Monday, December 30, 2013

Christmas as an Atheist.

Two stories.

Story #1:  I was standing in line at the post office a few weeks ago, mailing a bunch of packages filled with Christmas presents for friends and family.  The line was LOOOOOOONNNNGGGGG, of course - who goes to the post office in the couple of weeks before Christmas expecting a short wait?  And while standing in line, the man in front of me started a conversation with those around him.  He said that what would make the wait more bearable was if the post office was playing Christmas music (there was no music playing).  Then, after a pause, he said "well, I guess that's offensive these days."  He then proceeded to talk about how stupid it was that people think Christmas is offensive, and how one day he said "Merry Christmas" to someone at the cash register at the grocery store, and they said "Happy Holidays" in return.  He then turned to them and said "I FIND THAT OFFENSIVE!" as though that just ended all arguments on the subject.  And all I could think was, that kind of just makes you a jerk.  This person wished you happy holidays.  As far as I can tell, that's a nice thing, it should make you smile, or at least that was the intention.

Story #2:  I unfortunately have to spend a lot of quality time on I-35, and noticed this year that someone on 6th Street had put up the words "Merry Christmas" in giant, red letters on the side of their building, facing the highway.  And my immediate reaction was to sigh and think cynically "this must be because of the supposed 'War on Christmas.'"

The holiday season - the time between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day - is my favorite time of year.  It always has been.  There's a sense of peace that permeates it, of contemplation, quietness, joy, and celebration of those we love.  It's the time of year when I want it to be freezing cold so I have to stay in, bundled up on the couch next to a glowing Christmas tree.  It's the time of year when I most appreciate my family, chosen family, and friends.  I get excited about having to buy presents for people and have to try very hard to reign in the spending and shopping impulses every year.  I love wrapped presents and winter holiday music and baking cookies.  Most people are in fairly good moods.  Houses and neighborhoods are decked out in beautiful lights.  Annual local celebrations occur.  Coworkers bring baked goods to work to share with everyone.  Bosses let you off early.

But, of course, in the last few years people have gotten crankier.  More defensive.  More hostile.  Someone has decided that there is a "War on Christmas" and that it has to be discussed ad nauseum in place of actual news or even things that actually are in the spirit of the season.  I have to resist the urge in myself every year to do some sort of daily photo blog showing how Christmas permeates everything around us and isn't an endangered species at all.  When people complain that Christmas decorations go up in the stores too early and then a few weeks later complain about not being allowed to publicly celebrate Christmas, I have to resist the urge to jump in and show them (probably angrily) the flaws in what they're saying.  I resist those urges because that hurts MY Christmas spirit, and MY holiday mood.

Listening to the man in the post office, I really wanted to interject and tell him that actually, I have NEVER heard someone tell me that Christmas offended them.  I have, on the other hand, heard a lot of people talk about how OTHER people are are offended by Christmas.  The man tried to demonstrate how progressive he was and say that if he wanted to say "Happy Hanukkah" instead, he would, because he's that kind of good guy.  And I wanted to interject and ask him when he had actually last done that.  The truth is, he probably hasn't ever wished someone a Happy Hanukkah, because he probably rarely thinks about Hanukkah.  There are very few daily, constant, visual reminders that Hanukkah is even taking place.  But those who celebrate it walk around in a world filled with Santa and reindeer and Christmas trees and news anchors spouting off about how everyone is ruining their Christmas.  I doubt that they actually forget for one second that Christmas is happening.

And, I understand that to Christians, Christmas isn't about Santa Claus.  They want to "put the Christ back in Christmas," a sentiment which is beautiful when thought of as a personal reminder to celebrate the season in the way that is most meaningful to an individual who is Christian, but feels more like someone wanting to force ME to celebrate that way.  I don't want to harbor negative feelings, anger, and resentment at this time of year, and yet others seem to delight in it.  Instead of spreading the Christmas spirit, they want to talk or hear others talk about how persecuted they are because there is a little less "Christmas" in Christmas today and a little more "something else."

Every year I send out almost 100 cards to family, friends, coworkers, and collaborators (both mine and Travis's).  My cards are always non-denominational, usually referencing "peace" in some way, because that is what I experience most during the season.  I also add a personal note to every card.  I do this because I have friends who are not Christian, and I'm uncomfortable sending them cards that reference Christmas specifically.  I never, ever resent getting a card from someone that references Jesus's birth (and those of you that send them to us, please don't stop doing that because of what I'm saying here), but at the same time when I read it I feel like a non-participant in my favorite holiday.  I don't think that this is ever intentional on the senders' part, but because I've felt that way on occasion I am aware that I might make others feel that way, and I want to avoid that.  One person on my list of recipients celebrates Yule, and another celebrates Hanukkah, and the other 98 - I don't want to assume that they all celebrate the same way that I do.  Writing personal messages inside 100 cards takes a lot of time, energy, and money once you figure in the cost of stamps.  And, unfortunately, last year when I was doing it I felt more than a little conscious of the fact that some of the recipients would probably look at my non-denominational happy holidays peace loving card (carefully chosen and bought from an artist on etsy) and mock me for my attempt to not offend.  Once that thought had taken root in my mind, I couldn't enjoy sending the cards anymore.  And so this year I chose to avoid that experience altogether.  That's what the "War on Christmas" has done to me - made me a little more cynical about how people perceive my celebration of the holiday.  I WANT to drive down the highway, see that "Merry Christmas" sign and feel happy.  And I hate that a part of my mind has to have the cynical reaction now.  Until *I* feel good again about sending cards, I probably won't.  It will be put on the list of Things That Make Me Feel Unhappy at Christmas, alongside shopping malls and airports and cable news and listening to my cats fighting.

And I will, instead, celebrate with Travis, our cats, family and friends that are in Austin and New Hampshire.  I will try to make those people feel loved.  I will arrange Skype calls with our families on Christmas morning, at least one of which won't really make any sense because our nephew will just run around a lot and scream, and I will be happy with the traditions that we've created together.  I will bake a LOT of cookies.  I will listen to Stuart McLean's "Polly Anderson's Christmas Party" (if you don't know this, find it and listen) and laugh a lot.  I will try to keep a certain 8 month old kitten from tearing down the Christmas tree.  And I will try to put my Christmas in a protective bubble for six weeks, long enough for me to quietly celebrate my favorite holiday in the way that is most meaningful to me.

Winter Solstice - Dan McCarthy

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