheap. NO GIFT EXCHANGE WILL BE Allowed.”
And the next day- “What a diverse group we are! I had no idea that December 20th begins the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which forbids eating and drinking during daylight hours. There goes the party! Perhaps the Grill House can hold off on serving your meal until the end of the party – or else package everything up for you to take home in a little foil doggy bag. Will that work? Meanwhile, I’ve arranged for members of Weight Watchers to sit farthest from the dessert buffet; pregnant women will get the table closest to the toilets; Gays are allowed to sit with each other; Lesbians do not have to sit with gay men; each will have their own table. Yes, there will be flower arrangements for the gay men’s table, too. We will have booster seats for short people. Low fat food will be available for those on a diet. No, we cannot control the salt used in the food. We suggest those people with high blood pressure taste the food first. There will be fresh fruits as dessert for Diabetics; the restaurant cannot supply “No Sugar” desserts. Sorry! Did I miss anything?!?!?!?!?! Pauline.
The next day a memo arrived with the subject line, “Vegetarians”- “Vegetarians, I’ve had it with you people!!! We’re going to keep this party at the Grill House whether you like it or not, so you can sit quietly at the table furthest from the “grill of death”, as you so quaintly put it. You’ll get your salad bar, including organic tomatoes, but you know tomatoes have feeling, too. They scream when you slice them. I’ve heard them scream. I’m hearing them scream right NOW!! Hope you all have a rotten holiday !
The next day there was a memo from the acting Human Resources Manager- “I’m sure I speak for all of us in wishing Pauline Lewis a speedy recovery, and I’ll continue to forward your cards to her. In the meantime, Management has decided to cancel our Holiday Party and instead, give everyone the afternoon of the 23rd December off with full pay.
Maybe you’ve had your own experience with inclusive Christmas that lapses into political correctness. The traditions get lost in what you can’t say for fear of offending someone. You end up saying nothing, standing for nothing and meeting no one’s needs.
I heard a story that captures a healthier approach to being inclusive. I’m calling it Universal Christmas.
Under a cultural exchange program a Texan family hosted a rabbi from Russia. It was Christmas time. The family took him to a local Chinese restaurant. At the end of the meal, the waiter brought the check and presented each of them with a small brass Christmas tree ornament. They all laughed when someone pointed out that the ornaments were stamped “Made in India”, but the Rabbi began quietly crying. The family assumed that he was offended by the focus on Christmas but he smiled and said to them, “No. I was shedding tears of joy to be in a wonderful country in which a Buddhist gives a Jew a Christmas gift made by a Hindu.”
This gets closer in my mind to a truly inclusive Christmas. It’s a celebration that brings together people from different backgrounds, different perspectives, and we are reminded that we are all related. Christmas has always been a blend of many cultures, traditions and myths. 4000 years ago in ancient Mesopotamia the legend of Marduk emerged- Marduk conquered the monster Tiamat and set the scene for creation. Each year however the monster fought back. As a result, the days got shorter, the crops lay barren and life itself hung in the balance. Each year in late December they celebrated rituals that they believed would help Marduk win his battle with Tiamat. The ultimate sign of victory was the return of light, the lengthening of days.
Christmas was never a purely Christian celebration. It was always a mixture of various cultural practices. Well before the time of Jesus, Romans celebrated Saturnalia, and gave gifts to loved ones at this time of year. The Anglo Saxons and the Teutonic tribes of Germany had winter holidays with things like the Druids sacred symbol of mistletoe and the German symbol of the evergreen, and even the Norse had ancient symbols of gods in sleighs. While we now understand that the Winter Solstice is punctual and reliable, most of the early Christmas/ Solstice myths emerged at a time when the return of the sun was an uncertainty each year. They created ceremonies both as reassurance and as an encouragement to the gods to return. They created huge bonfires on hills to imitate the sun, and to lure it back. They decorated their houses with greenery to imitate the greening earth and to lure the green earth to return. When the days lengthened and the sun shone brighter, the earth began to green again, they believed their rituals had something to do with it. When the light returned, they stopped all their regular activities and had a massive party.
Jesus wasn’t the only significant birth celebrated at this time of year. Apollo, Dionysius, Odin, Opalia, wife of Saturn, and the Phrygian god, Attis, were all said to be born around this time of year. It’s possible that first and second generation Christians were so inspired by their experience of Jesus, that they created a birth story fitting of one of the great gods of their time and located it in December to connect the birth of hope in their lives with the return of light.
Initially, in the years leading up to the birth of Jesus, and in the first years following his death, followers continued many of the earth based seasonal practices. It was only later under the influence of the Roman Empire that the Christian Christmas was set in competition with these pagan festivities.
One of the universal symbols is light. At this time of year we long for a little sunlight, or maybe just the hint of sunlight. It is the season of Winter Solstice when hints of light break into the heaviness of dark days. The Winter Solstice, Christmas, Hanukkah, Devali, Kwanzaa, even Ramadan lanterns if the lunar calendar aligns, are all festivals of light. At least in the Northern Hemisphere, nothing is more associated with Christmas than lights. Even in the Southern Hemisphere with their long, sunny days at this time of year, people typically decorate their houses with lights and attend candle light services on Christmas Eve.
Christmas Light in All
You don’t have to lapse into political correctness, because the essential history and meaning of Christmas is inclusive. As Bart Simpson said, “Aren’t we forgetting the true meaning of Christmas? The birth of Santa!”
We know a few things about light that the ancients didn’t know. We now know that the sun and the stars are always there whether we see them or not. It’s like walking into the dark night and shining a flash light. You see what is already there, awaiting your attention. One of the universal truths we celebrate at Christmas time is the recognition of light in surprising places. When it seems like you haven’t seen your inner light in months, it’s still there. Light a bonfire on the hillside of your consciousness and put yourself in the path of your own light. If seasonal depression is taking hold, and you haven’t seen the sun for what feels like months on end, and you begin to doubt even the changing of the seasons, let Christmas be a reminder of the light within. Put yourself in the path of its beam.
Author Annie Dillard said, “I cannot cause light; the most I can do is try to put myself in the path of its beam.”
One winter day, a man discovered a thick layer of frost on his window. He started painstakingly scraping it off. “What are you doing?” inquired a curious neighbor.
“Removing the frost from my window,” answered the man, “so I can see outside.”
His friend saw that the labor was tedious and advised him, “Light a fire in your home – the frost will disappear by itself!”
The recognition of inner light is the universal Christmas message. Johns Gospel, the latest and most philosophical of all the gospels, doesn’t even tell a birth story. Instead the author speaks about the arrival of light into EVERY person. The author of John, writing around 100 years after the life of Jesus, had caught the universal Christmas message.
How will you celebrate an inclusive Christmas this year? See the light within. If only you could see yourself the way the rest of us see you, the beauty and hidden depths of your heart, you would fall over in astonishment. Thomas Merton put it like this-
“At the center of our being is the pure glory of God in us. It is like a pure diamond, blazing with the invisible light of heaven. It is in everybody, and if we could see it we would see these billions of points of light coming together in the face and blaze of a sun that would make all the darkness and cruelty of life vanish completely.”
If we truly saw ourselves this way, all fear and judgment would vanish. If we truly saw each other this way, kindness would overcome all darkness.
If I could give you one Christmas gift, it would be an awareness of your own light. Maybe a star would suffice. Maybe a house covered in Christmas lights. Maybe something you could put in the pocket of your mind and pull out every time you need a reminder. YOU ARE CHRISTMAS LIGHT! When the darkness feels heavy and burdensome, you are Christmas light.
Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, Love, Light and Namaste.