Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Season's Good Will Takes Back Seat to Petty Controversy (December 15, 2005)


 It's the holiday season once again, but instead of rekindling good cheer and a festive mood, a few sanctimonious malcontents can't resist reviving a controversy that undercuts the holiday spirit.
Yeah, that's right, I wrote holiday spirit, not Christmas spirit! If you have a problem with that, please write a rational letter to the editor!
To tens of millions of Christians around the world, Christmas is a serious, yet festive, holiday that observes the birth of their Savior. Yet, even Christianity has different sects and branches with distinctions that don't necessarily observe Christmas in identical fashions. However, we do not live in a Christian world, and above all, we do not live in an exclusively Christian nation, so substituting the generic "Happy Holidays" for "Merry Christmas" in some instances is appropriate and harmless, not an assault on Christmas by grinches and scrooges, as some zealots would lead us to believe.
How Christmas has become so controversial over the last few years is puzzling and rather thought provoking. On the other hand, it just seems like another determined effort by influential conservatives to Christianize America when the notion of a national religion undermines the essence of our country.
One of the chief reasons Europeans fled to America centuries ago was to escape religious persecution. Therefore, when the Founding Fathers created the core principles to govern the new nation, they guaranteed individuals protection of religious expression, whether one is Catholic, Protestant, Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, Druid or Atheist. (The latter, of course, faithfully avoid practicing any religion, which, unfortunately, leaves them without any holidays.) This fundamental protection was for individuals, not the government, which is supposed to be nonaligned with any specific religion.
Conservative groups lead crusades urging that Christmas displays in public places should include mangers, adding that the ACLU, by opposing such exhibits, undermines "our religious heritage." To whose heritage are they referring, because federal, state and local governments have always been secular and unattached? Our political leaders' religions are public knowledge, but they seldom display their beliefs for fear of isolating supporters who follow different faiths.
Some groups have also called for boycotts of businesses that display "Happy Holidays" signage instead of "Merry Christmas." Perhaps religious zealots steeped in the controversy would be wiser to condemn Christmas' far-reaching commercialization rather than denounce a neutral and prudent business option. They might even consider turning the other cheek and stop trying to impose their values on the rest of us, who may or may not give a "ho, ho, ho."
Recently, William Donohue, president of the Catholic League criticized the White House for sending out holiday cards that never use the word "Christmas," in deference to other faiths that celebrate at this time of year. What took him so long? Since 1992, long before this chapter in the ongoing culture wars made news, holiday cards from the First Family have read "Happy Holidays" or "Seasons Greetings," not "Merry Christmas," so no one in this melting pot-nation is excluded.
Hereabouts, political correctness is evident with an electric sign on the eastbound side of the Belt Parkway between Knapp Street and Flatbush Avenue that reads "Happy Holidays" from the NYPD Highway Patrol, a division of the New York City government. To my knowledge, passing drivers have yet to object.
As a Jew, I don't celebrate the religious aspect of the holiday, but I do distribute Christmas gifts to Christian friends and co-workers. I usually greet people around this time of year with "Have a happy and healthy holiday." It's innocuous and inoffensive. Though my parents commemorated Hanukkah every year, I recall sometimes getting presents on Christmas Day. Perhaps, like this year, the holidays overlapped. I never questioned the practice presumably because, as a child, getting presents was the overriding factor. (For those unfamiliar with Hanukkah customs, it is similar to Christmas in that lights and gifts are a significant part of its tradition.) When I was married to a non-committed Catholic woman, every December we had a Christmas tree (to me it was a Hanukkah bush) and placed a Star of David at the top. Even my Jewish mother got a kick out of that!
While government property should be devoid of religious symbols, some feel a Christmas tree - sans a manger display - and Hanukkah menorah should be exceptions around the December holidays. However, others object to even that inclusion, demanding equal representation during their respective holidays.
Moreover, isn't one's faith ultimately more important than how one celebrates a religious holiday with pagan roots? Some people in New York City undoubtedly look forward to religious holidays simply because alternate side of the street parking is suspended for the day!
Maybe the sensible way to resolve this inane conflict would be to adhere to the principle of Frank Constanza, a character from the "Seinfeld" sitcom, who, in reaction to the commercialization of Christmas, created "Festivus," a holiday for the rest of us and, now perhaps, for those who find the controversy over Christmas a silly, waste of time.
To the readers of this column who do and don't cling to tradition - SEASONS GREETINGS, HAPPY HOLIDAYS, MERRY CHRISTMAS, HAPPY HANUKKAH, HAPPY KWANZAA and a HEALTHY, HAPPY NEW YEAR!