Thursday, December 10, 2009

Foot Full Of Mistletoe

The trees in DC are leaveless but there is still no snow on the ground. For a very short bit it snowed last weekend but this week it has been pretty dry. This weekend it is supposed to snow again but who knows if it will stick. Some people love the changing of the seasons and some folks have such a dislike for winter (I fall into this category in many ways) that they would prefer if it didn't exist at all. But nature has a way of making us familiar with the seasons whether we prefer them or not. The tell-tales are there, whether they represent our favorite season or not.

This winter I have been around or a part of a new Christmas tradition. It was not started by me and I won't likely be the one to end it, but I find it fascinating nonetheless. Two different groups of people I know have initiated conversations about “not offending anyone who doesn't share your religious holiday celebration.” This is the “new tradition” that now seems to happen each year following Thanksgiving and just before Christmas. The fundamental question goes like this:

“Is it wrong / inappropriate / unthoughtful to publicly celebrate a holiday using religious overtones when people around you might not be a part of your religious affiliation?”

For one Christian friend, within the context of a larger conversation, he felt it was more respectful to honor the paradigm of other people who don't share your views by specifically not wishing people a “Merry Christmas.” In exchange he offered “Happy Holidays” as a generic alternative and was fine with joining ranks with the people who would rather do away with “Merry Christmas” and it's obvious religious affiliation.

After much discussion, he felt that it was safer to not offend, say, an observant Jew by wishing them a “Merry Christmas.”

A few days later (and with zero prompting whatsoever) I received an email from another friend. I am going to share just a small portion of that email:

I have to say that even as a non-christian, I still love the part of a Charlie brown Christmas where Linus stands on stage and tells what Christmas is all about. And I pity da fool who organizes some “high standards” group and tries to get that taken off the air, cause I’ll be kickin some butt with a foot full of missile toes.

Now this was the beginning of the email and 2/3rds of it, after which he celebrated one of his favorite TV Shows letting me (and other friends / email recipients) know that the cast of Scrubs did their own version of the Charlie Brown special. Very funny I might add.

I went on to ask him “I was curious, from a non-christian (and specifically Jewish) perspective, does the presence of iconography and terminology (“Merry Christmas”) offend you?” I found his response to be very interesting.

He told me that someone he knew ask him about what he was doing for Christmas and then the friend got all flustered and said “I mean, Chanukah! I'm sorry.” His response was that nobody needs to apologize for asking him about Christmas, or saying the word Merry, or wishing him a merry Christmas. In his reasonable mind he feels that “merry Christmas” doesn't mean “I am forcing my beliefs upon you, so why not convert already?” I can honestly say I have never said “merry Christmas” and meant it in such a manner, so I would be willing to agree that for most people, that is a pretty reasonable expectation of understanding.

As for iconography, he said he could respect the fact that Christmas trees are “pretty” but we both agreed that the Christmas tree tradition, while adopted by Christians, is really pagan and not Christian almost at all!

This prompted me to ask a specific set of questions about what, of the following list, feels imposing or insensitive. This is an excerpt from my email in reply:

Is there a difference between... celebrating some element of who you are (via iconography or conversation) and... imposing your beliefs, and what might be a good example of either? How would you qualify these items / activities:

1. A Christmas wreath on a door.

2. An old lady wearing a pin on her coat that says “Merry Christmas.”

3. A menorah or a Christmas tree in a window.

4. Someone singing Christmas carols.

5. Strangers talking about their holiday traditions (religious or otherwise) while in line at a grocery store.

6. A game of dradle being played on a piece of cardboard in an alley with people standing around it with cash in their hands.

7. A pamphlet handed to you by a “Jew for Jesus” explaining the Christian message about Jesus as it pertains to thankfulness while in New York City watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

8. A stranger asking you “Isn’t that a beautiful nativity scene over there?” and points to some display setup in the lawn outside a city hall building next to a life-sized depiction of a “Chanukah-remembrance of the Maccabean Revolt” and a sign staked down by a local agnostic fellowship that reads “There is no God and religion enslaves people.”

9. Someone forcing you to bow down at a nativity scene.

For my friend, the only offensive bit was option 10. But he also admits he feels a bit progressive in terms of both being able to “get over” being hung up on something someone said and fundamentally not preferring all-things-Jewish over, say, a good looking blonde who just walked into the room regardless of religious / cultural identification. I digress.

In conclusion I think that both friends have great hearts when it comes to wanting to treat people well. In both cases, I would likewise not want to offend anyone or adopt feeling offended unnecessarily. That would definitely be the upside to both of their personalities and thoughts. I would also add that I am not in favor of hedging all imagined bets to avoid offending everyone. The fact is that the potential to call so many things I don't agree with “offensive” but I have to choose to not be “offended” and coerce everyone around me into my beliefs.

Now, don't get me wrong. I would love for everyone to share my beliefs. That would make my life a whole lot easier. But forcing compliance with what I believe would simply make for a planet full of hypocrites. I do make an exception for common laws that do stuff like defend life or encourage safety or protect children. And many of my beliefs about the harmful nature of pornography or social appropriateness of entertainment media would also likely make the world a better place, but I would rather people come to an agreement with me rather than force their compliance (and I am willing in the mean time to advocate for the idea that people should agree with me and maybe somedays my reasonable thoughts will become laws agreed to be a good thing... but I will waitto write more on that until I decide to run for U.S. Senate.)

But I love the idea that my Jewish friend here is willing to kick someone's butt with a foot full of mistletoe if someone decided that celebrating Christmas were suddenly socially inappropriate!

(worthy of note: The friend who's emails from which I've been directly quoting has granted me permission to share his thoughts. Out of respect to him, his perspective is not a license to attempt to offend people with your word choice under the guise of "celebration" but rather just his reasoned perspective with regard to the freedom to celebrate in a way that is not actually imposing but that doesn't require completely hiding oneself from the public eye for fear of offending someone.

Might someone be offended by your word choice, even though you are being kind and not intending on offending or verbally confront people who wouldn't otherwise agree with you? Sure they might. But I feel that this is there problem to wrestle with and not your problem in this case.)

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