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
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.