Sunday, November 27, 2005

Ah, the Yuletide Season is upon us, with its attendant culture war crusade! This year’s most promising battle is Boston’s “Great Christmas Tree Controversy”: the city’s annual Nova Scotia spruce is being officially referred to as a “holiday tree” instead of a “Christmas tree,” awakening the ire of right-wingers nationwide. "There's been a concerted effort to steal Christmas," Rev. Jerry Falwell fumed on Fox. CBS conducted a poll that found that 64% of respondents thought that “Christmas has become too politically correct.”

Now, for Falwell’s fundies, PC is only the most pernicious example of their ememies’ excessive approbation of difference, because the radical right opposes the very diversity—of peoples, traditions, histories, and viewpoints—that is the life-blood of modern free and open societies. Right-wingers, clinging to a belief that nothing ever changes, or at least mustn’t be allowed to, claim to object to the left’s shifty semantics. But the truth is, as most people know, things change. And when worlds change, words do, too. What the right really objects to is the acknowledgment—never mind the celebration—of difference and change. We Americans are clever enough nowadays not to talk about race and ethnicity straightforwardly, partly because it’s no longer simply black-and-white. We often cloak our fears and prejudices in other issues, from immigration to school prayer, but Christmas trees will do nicely, too.

The religious right is better at keeping the controversy than the Christ in Christmas, that’s for sure. Every yuletide is a new chapter in their cultural jihad. Last year it was a boycott of shops advertising “holiday sales” or sporting signage wishing “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas”—never mind that the relentless commercialization of Christmas, by self-professed Christians as much as anyone—is itself a distraction from the true spirit of the season. So this year, it’s “The Great Christmas Tree Controversy”. The only problem is, there is nothing essentially Christian about a Christmas tree. It’s the right that’s playing semantics here. Newsflash: Jesus was not born under the evergreen. The Old Testament prophet Jeremiah inveighed against the pagan practice of cutting down and decorating trees as a form of idolatry. The puritan fathers called the practice a “pagan mockery”. So, Rev. Falwell, who stole what from whom?

Clearly “holiday tree” is unacceptable precisely because it’s inclusive, and fails to acknowledge the primacy of one tribe over the others. The right’s shrill insistence on institutionalizing religious supremacy is indeed a reflection of tribalization in troubled times. Sure, there’s justifiable fear of the ascendancy of immigrant cultures, with different customs, beliefs, and skin colors. But the right’s rigidity won’t halt their rise. They should take a hint from the tradition they claim as their own, and embrace the Other. 'Tis the season.

Can’t get over the semantics? Here’s a suggestion: I recently came upon an ad for e-cards online, urging me to “get into the Christmahanukwanzakah spirit!” I thought, right on. Why not rename Boston’s “holiday tree” the “Christmahanukwanzakah tree”?


Blogger mmennonno said...

I have a confession to make. I usually don't read the Boston Metro unless I'm in it. But friends tell me when I've written something that's set the op-ed page ablaze. I have heard personally from some people about the Christmahanakwanzakah tree suggestion. No one really seems to like it, alas, so I don't think it's got a chance of getting through City Council.

When my friend Robert emailed to summarize today's "feedback" in the paper--"To be brief: You're a unabomber, you need to check your meds, and you are offensive to the extreme. (2 ltrs) "--I have to admit my interest was piqued, and I went ahead and read them.

One said, in part: "There is no such thing as a Hanukkah or Kwanzaa tree. If we were to call a tree a Hanukkah tree, it would be offensive to Jewish people, so why does he think it is not offensive to mix the word Hanukkah into a description of the Christmas tree? It would be equally offensive to call a menorah a 'Christmas menorah.'"

Because Jews actually have a sense of humor, "Hanukkah tree" would not be as offensive as it would be just outright eye-rollingly ridiculous. I do agree a "Christmas menorah" would be offensive (much more offensive, in fact, than a "Hanukkah tree"), but that's because the menorah is a sacred object. A Christmas tree is not. FOR ONCE AND FOR ALL, THE CHRISTMAS TREE IS NOT A RELIGIOUS SYMBOL, PEOPLE. The menorah IS. And it is an ancient one, central to the story of the Jews with a sacred role in worship. If you don't get the difference, I can't help you.

Now, if you want a Christian symbol, the cross is one. or palm leaves. Or the communion chalice. But as beloved as it is (and I love Chritmas trees with their sparkly lights as much as the next guy), the Christmas tree is not. It has no sacred function, and Christianity was just fine without it for nearly two thousand years. And if *poof* it turned into a "holiday tree" just like that, Christianity would survive utterly unscathed. No doctrinal or liturgical changes would be necessary. Again, it serves no sacred function. Sentimental? Yes. Sacred? No. (And, yes, there's a difference.)

The other ltte must be reproduced in its entirety for the full effect:

"Will someone please check Mike Mennonno’s medication levels? His anti-religion and Christo-phobic rants are sounding more and more like the paranoid manifestos of the Unabomber. Mr. Mennonno should be reminded that the 'culture war crusade' was started by the left’s attack on the definition of marriage, Christmas and the word God. The true fear in today’s changing society comes from Mr. Mennonno and his ilk. The rising tide of immigrants is coming from religious cultures, and that’s a threat to his pagan, politically correct tribe of 3 to 4 percent of the population."

So now I'm a pagan! Groovy! Let's fuck!

No, really, my meds are just fine. At the moment I feel like I'm floating on a sort of pink, feathery wave of good vibrations that smells like Hubba Bubba bubble gum.

I'm not anti-religion, people. Just because I'm anti-your made-up "religion," doesn't mean I'm anti-religion in general. We clear? Right-wingers take note. Christ wasn't one of you. No matter how you twist it, and how hard you hate it, Christ wasn't right-wing. You all seem to have been hoodwinked, and hooked up with, erm, the anti-Christ. An honest enough mistake, I guess.

Just to give you an idea of the kind of twisted shit that's out there being passed off as "Christian," I happened upon a website run by "Got Questions Ministries," that boasts "73,403 Bible Questions Answered!" Everything that is wrong with this counterfeit Christianity can be found on this site, starting with claims like: "With over 700 answers to frequently asked Bible questions published online, approximately 70% of the questions we are asked already have answers available to you instantly." Wouldn't want to actually read the thing and think about it yourself, would you? That would require developing a real sense of conscience, and we don't want that, do we? Not to Jesus-out on you all, but Christ himself spoke in such a way, with parables, that suggests the answers aren't easy, or instant. We're supposed to think about things. Deeply, in fact.

I'd stumbled upon the site after googling "hate the sin, not the sinner." One of's 700 FAQs happens to be "Are we to love the sinner but hate the sin?" And the answer, in part: "Many Christians use the cliché 'Love the sinner, hate the sin.' However, we must realize that this is an exhortation to us as imperfect human beings. The difference between us and God in regard to loving and hating is vast. Even as Christians, we remain imperfect in our humanity and cannot love completely, nor can we hate without malice. But, God can do both of these perfectly well, because He is God! God can hate without any sinful intent at all. Therefore, he can hate the sin and the sinner in a perfectly holy way." Well, that's reassuring. God is hate.

This version of "religion" is really more like a form of mental illness. It reminds me of nothing so much as Kierkegaard's Sickness Unto Death--those who are in despair from not knowing they're in despair. So often this type of personality projects it outward. It's the world that is sinful and sinning against her, and it's her duty to "minister" to the sinners. She is the one shining light of holiness in the office where she works, or the only righteous one on the bus, or the only true believer in Filene's Basement, or Burger King, or wherever she finds herself. This is a flattering picture of oneself, the perfection of hypocrisy.

As for the "culture war," it didn't start with gay marriage. The idea of the American kulturkampf is that on a whole constellation of issues, people fall on one side or the other of all of them, not based on religious affiliation but based on ideology. We know the issues because they have been relentlessly exploited by politicians who use them as "wedges" in election years. James Davison Hunter, in his 1991 book Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America identified the battleground as Progressivism versus Orthodoxy. To say that the left is responsible is either appallingly naive or just pathetically ignorant. It takes two to tango.

Which was partly my point in the piece. The right jumped on this non-story (I mean, call the friggin tree whatever you want) and got the troops all worked up into their customary froth. But the truth is, any Christian worth his salt would have seen through it. Only these counterfeit Christians took the bait. Christ was not a divider. The same can't be said for the Rev. Falwell. His modis operandi is to spread the fear of the Other, and the hatred that always attends such fear (because, remember, God is Hate). He and his followers are flattering themselves thinking they're Christians when, actually, they're doing the devil's work.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

From the Sunday NY Times:

December 4, 2005
Editorial Observer

This Season's War Cry: Commercialize Christmas, or Else


Religious conservatives have a cause this holiday season: the commercialization of Christmas. They're for it.

The American Family Association is leading a boycott of Target for not using the words "Merry Christmas" in its advertising. (Target denies it has an anti-Merry-Christmas policy.) The Catholic League boycotted Wal-Mart in part over the way its Web site treated searches for "Christmas." Bill O'Reilly, the Fox anchor who last year started a "Christmas Under Siege" campaign, has a chart on his Web site of stores that use the phrase "Happy Holidays," along with a poll that asks, "Will you shop at stores that do not say 'Merry Christmas'?"

This campaign - which is being hyped on Fox and conservative talk radio - is an odd one. Christmas remains ubiquitous, and with its celebrators in control of the White House, Congress, the Supreme Court and every state supreme court and legislature, it hardly lacks for powerful supporters. There is also something perverse, when Christians are being jailed for discussing the Bible in Saudi Arabia and slaughtered in Sudan, about spending so much energy on stores that sell "holiday trees."

What is less obvious, though, is that Christmas's self-proclaimed defenders are rewriting the holiday's history. They claim that the "traditional" American Christmas is under attack by what John Gibson, another Fox anchor, calls "professional atheists" and "Christian haters." But America has a complicated history with Christmas, going back to the Puritans, who despised it. What the boycotters are doing is not defending America's Christmas traditions, but creating a new version of the holiday that fits a political agenda.

The Puritans considered Christmas un-Christian, and hoped to keep it out of America. They could not find Dec. 25 in the Bible, their sole source of religious guidance, and insisted that the date derived from Saturnalia, the Roman heathens' wintertime celebration. On their first Dec. 25 in the New World, in 1620, the Puritans worked on building projects and ostentatiously ignored the holiday. From 1659 to 1681 Massachusetts went further, making celebrating Christmas "by forbearing of labor, feasting or in any other way" a crime.

The concern that Christmas distracted from religious piety continued even after Puritanism waned. In 1827, an Episcopal bishop lamented that the Devil had stolen Christmas "and converted it into a day of worldly festivity, shooting and swearing." Throughout the 1800's, many religious leaders were still trying to hold the line. As late as 1855, New York newspapers reported that Presbyterian, Baptist and Methodist churches were closed on Dec. 25 because "they do not accept the day as a Holy One." On the eve of the Civil War, Christmas was recognized in just 18 states.

Christmas gained popularity when it was transformed into a domestic celebration, after the publication of Clement Clarke Moore's "Visit from St. Nicholas" and Thomas Nast's Harper's Weekly drawings, which created the image of a white-bearded Santa who gave gifts to children. The new emphasis lessened religious leaders' worries that the holiday would be given over to drinking and swearing, but it introduced another concern: commercialism. By the 1920's, the retail industry had adopted Christmas as its own, sponsoring annual ceremonies to kick off the "Christmas shopping season."

Religious leaders objected strongly. The Christmas that emerged had an inherent tension: merchants tried to make it about buying, while clergymen tried to keep commerce out. A 1931 Times roundup of Christmas sermons reported a common theme: "the suggestion that Christmas could not survive if Christ were thrust into the background by materialism." A 1953 Methodist sermon broadcast on NBC - typical of countless such sermons - lamented that Christmas had become a "profit-seeking period." This ethic found popular expression in "A Charlie Brown Christmas." In the 1965 TV special, Charlie Brown ignores Lucy's advice to "get the biggest aluminum tree you can find" and her assertion that Christmas is "a big commercial racket," and finds a more spiritual way to observe the day.

This year's Christmas "defenders" are not just tolerating commercialization - they're insisting on it. They are also rewriting Christmas history on another key point: non-Christians' objection to having the holiday forced on them.

The campaign's leaders insist this is a new phenomenon - a "liberal plot," in Mr. Gibson's words. But as early as 1906, the Committee on Elementary Schools in New York City urged that Christmas hymns be banned from the classroom, after a boycott by more than 20,000 Jewish students. In 1946, the Rabbinical Assembly of America declared that calling on Jewish children to sing Christmas carols was "an infringement on their rights as Americans."

Other non-Christians have long expressed similar concerns. For decades, companies have replaced "Christmas parties" with "holiday parties," schools have adopted "winter breaks" instead of "Christmas breaks," and TV stations and stores have used phrases like "Happy Holidays" and "Season's Greetings" out of respect for the nation's religious diversity.

The Christmas that Mr. O'Reilly and his allies are promoting - one closely aligned with retailers, with a smack-down attitude toward nonobservers - fits with their campaign to make America more like a theocracy, with Christian displays on public property and Christian prayer in public schools.

It does not, however, appear to be catching on with the public. That may be because most Americans do not recognize this commercialized, mean-spirited Christmas as their own. Of course, it's not even clear the campaign's leaders really believe in it. Just a few days ago, Fox News's online store was promoting its "Holiday Collection" for shoppers. Among the items offered to put under a "holiday tree" was "The O'Reilly Factor Holiday Ornament." After bloggers pointed this out, Fox changed the "holidays" to "Christmases."

Anonymous Anonymous said...

From the New Yorker (Issue of 2005-12-26 and 2006-01-02, Posted 2005-12-19)

by Hendrik Hertzberg

Chestnuts are roasting on an open fire, with Jack Frost nipping at your nose and folks dressed up like Eskimos—or, to update the line for political correctness, with tots in boots just like Aleuts. It’s that magical season when lights twinkle and good will abounds. It’s time again for the thrill that comes but once a year: the War on Christmas.

The War on Christmas is a little like Santa Claus, in that it (a) comes to us from the sky, beamed down by the satellites of cable news, and (b) does not, in the boringly empirical sense, exist. What does exist is the idea of the War on Christmas, which, though forever new, is a venerable tradition, older even than strip malls and plastic mistletoe. Christmas itself, in something like its recognizably modern form, with gifts and cards and elves, dates from the early nineteenth century. The War on Christmas seems to have come along around a hundred years later, with the publication of “The International Jew,” by Henry Ford, the automobile magnate, whom fate later punished by arranging to have his fortune diverted to the sappy, do-gooder Ford Foundation. “It is not religious tolerance in the midst of religious difference, but religious attack that they”—the Jews—“preach and practice,” he wrote. “The whole record of the Jewish opposition to Christmas, Easter and certain patriotic songs shows that.” Ford’s anti-Semitism has not aged well, thanks to the later excesses of its European adherents, but by drawing a connection between Christmasbashing and patriotism-scorning he pointed the way for future Christmas warriors.

Over the next few decades, when the country was preoccupied with the Depression, the Second World War, and going to movies like “It’s a Wonderful Life,” the W. on C. went into remission. But at the end of the placid nineteen-fifties the John Birch Society, a pioneering organization of the bug-eyed right, took up the Yuletide cudgels. As Michelle Goldberg recalled recently in Salon, a 1959 Birch pamphlet warned that “the Reds” and “the U.N. fanatics” had launched an “assault on Christmas” as “part of a much broader plan, not only to promote the U.N., but to destroy all religious beliefs and customs.” The enemy’s strategy, the Birchers warned, was to aim at the soft underbelly and shake it like a bowlful of jelly. “What they now want to put over on the American people is simply this: Department stores throughout the country are to utilize U.N. symbols and emblems as Christmas decorations.” The focus on department stores was a prophetic insight, but its full potential as a weapon in Christmas war-fighting was not realized until the next century.

Today’s Christmas Pentagon is the Fox News Channel, which during a recent five-day period carried no fewer than fifty-eight different segments about the ongoing struggle, some of them labelled “Christmas under attack.” One of Fox’s on-air warriors is John Gibson, whose new book, “The War on Christmas: How the Liberal Plot to Ban the Sacred Christian Holiday Is Worse Than You Thought,” presents itself as the definitive word. So one opens it eagerly with hopes of learning what this war actually consists of. These hopes are soon dashed—or, rather, fulfilled, since it turns out to consist of very little. Gibson provides a half-dozen or so anecdotes, padded out to stupefying length, in which a school board or a city hall renames its Christmas break a winter break or declines to rename its winter break a Christmas break, or removes Christmas trees from the lobbies of government buildings and then restores them after people complain. “The war on Christmas,” the author concludes triumphantly, “is joined.”

Gibson is a mere grunt in Fox’s army. Bill O’Reilly, the network’s most prominent religio-political commentator, is its Patton. The shortage of anti-Christmas atrocities (plus the fact that the U.N. fanatics long ago switched to subverting Halloween) may explain why he has concentrated on department stores, many of which, in their ads or via their salespeople, wish people “Happy Holidays” instead of—or in addition to, or more frequently than—“Merry Christmas.” (In 1921, Henry Ford attacked from the opposite flank, sneering that “the strange inconsistency of it all is to see the great department stores of the Levys and the Isaacs and the Goldsteins and the Silvermans filled with brilliant Christmas cheer.”)

O’Reilly sat out Vietnam. In the war on the War on Christmas, however, he not only has been in the trenches but has gone over the top. “I am not going to let oppressive, totalitarian, anti-Christian forces in this country diminish and denigrate the holiday!” he said the other day. And, “I’m going to use all the power that I have on radio and television to bring horror into the world of people who are trying to do that!” And, “There is no reason on this earth that all of us cannot celebrate a public holiday devoted to generosity, peace, and love together!” And, “And anyone who tries to stop us from doing it is gonna face me!”

O’Reilly sees the War on Christmas as part of the “secular progressive agenda,” because “if you can get religion out, then you can pass secular progressive programs like legalization of narcotics, euthanasia, abortion at will, gay marriage.” Just as Christmas itself evolved as a way to synthesize a variety of winter festivals, so the War on Christmas fantasy is a way of grouping together a variety of enemies, where they can all be rhetorically machine-gunned at once. But the suspicion remains that a truer explanation for Fox’s militancy may be, like so much else at Yuletide, business. Christmas is the big retail season. What Fox retails is resentment.

In this war, no weapons of Christmas destruction have been found—just a few caches of linguistic oversensitivity and commercial caution. Christmas remains robust: even Gibson says in his book that in America Christmas celebrators (ninety-six per cent) outnumber Christians (eighty-four per cent). But the “Happy Holidays” contagion has probably spread too far to be wiped out. “President Bush and I wish everyone a very happy holiday,” Laura Bush says sweetly on a video posted on the White House Web site. And even the Fox News online store advertised, until a couple of weeks ago, “The O’Reilly Factor Holiday Ornament.” (“Put your holiday tree in ‘The No Spin Zone.’ ”)

John Lennon, who died in this city, at this season, twenty-five years ago, didn’t bother with “Happy Holidays” and the like. In 1971, he and his wife, Yoko Ono, wrote and recorded a song that has become a classic. Here’s its final verse:

A very Merry Christmas
And a happy New Year
Let’s hope it’s a good one
Without any fear
War is over, if you want it
War is over now.

That’s the spirit, John. You bet we want it. And Merry Christmas to all.


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