Christmas Musings

Jeremiah 10:1-4 has been making the atheist rounds recently as another bit of irony for the holiday season. If you’re not familiar with the passage, it’s the one that goes thusly:

10:1 Hear ye the word which the LORD speaketh unto you, O house of Israel:
10:2 Thus saith the LORD, Learn not the way of the heathen, and be not dismayed at the signs of heaven; for the heathen are dismayed at them.
10:3 For the customs of the people are vain: for one cutteth a tree out of the forest, the work of the hands of the workman, with the axe.
10:4 They deck it with silver and with gold; they fasten it with nails and with hammers, that it move not.

It’s always entertaining to find these little bits of dissonance between what the Bible teaches and what the “keep Christ in Christmas” crowd believes and practices. Oh, naturally there’s an apologetic to explain this away (‘the passage clearly refers to the making and worshipping of wooden idols which are covered in silver and gold plating,’ (from here. Go ahead and read Jeremiah for yourself; KJV is very different from NIV on this matter), but that really doesn’t make it any less entertaining1.

Nor does it make the practice of putting up a Christmas tree any more Christian. I don’t need to go on about the pagan origins of Christmas, how festivals like Saturnalia and Yule and Sol Invictus got rolled up into Christian traditions over the centuries. Such information is readily available (and I’ve just spent about half an hour Googling it…interesting stuff).

What boggles my mind is the abject ignorance of a great many Christians with regard to all this. Sure, there’s an apologetic for Jeremiah, but I guarantee that most Christians don’t even know the passage, let alone the explanation for why it doesn’t mean what it says. I recently followed a Twitter conversation between Neil Gaiman and some appallingly ignorant Christian, stemming from Gaiman’s promotion of Tim Minchin’s excellent godless Christmas song, “White Wine in the Sun.” The conversation had some real highlights, notably Gaiman’s suggestion that if the word “Christ” puts God in Christmas, than doesn’t the word “Easter” put Oestre in Easter? The obtuse kid apparently misunderstood and thought “Easter” was the name of the person who decided to make Easter a holiday.

And then there’s Garrison Keillor, who has made me decide that Lake Wobegon Days is now several notches lower on my “to-read” list. Somewhere beneath Ender’s Game in the “books written by pompous religious bigots” section of the list2.

All this, plus the litany of “keep Christ in Christmas” bumper magnets I see (year round, like tacky Christmas decorations left up in April) and witch-hunt websites tracking which retail stores dare to prefer an inclusive phrase like “Happy Holidays” when greeting guests, makes me wonder: what the hell is wrong with these people?

Why would you find an event so important that you think everyone should think about it the same way you do, but not care enough to actually find out about its origins? Why do you require underpaid cashiers and greeters to validate your beliefs and customs? Why do you feel the need to exclude people from a celebration?

I just don’t get it. I don’t understand why people would effectively say “this is our party, and if you’re not like us, you’re not invited. And we’re going to trash any party you try to throw, because today is our party day.” It’s silly and petulant; getting upset that the greeter at Wal-Mart said “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” is as asinine as being offended that they said “have a nice day” instead of “happy birthday.” Why is it somehow offensively impolite to not make assumptions about a stranger’s religious beliefs? Why is it so important to dictate how other people conduct themselves in private?

What makes this all the more inane is that it’s the secular parts of the holiday–days off, giving gifts, spending time with family and friends, etc.–the things that are most commonly celebrated, that make the holiday popular and heavily anticipated. Would Christmas be as popular as it is if it only had the Christian religious aspects? If there weren’t these pagan and secular trappings attached to the holiday, it’d be another Good Friday or Ash Wednesday or Rosh Hashanah–significant to the observant, just another day to the rest of us.

And maybe that’s part of the anger–the fear that the little bits of Christmas which actually have something to do with Christ will be somehow supplanted with the secular parts, and so Christ has to be tacked onto the secular parts in order for the religious justification to survive. And there’s really nothing wrong with that; maybe you have an angel on top of the tree instead of a star, maybe you sing “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” and “Silent Night” instead of “Deck the Halls” and “Frosty the Snowman,” maybe you watch “The Nativity Story” instead of “How the Grinch Stole Christmas”…but I still don’t understand why it matters to anyone what anyone else does on the holiday.

It all seems to come down to what Christmas is “about.” For me, Christmas is usually about family and songs I only want to hear for maybe seven days out of three hundred sixty-five and classic movies like “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “Die Hard” and presents and awkward moments in the closet. This year, it was about stupid-induced injuries and a broken-down car and forgetting my hard drive with all the Christmas music on it and a veritable overload of Doctor Who. And a bunch of other things. But it seems like some people can’t quite handle the idea that Christmas has different meanings for different people at different times. They have to find the true meaning of Christmas, for everyone. And their true meaning is “Jesus.” Everything else falls by the wayside, including values like togetherness and inclusiveness, which other people might even associate with that “true” meaning.

Or to put it in terms that even the most myopic, self-absorbed ideologue should be able to understand, there’s room for everyone at the Christmas Inn3.

Happy Holidays, everyone.


1. At the very least, it’s a prime example of how different translations influence interpretation. I defy anyone to read the KJV version and get “metal-plated idols carved out of wood,” though that’s a clear implication in the NIV. The other half-dozen or so versions I looked at varied in between.

2. Ender’s Game is higher largely because I feel somewhat obligated as a sci-fi fan to read it, and because I’m told I’d enjoy it. Also, to be clearer about Keillor, he’s in the subsection of “writers who may or may not be pompous religious bigots, but who write pompous religious bigotry and occasionally pass it off as satire, even when it’s neither funny nor particularly satirical.” It’s a small subcategory.

3. Alternately: “Maybe Christmas isn’t what’s said at a store. Maybe Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more.”

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I don’t want to alarm anyone, but…

Okay, I know we’ve all been avoiding the subject for awhile now, but things are getting dire. We can’t go on pretending like there isn’t a problem when there so clearly is. I know you’ve all noticed it, and if we don’t do something about it soon, life as we know it may be radically changed. This isn’t the time for sugarcoating the truth or trying to put a positive spin on things, so I’m just going to come right out and say what we’ve all been too afraid to mention:

The days are getting shorter.

The process has been going on for months, though I think we were all pretty slow to notice. At the start, there was plenty of daylight–I mean, we save it up every year, right?–so what’s a little time off one end or the other. Unfortunately, all those tiny little cuts have quickly added up, and suddenly there’s a lot more nighttime than there used to be. I’ve run some numbers, and it looks like tomorrow is going to be six seconds shorter than today. But that’s just a drop in the bucket, really: according to my projections, by this time next month, the day will be over half an hour shorter. And even that’s not the worst part. Check out my graph:
The darkness is falling!
That’s right: by mid-August of next year, there won’t be any daytime left.

I think it goes without saying that we’re in desperate times here. Unless we do something soon, we’re going to have to face existence without the sun. The consequences to nature and to our way of life would be tremendous: solar power will be a thing of the past; crops will cease to grow, diurnal animals will never wake from their slumber, and so forth. We must do something soon to find out what’s precipitating this quick descent into eternal darkness, before it’s too late.

What can we do in the meantime? Some of the steps are obvious. First, save daylight. Use your experience from countless “daylight savings times” to capture and store as much daylight as possible. Naturally we’ll have to ration it in the long nights ahead, but if we build up our daylight reserves, we may be able to extend normalcy for a little longer.

Second, don’t panic. Panicking won’t get us anywhere. Turn that energy and worry into thought and action. We’re going to need all the ideas we can get to adapt to a sunless world or a world of severely limited daylight. The more minds we have working on this problem, the more chances we have of coming up with viable solutions.

Finally, and this may sound crazy, but stick with me: celebrate. I know, I know, it’s strange advice, but here’s my reasoning: we don’t know what’s causing this problem; it’s possible that there’s some kind of intelligence or awareness behind it. A large, worldwide celebration would demonstrate that we’re not afraid, and just like the way that a small cat puffs up its fur and makes a lot of noise to frighten away a larger dog, our loud, bold celebration might scare off the encroaching darkness. On the other hand, it’s possible that the problem lies elsewhere, in which case our celebration might alert the sun or the source of the daylight of our appreciation for it and desire for its return. Besides, in times of crisis like this, it’s best to band together and enjoy what may be the last few weeks of normal life we have left.

Humans are a smart, adaptable species, and I have confidence that we’ll be able to either solve this problem or make the changes and sacrifices necessary to survive it. But we won’t get anywhere by pretending the problem doesn’t exist, and we need to take action now.

Not Sold on the Solstice

I realize that it’s a week or three too late, but this thought has been rolling around my head for a few days: I have some serious misgivings about the winter solstice.

On one hand–specifically, the hand that was getting frostbitten, scraped, and sore as I spent December 21st packing up and moving out of my apartment–ultimately a four-day job that I did in three–I frigging hate it. It’s cold, it gets dark way too early, and damn it, I like sunlight. A day with less sunlight than any other all year? I might as well just sleep through it.

As a reason for celebration, though, I like it. It’s a rational, physical justification for celebrating at this time of year. The worst part of the winter is over; from this point on, it’s a general trend of increasing warmth and daylight. The sun has once again been unconquered, and so we celebrate its rebirth with feasts and signifiers of the coming spring–evergreen trees, holly leaves, and so forth. In some fashion, the religious festivals of wintertime trace back to this reasoning. It’s nice to skip over all the magic and mysticism, celebrating something that has both objective physical reality and a history that predates the modern religious celebrations. Sure, in these days of heating and insulation and preservatives and refrigeration, there’s too not much chance of people freezing or starving to death en masse. Modern medicine and sanitation even mitigate the problem of disease devastating populations of largely cooped-up people. Winter doesn’t generally represent the sort of existential uncertainty and lethal foreboding that it once did. Like an abominable snowman after meeting a polar elf with orthodontic aspirations, winter has been rendered largely toothless. Still, it’s a decent tradition with a rational, if somewhat arbitrary, justification.

But then people start talking about it, and this is where I cringe. See, it seems there are two groups of people who celebrate the solstice: Pagans and atheists*. The latter do it as a secular alternative to the ubiquitous religious winter celebrations; the former do it as their own religious celebration, laden with the touchy-feely newage woo-woo of neo-Paganism. In general, I think, the word is more associated with the neo-Pagans, since, after all, the Solstice was a Pagan holiday. Where it gets messy, I think, is when atheists celebrate the solstice and talk about the way Christians co-opted the holiday from earlier Pagan festivals. For instance, this statement by Freedom From Religion Foundation Co-President Dan Barker, on a news station in Washington:

It’s to remind people that the month of December is a natural holiday. It’s not a Christian holiday; Christians basically co-opted–or some would say stole–the, uh, the Pagan symbols for the Christian religion.

They played it on an episode of Freethought Radio that was all about the Solstice, but that bit toward the beginning was the first thing to set my teeth on edge. I’m having a hard time verbalizing my discomfort, but I think my reasoning goes like this: when atheists celebrate Solstice and talk about how Solstice is a pagan holiday, it makes a connection between atheists and Pagans**. To me, it makes it sound like atheists and Pagans share some common belief system, or at the very least some kind of newage nature worship. I don’t think this is a good thing.

Atheists are already misunderstood. There’s a large class of people who think we worship Satan. I don’t think it’s a good idea to contribute to the confusion by making it sound like we worship Mother Nature. Nature’s beautiful and vast and astounding, but it’s not much for those motherly qualities like compassion and warmth***, and while healthy reverence is deserved, worship seems a few steps too far.

The solstice provides a secular justification for celebration, but citing the Pagans doesn’t say anything about that secular justification. The Pagans celebrate for religious reasons just as the Christians and Jews do–or at least, quasi-religious reasons. If atheists are going to reclaim the Solstice, let’s be explicit about the reasons. It has nothing to do with the Pagans or other religions, and everything to do with a real-life event and an excuse to be with real-life families and friends. The only commonality is that we all share the same ultimate justification–recognizing that the worst of winter is over, and it’s all downhill and up-temperature from here. They dress it up with god-men and candlesticks, but the root is the same; if you’re going to justify celebrating the solstice, refer to that, and not just some other solstice-celebrating religious group.


*This is an oversimplification, I know, since I’m sure plenty of those Pagans are technically atheists. Here, I’m using the term atheist in the more specific sense of the atheist community and movement, which the newagers tend not to consider themselves a part of.
**Which, technically, is true, since “pagan” is just a catch-all term for non-Christians. But, again, I’m talking more specifically about the neo-Pagan groups, who self-identify as “Pagan” or some more vague nature-oriented quasi-religion.
***Except, of course, in the most literal sense of the term.

‘Tis (Almost) the Season

For me, it started on Halloween (or possibly the day before), when I walked into a Wal-Mart and saw employees decorating a large Christmas Tree right in front of a display filled with witches and pumpkins. I know it’s cliché to complain about Christmas starting earlier and earlier each year, but really?

Anyway, that’s not the reason for the post–or at least, not all of it. It’s just that since then, I’ve heard increasing amounts of Christmas music. The retail stores are the main places, but I’m always a little miffed at the radio stations that completely change formats for over a month in order to play Christmas music 24/7. I got out of the car for a meeting today while one version of “The Christmas Song” was playing, and re-entered the car not quite an hour later to hear another version of “The Christmas Song.” And neither one was the Nat King Cole version, the only version anyone ever needs to hear or play.

See, I’ve realized this season that I really like Christmas music, but I like it on my terms. For a week or two around this time, I crank up the Christmas playlist on my computer and listen to the particular songs and versions of songs that I really enjoy. Songs like these:
Auld Lang Syne: Basically the honorable mention spot, since I consider it a New Year’s song more than a Christmas one. But, hey, they sang it in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” so it must be part of the season, right? I don’t have a particular preferred recording, but I do change my cell phone ringtone over to this around New Year’s each year. And then around January 6th, people will ask me if my phone’s ringing, and I’ll say “no, that’s not my ringtone” a couple of times before I realize I haven’t changed it back yet. It’s a good song about renewal and friendship, I think, but I’ve never been quite clear on what the lyrics mean. I guess it’s kind of the “Louie Louie” of holiday songs.

Holly Jolly Christmas: Burl Ives and only Burl Ives, straight out of the snowman’s mouth. The Rankin-Bass “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” is a classic, even if the whole thing comes out of crass commercialism. Then again, I have a soft spot in my heart for the He-Man/She-Ra Christmas Special:There are a lot of songs like this one (“Jingle Bell Rock” and “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” have obvious similarities), but I think “Holly Jolly Christmas” generally does a better job of conveying the fun and spirit of the season.

All I Want for Christmas is You: The Olivia Olson version, from “Love Actually,” not Mariah Carey. I have some shame. “Love Actually” has rapidly become one of my favorite Christmas films; it’s joined my “watch each year” pantheon alongside “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation,” “Scrooged,” and “Ghostbusters II,” the greatest Christmas movie of all time. As for the song, it’s catchy, it’s sweet, and it’s great to hear an eleven-year-old out-diva-ing Mariah.

Baby It’s Cold Outside: On my playlist, I have both the Johnny Mercer/Margaret Whiting version and a Louis Armstrong/Velma Middleton version, and each has distinct charms. The latter’s great for the live ad-libbing and innuendo, while the former is worth it just for the surprise in Whiting’s voice when she sings, “hey, what’s in this drink?” I like Christmas songs that are about the greatest gift of all: nookie. This may be the most festive song ever written about date rape. At least it’s not as dark as “Walking in a Winter Wonderland.”

God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen: This one, however, is that dark. As far as I know, “Gentlemen” is the only mainstream Christmas carol to explicitly mention Satan. Not surprisingly, it’s one of the earlier carols, and it’s one of the few in a minor key. I don’t have a favorite particular recording, though I like the Barenaked Ladies/Sarah McLachlan version. I prefer versions that bring out the age of the song, though, versions that are deep-voiced as though sung between sips of hot cider from a flagon in a great hall. This is the Christmas carol that Vikings would have sung…if, you know, they were Christian.

The Night Santa Went Crazy: At either level of goriness, this song’s fantastic. And every time I hear “Mama I’m Comin’ Home” start, I hold out a little hope that it’s Weird Al instead of Ozzy.

Good King Wenceslas: It is damn hard to find a decent recording of this song online. I just spent half an hour and three dollars on iTunes, trying to find versions that didn’t kill the tune with high-pitched voices or slow tempos. The tempo for this one has to be pretty brisk, or the song just plods. I like the sound of it for much the same reason that I like “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” but I really like the content of this one. Shock of shocks, it’s a Christmas song that’s actually about the much-vaunted Christmas spirit of helping those less fortunate. I can really get behind that.

Angels We Have Heard on High: This is probably my favorite classic Christmas song, and not just because of its island rhythms. I think it’s also the most overtly religious song on my personal list. Let it never be said that my beliefs impede my ability to enjoy good music. I just all-around love this song; when I was a kid, it was one of two hymns I actually looked forward to singing in church (before you ask, I can’t remember the other one–though seeing one of my old church’s hymnals for less than a dollar on Amazon has me tempted to find out). Like “Good King Wenceslas,” a slow tempo simply kills this song, but I’m less picky with the pitch. Plus, it’s partially in Latin, so that’s cool too.

That’s my list; what’s yours?