Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The War on Festivus

Every year it comes from somewhere. As the stress of my needing to buy gifts on a budget builds and the last of the leaves are blown from the trees, as I dig through the closet for the gloves and scarves and heavy coats, someone brings it up. Usually it's Fox News, but I don't watch Fox News, so I hear it from someone who inexplicably does. Christmas is under attack, they say. We're not allowed to say "Merry Christmas" or put Christmas trees up or have nativity scenes in the town square. Instead it's Happy Holidays and holiday trees and no one's allowed to bring up Christmas, they say.

The whole argument grates on my nerves. It is founded in a sort of xenophobic right-wing paranoia that I've never fully understood. What I see as acceptance of a diversifying culture, these others see as an attack on their culture and traditions. But there is no attack. No one is on the offense.

Yes, it's true that there have been efforts to stop the use of public space and public funds to support celebrations and displays of a religious nature, and it's certainly true that some people have taken that to ridiculous extremes that rely on highly questionable interpretations of the First Amendment. But the switch to saying "Happy Holidays" and the broadening of Christmas themes to "Holiday" themes in general is not part of some nefarious plan hatched by grinches intent on destroying Christmas. It is not part of a war.

Quite the opposite, actually.

We have made this shift, as a society, because we are becoming more diverse in our constituency. It has never been easy to pigeonhole Americans because we are not a single people, and this fact has grown more true over time. For most of the nation's history, the WASP culture dominated all media and set all agendas. The portrait it painted of the ideal American family was one that excluded and ignored huge swaths of the population due to race, creed, and ethnicity.

But the various marginalized groups have grown in both number and strength in proportion to the shrinking WASPs. When one says "Merry Christmas" now, it is much more likely than it has ever been (and growing more so) that one is saying it to someone who does not celebrate Christmas. It makes more sense to use a general term. Since this time of year is a celebratory one for most of the population, including those who do not celebrate Christmas, "Happy Holidays" makes sense.

One argument I hear is that those who come from elsewhere should assimilate. What are we, the Borg? No, it doesn't work that way. People continue with their own traditions when they come here, and those traditions sometimes bleed over into our culture and become part of the mainstream. How do you think we got jazz and rock music? There is a give-and-take, and this strengthens us all. The emracing of diversity begets adaptability, which allows us to build the tools for moving forward. Nothing weakens a society like rigid adherence to outdated traditions.

We all have our comfort zones, and many people fear nothing more than being removed from theirs. I suppose that's where the xenophobia comes from. But by staying within our zones, we calcify and grow less relevant. Instead, it would be wiser to embrace new ideas and push our own boundaries outward. You keep a culture alive by moving its best elements forward and discarding those aspects of it that are no longer necessary. It's a process of evolution, like anything else. There is no One Right Way, only the way that works best for the current situation.

The one part of this whole trend toward generalization that does bother me is the homogenization of the culture. It seems that, all too often, people believe that being blind to differences between us (or ignoring them entirely) is the same as acceptance. We make a taboo out of anything that is culturally specific. I think this is most disturbing in public school settings, where topics such as religion and race, if addressed at all, are treated with an oversensitivity (necessitated by threat of legal action) that distorts them. It creates a room full of 800-pound gorillas, which I'd imagine is an extremely constrained place to be.

Blindness does not equal acceptance. Acceptance is being fully cognizant of cultural differences but not letting those differences bother you. Saying "Merry Christmas" to someone who celebrates Hanukkah or Yule or Festivus or Kwanzaa is kind of ridiculous. Do you say "enjoy the movie" to someone when you're going to see a movie and they aren't? Do you say "have a nice vacation" to someone who isn't going on one?

I could go on and on with this, but I think I've made my point. Have a safe and happy Festivus, dear reader.

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