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December 20, 2012

Don't Bogart Christmas


Most Californians don't know from snow. We have no idea what it's like to shovel a driveway, or awake to white-blanketed landscapes, or bundle up and stroll through frosty flurries (See? Frosty flurries — are those even a thing?). But we sing about it all just the same. Come December, we croon about sleigh bells and winter wonderlands and glistening treetops with all the enthusiasm of people who know what the flake they're warbling about.

What I love best about this lyrical-geographical incongruity is that no one seems to care. People in nippy climes don't ask us West Coasters to pipe down and stop singing about something we don't — and frankly can't — fully appreciate.

"Hey!" they don't say. "Quit your convivial yodeling, and do some personal precipitation research!" It matters not to folks in icy Buffalo, New York, or glacial Grand Rapids, Michigan, whether our musical merriment is based in experience or willful ignorance. Whatever jingles your bells, man!

Why then — and you knew I was going somewhere with this, right? — should sourpuss religious zealots give a holly heck how the rest of us celebrate Christmas?

There's a small, churlish contingent of Christians who spend the holiday season writing letters to newspapers insisting that the only legitimate cause for celebration this time of year is the miracle in the manger — and boycotting businesses who dare to offer customers an inclusive "happy holidays" rather than a decisive "merry Christmas."

The Liberty Counsel legal organization spurs some of this. Flinging catchy slogans like "Keep Christ in Christmas" and "Jesus is the reason for the season," the group warns of a "war on Christmas," runs a "Friend or Foe Christmas Campaign," sells a set of bumper stickers called the "Help Save Chrismas pack" (their spelling, not mine; how about we put the T back in Christmas first, guys?), and urges Yuletide crusaders to contact big, mean, scary retailers like Mrs. Fields cookies "to encourage more promotion of 'Christmas' and less use of the words holiday and winter."

All of which really rattles my antlers. By all accounts, Jesus was a very cool dude. And who doesn't love a birthday bash with lots of ... you know ... myrrh? But there are as many bona fide reasons for year-end revelry as there are needles on a Christmas tree.

In fact, let's start with that. Many of the symbols we associate with Christmas are actually pagan traditions that predate Christianity. Thousands of years ago, Babylonians, Romans, and Northern Europeans whooped it up at December's end by feasting, giving gifts, caroling, kissing under mistletoe, and even — stop me if you've heard this one — bringing evergreen trees indoors. (Easter is also pagan in origin, named for the goddess Eostre; how come we don't see "Put Eostre back in Easter" bumper stickers?)

It's no coincidence that all this cross-cultural, multi-millennial merrymaking takes place at year's end, in the dark of winter. No matter what our faith, we crave the deep breath that the holiday season permits: The stock-taking, the work-stopping, the reconnecting. The indulgence in food, in sparkle, in silence. The acts of kindness. The honoring of traditions — yours, theirs, mine, every weird one of them.

The holiday season is an interpretive dance. Watch as every sort of person takes their leap of faith and alights upon Hanukkah, Solstice, Kwanzaa, Christmas, or Humanlight, a secular new festival honoring reason, compassion, and hope. And hallelujah to those, huh?

There's still much I don't understand about this time of year. I don't know what bells on bobtails are. Or herald angels. Or figgy pudding. But I like to sing about 'em all. To me, the best thing about the season is how everyone wants to be a part of it, and finds their own reasons to support it. That's the miracle.


Keywords: christmas  holidays  religion  frosty flurries  myrrh 


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