Tis’ the Season to be Jolly! So a very Merry ChristmasHanakkuhMawlidan-NabiBodhiDayPongalKawanza! Ah, America’s (the Western World’s?) culture wars. Christmas, and not “Happy Holidays,” remains a key battleground in our culture wars. President-elect Donald Trump has declared he will bring Christmas back and abandon the bland “Happy Holidays.” I, too, was such a culture warrior in that same mold. I felt, and was witness to, the pride, the exceptionalism, the special historical significance of Christmas, when I was young.
In my small part of the world, in my country, in my State, as a child, I knew Christmas to be one of the dominant holidays, unlike say, Columbus Day or Presidents Day. But foremost, Christmas was a holy day. As a Catholic boy, I served Mass and sang in the choir. Midnight Christmas Mass was always a busy, crowded, joyous pinnacle celebration of the birth of Jesus – Our Savior.
Luke 2: 4-19. “Suddenly a great company of angels appeared to the shepherds praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men..."A time of Good News, Peace on Earth, Joy, songs and gifts, extended family gatherings of grandparents, cousins, aunts, uncles etc., food, laughter. Even then I recall feeling so fortunate to be Catholic and not Protestant. Though I did not know there were distinct Protestant denominations, I did know that being Protestant, whatever, was worthy of pity. Then, with time, I learned that even I had relatives who were Baptists and Lutherans.
These Baptists and Lutherans were a vague curiosity. Being misguided, they did not understand the Godly importance of having statues in churches nor the miracle of The Sacrament. Their confession of their sins was cheap. They could just personally whip-off sins without confessing to a Priest. Nobody in my family ever discussed any of these theological differences around the dinner table. However, after dinner, we could all still gather around a Nativity Scene, drink eggnog while singing Silent Night. Which was something that no Jew could do, as I also learned.
My pious family had a light strain of anti-Semitism, much lighter than their stain of racism. Judaism was ancient, good in its time, like a horse and buggy, but it needed to be replaced by a new Catholic Cadillac. I first learned of Hanukkah as a Jewish creation to give gifts to their kids, eight days of bribing, to keep their kids from wanting to be Catholic. Some of my aunts were still upset with the Jews for what they did to Jesus. When I heard that Jewish kids played by spinning a dreidel, that seemed really lame but the gelt, those chocolate coins covered in foil, were cool.
With time, education and travel, I discovered Mawlid an-Nabi, the annual December Muslim celebration of the birth of Prophet Muhammad ibn Abdullah of Arabia. OMG!! Another holy person’s birthday at Solstice time but then one learns that many ancient religions in the northern hemisphere have holy persons, even gods, born this time of year. With the coming of longer days, more light, celebration and joy went hand in hand, even for those religions without a God or gods. Welcome Bodhi Day, December 8. The day Siddhartha attained enlightenment. It is a day of remembrance and meditation. Often, colored lights are strung about one’s home to remind one of enlightenment. Multi-colored lights symbolize the many pathways to enlightenment. The lights start on December 8th then continue for 30 days. Decorating our home with multi-colored lights was familiar to my Catholic upbringing but a religion with no God and many pathways to salvation was NOT.
With even more time, more education and more travel, I discovered the Hindu festival Pongal, which falls around 14th of January. The day marks the start of the sun's six month long journey north. The festival of Pongal brings happiness and peace for all. It is a festival when God is praised with simple faith and sincerity. And there’s our annual Kwanzaa, an African American holiday celebrated from December 26 to January 1. It is estimated that 18 million African Americans take part in Kwanzaa. Kwanzaa is not a religious holiday but is based on the year-end harvest festivals that have taken place throughout Africa for thousands of years. End of year, harvest festivals for thousands of years, sun traveling north, all of these festivals, including Christmas and its significant relationship to the Roman Saturnalia, coming with sun light returning after months of growing darkness.
Human beings today, and stretching back into the fog of our history, have found this time of year a time for celebration. The cosmic drama of the solstice is existentially upon everyone. The solstice marks such a powerful change that it makes us utter seemingly contradictory thoughts that are actually true. The days are now getting shorter/longer. We are now approaching spring/fall, summer/winter. Prepare for the warm/cold. In the Northern Hemisphere, the shortest day arrives and gives way to the silent migration of more daylight while in the Southern Hemisphere the opposite unfolds. Humanity is cosmically marching in opposite directions, yet we unite in myriad, diverse cultural CELEBRATIONS. These apparent contradictions do not require a violent confrontation, Northern Hemisphere vs. Southern Hemisphere, but rather serve as a metaphor supporting the hopes of finding celebration in accepting the inevitable diversity that is a cornerstone of the success of our 2020 A Year Without War Mission?
As a young boy, I was egocentric, readily disposed to thinking only about myself, as are all immature minds, but not tipping into Narcism, though my sister might disagree. Such egocentrism was also paired with a profound ethnocentrism, the disposition to dismiss all that was not Catholic, including other “lost” Christians. My world back then was clear, exceptional, proud, bold, and self-righteous. A powerful, even other-worldly sanctity that allowed existential smugness but was finally confrontational and self-defeating, as I eventually learned first from my Lutheran family.
Diversity is our 21st century social condition. Diversity is how nature works. Random variation is essential to evolution. Mono-culture, we now know, is the bane of a flourishing, secure agriculture. As a culture warrior, I fought for a mono-culture for my fellow humans. We must now resist such archaic egocentricism, at its worst a Narcism, and its cousin ethnocentrism, that dispose us to impose, to even bully, for our own “exceptional” mono-culture. To do so, is to finally perish. Our history has taught us clearly that there is much that intelligent, informed, rational human beings will profoundly disagree over. Conflict in ideas is the inevitable consequence of being able to think for one’s self but resolving conflicts violently is not an inevitable choice. It is an existential choice of self-definition. To gather into large groups and violently silence other groups is war and war is always a choice.
Presently, this holiday season, political talk has become more confrontational, more belligerent, more divisive. Let us remember that we live in the land of the free, not the land of this or that single voice and as such this land must remain the home of the brave. I am now brave enough and fortunate enough to be able to celebrate many of these solstice derived holidays and holy days. My life is much richer. At this historical moment, there is nothing to be gained in this 21st century from an antiquated practice like war. Let’s remember that tomorrow, our day, will truly be longer/shorter and it will be getting warmer/colder. Now I must close to take my mother to church.
Professor Joseph White,