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Happy December


There’s a saying among lib-eral theists: “Tell me what sort of God you don’t believe in; I probably don’t believe in him either.” This goes along with the idea that there are as many different kinds of atheists as there are religions they were raised in, each specifically rejecting a very particular sort of god or gods. (I think there are also some straight raised-that-way atheists, but hey, that just adds to the variety.)

This is on my mind recently not so much because I’m particularly worked up about the existence of deity, but because it seems to be parallel to the number of types of scrooges out there who come out for the month of December, each reacting to their own personal demons.

There are the ones who don’t like mentions of solstice or Kwanzaa because they seem contrived or new-agey. There are the ones who gripe about the elevation of the relatively minor Jewish holiday of Hanukkah to the status of practically the only one non-Jews have heard of, merely because of its proximity to Christmas. There are the ones who can’t stand any mention of anything Christmas-related and the others hollering bloody murder at modest attempts to be religiously inclusive like the phrase “Happy Holidays.”

There are the ones who consider the December holidays a strict list of obligations to fulfill: cards by a certain date, the savings account drained to buy the latest toy that is hot due to manufacturer-enforced scarcity, the present at least as expensive as what other family members will be giving. And there are the ones who take their frustration with the decorations up before Thanksgiving, the listing of remaining shopping days, the pilgrimages to the mall, etc. as license to dismiss the whole season as a trumped-up excuse to support capitalist excess.

Finally, there are the ones who try to rush public business, hearings, and big legislative decisions in lame-duck sessions when the public is usually otherwise occupied.

To all of these scrooges (and the parts of me that are inclined toward several of them now and again) I have to say, bah humbug.

There are some serious problems with the way we do December, it’s true. Through my work for a few articles this fall and conversations with friends in social services, it has dawned through my thick skull that programs like Toys for Tots really go deeper than just making sure poor kids don’t feel deprived of gifts on Christmas morning, while ignoring the more difficult problems they face year-round. These programs also take the pressure off poor parents who might otherwise forgo career or education plans for some quick cash, be tempted by illegal sources of money, get themselves into serious debt, or at the least take on a second or third seasonal job and not get to spend any quality time with their families. That’s some deeply needed good work.

And reconciling an enjoyment of gift-giving with the financial and time strain continues to cast a pall of anxiety for many not-exactly-poor families over what should be joyful times.

But I actually think there are a lot of things that many of us are doing pretty well with the season. We’ve managed to hold on to an ancient tradition of a season of feasting and partying. We gather with family, contribute to charity, and tell stories—be they as scripture, myth, allegory, or natural history. There is more public-sphere activity, from lights on telephone poles to First Night.

There are traditions. They often involve music—the Messiah, Klezmer fest, Nowell Sing We Clear, caroling (it still happens some places), albums passed down through generations. They also involve decorating, food (from-scratch egg nog, cookies, latkes), and ritual, religious or otherwise. They don’t have to be 2,000 years old (and very few that are still around are quite that old—except the ones that are much older) to engender a sense of connection to a larger seasonal mythos.

As a kid, I was awfully attached to our December traditions, right down to the betting on which menorah candle would go out first, the drive around town already in my pajamas to look at people’s holiday lights, and the one and only one Christmas present to be opened before breakfast. I hear from others that this kind of attachment is pretty common.

These days I find myself more flexible, but still enjoying the little strokes of tradition that mark the month as a time set apart. The separate stack of holiday music that we play only from the beginning of Advent to Epiphany. Walking home from Lincoln Park with a tree, and gathering people to decorate it that night. The Wassail singing party. The in-laws’ fudge.

It may be concentrated and overwhelming. . . . Scratch that. It is concentrated and overwhelming to have real life and all this festiveness coexisting. But nonetheless, an extended period of time that’s even sort-of set aside for merry-making, thinking about miracles and light returning, and paying attention to being good to other folks in our lives qualifies as a Good Thing in my book. Although that’s perhaps only easy to say because I’m ignoring my undone shopping.

—Miriam Axel-Lute

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