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    Spreading good cheer

    Virginia Postrel’s feelings about the newest must-discuss topic basically mirror mine:

    Why criticize merchants for including all their customers in wishes for a happy holiday season? The holidays do, after all, stretch from Thanksgiving to New Year’s, both nonsectarian holidays. “Happy Holidays” includes Christmas, for those who celebrate it. But it also includes holidays we all share, as well as some others only a minority observe.

    When you extend these greetings, are you wishing people happiness? Or affirming your Christianity? Do you want people who don’t celebrate Christmas to be happy (or merry)? Or do you want to make them at least mildly uncomfortable? The answers will determine what you say.

    I say “basically” because what she leaves out is the self-righteous wing of her own side: people who are not content to say “Happy holidays” themselves but feel the need to expunge any mention of Christmas from all conversation, loudspeakers, and surfaces within a five-mile radius.

    But she herself isn’t taking that extreme a position, and she’s right about the standing-boldly-up-for-Christmas positions people are taking in droves. The argument is frequently made that we should all say “Merry Christmas,” whether we’re Christian or not, because Christmas is the origin of the holiday season. It strikes me as iffy, though–solstice rituals are, if not universal, widespread in world culture. That Christianity adapted one in the process of converting pagans may have been enterprising, but it’s not much of a distinction. Nevertheless, Christmas is the direct origin of the particular holiday season most of us celebrate, and forcing people to pretend they aren’t Christian, or being so taken aback when they acknowledge it that you can’t respond, is stupid.

    It also becomes flat-out ridiculous when the reason given is that people of other faiths might be offended. It’s truly outrageous to see world religions, from Islam to African animism to Buddhism to ancient Mexican earth cults, treated as anthropologically fascinating repositories of deep spiritual wisdom about the mysteries of the cosmos…while Christianity, whose philosophers helped develop many of the principles that undergird our free society, is regarded as a set of hokey superstitions that some folks still can’t shake.

    Personally, I’ll be celebrating Christmas the Japanese way, which suits my capitalist-atheist beliefs perfectly: on Christmas Eve, couples go out for dinner, exchange presents, and retire to love hotels. Atsushi, who wasn’t originally going to be able to come home until the New Year’s holiday (that’s when the Japanese have their big family gatherings), surprised me by promising to fly home on Saturday so we could at least have Christmas day together. At first, I figured we’d go to a restaurant, but then I remembered that this is the man who, after four years, still looks at me tenderly and calls me “GI Sean” whenever I come back from getting a haircut. He’s worth a week’s worth of preparation to have sauerbraten and dumplings at home.

    Anyhow, happy holidays to you all. And in the interest of cultural diversity:


    (yoi o-toshi wo o-mukae-kudasai: “Happy New Year!”)

    Added after tea and cake: Ooh! I almost forgot. Everyone does read Miss Manners, right? I think her edge has dulled just a bit over the last ten years or so, but her advice is still on-target, and the books she’s published are great reading. Perhaps my favorite column of hers ever is about hospitality and presents. It’s immortalized in this book. The piece isn’t holiday-specific, but I always reread it around this time of the year. It starts like this:

    Offering hospitality is such a serious obligation of etiquette that it is mandated in the sacred literature and traditions of many religions. Just about everyone has been taught one version or another of the holy personage in disguise who was turned away by the uppity rich, but generously welcomed to share the humble home of the poor. In case anyone misses the point, a vivid description was provided of how significantly the hospitality was reciprocated and its absence punished.

    So how are we doing with this lesson? The question most frequently posed to Miss Manners these days concerns how to make money from one’s guests, or at least how to make them pay for their own entertainment. Another question that has begun popping up concerns the efforts of hosts to enjoy a better standard of living than they are willing to share with their guests. Miss Manners suspects that these people are going to fry.

    It actually gets better from there.

    4 Responses to “Spreading good cheer”

    1. Michael says:

      Christmas is actually NOT the origin of the holiday season. In fact, Christmas (as in December 25th) began not with the birth of Christ, but with pagan winter celebrations.
      Christians, when trying to decide a date to celebrate the birth of Christ, CHOSE December 25th – because that’s when all the happiness and good cheer was being spread anyway. :-)
      In a sense then, Christians kinda “stole” the holiday for themselves.
      Happy Festivis, Sean.

    2. Sean Kinsell says:

      Well, that’s why I was bringing up the solstice celebrations. Actually, the way we were taught it in church when I grew up was way less diplomatic than your version–namely, that 25 December had been celebrated as the birthday of Semiramis’s son Nimrod, and that the cult of the mother goddess + her son who died was passed down to the point that it was still celebrated at the winter solstice when the Catholics were looking to increase their ranks. That was one of the sermons we got every year around this time. We got the Ishtar/Astarte sermon at Easter, too. Very exciting.
      BTW, is it London where you two have washed up for the holiday? Enjoy yourselves, and watch out for those criminals.

    3. Squidley says:

      I read someone whining somewhere that Xtians had delcared Xmastime “the holiday season” because it’s around the same time as Chanukah, a minor Jewish holiday, and that by calling it “the holiday season” the Xtians could get away with… something.
      I always considered it “the holiday season” because Thanksgiving and New Year’s were close by. I guess I have an insufficiently-developed victim mentality.

    4. Sean Kinsell says:

      Well, there’s no limit to the degree one can consider himself aggrieved these days. I’m only surprised that Wicca, trendy as it is, hasn’t dredged up a late-December Hekate’s Day, or something, in order not to feel left out. But perhaps I shouldn’t be giving anyone ideas.