Monday, December 24, 2007

Merry Christmas!

A puzzling thing about America is that some people seem to think that Christmas is an exclusively Christian holiday, such that anyone who celebrates it is ipso facto celebrating the religion. So we hear "Happy Holidays" and similarly bland, neutral greetings. It's very boring. I heartily recommend that you join the rest of the Western world and treat Christmas as a cultural celebration that anyone can partake in.

Stephen Law has a nice post that highlights the value of community rituals and traditions. He concludes:
Christmas is a celebration of peace and love, and a time to think of others, especially those less fortunate. It is a time at which we come together, at which we feel solidarity and empathy with the rest of humanity. But of course these are values and aspirations that can be shared by non-Christians too. Much of the true meaning of Christmas is open to everyone, whatever their religious beliefs.

I'm suspicious of the idea that there's any one "true meaning" for a cultural tradition like Christmas. It's presumably going to mean different things to different people, and I don't see that anyone has the authority to impose their preferred conception on anyone else. Cultural significance and shared meaning are socially constructed in the strongest sense: it's up to us to make of them what we will. If you imbue the holiday with great religious significance, that's fine. If you don't -- if you just cherish the opportunity to spend time with loved ones, and to participate in tree-decoration, gift-giving, and other fun rituals passed along through the generations -- that's fine too. The meaning(s) of Christmas emerge, bottom-up, from how we choose to conceive of it. To think otherwise is the same fallacy as thinking that dictionaries fix what words mean (and don't get me started on grammar rulebooks!). There is no such top-down authority. "Prescriptivists" might like to boss others around, but we're not obliged to listen to the petty authoritarians.

I leave you with the greatest Xmas song ever:

Have yourself a merry merry Christmas
Have yourself a good time
But remember the kids who got nothin'
While you're drinkin' down your wine

And remember, you can still join the UNICEF Facebook Chain, here.


  1. I suppose the issue is that for those who know "christ's mass" seems a pretty christian term - although one might try going with
    Chris (Kirs Kringle /Christkindl in as far as that symbolizes the gift exchange part) plus Mass (the weight of one's stomach after too many christmas treats) Also that might be an even better summary of hte average impression than 'peace and love'.

  2. Why Christmas for everyone rather than, say, Hanukkah for everyone?

    I should note I vehemently oppose Hanukkah celebrations, as I'm not that into celebrating historical events that would include my brutal murder in the relevant counterfactual. But, if we're already detaching holidays from their origins, it seems rather chauvinistic to take Christmas to be the default. Hanukkah Jelly Donuts are, after all, delicious.

  3. Sure, a secular family may celebrate whatever cultural traditions are familiar to them, and that they identify with. (As it happens, Christmas will more often qualify by these criteria than Hanukkah. There's nothing 'chauvinistic' about recognizing this. I don't claim that the pattern is necessary or universal.)

  4. Ah, but the function of the neutral "happy holidays" isn't to accomodate atheists of christian descent but to accomodate anyone of non-christian descent. The secular nature of christams shouldn't matter at all in this context, the issue merely shifting from religious pluralism to cultural pluralism, whatever one makes of it.

  5. I don't think that such attempts at cultural neutrality serve any purpose. Even if "Merry Christmas" is a culturally specific greeting in the sense that it is offered by cultural-christians, I assume the recipient may be of any culture whatsoever. That is, "Merry Xmas" is just how people in my culture greet others - any others - at this time of year. I can't imagine anyone reasonably objecting to that. (I'd be quite happy for a Jewish person to wish me "Happy Hanukkah", or whatever. I wouldn't really know what they were talking about, but hey, well-wishers are always welcome.)

    To require a culturally neutral greeting is not a form of cultural pluralism, or accommodating the expressions of many diverse cultures. It is more like anti-culturalism, the inhibition of cultural expression. Why should cultural-christians pretend that this isn't their culture? I don't see such bland neutrality as anything worth aspiring to.

  6. I'm cool with that (at least, I have no strong opinions to the contrary), I just wanted to stress that this is an inependant issue.


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