This Saturday many of us will be celebrating Christmas. To my readers I offer a heartfelt “Merry Christmas”, “Happy Hanukkah”, “Cheerful Kwanzaa”, “Joyous Solstice”, “Felicitous Festivus” (Serenity Now!), “Have a nice Saturday” or whatever words you choose to join in the celebration of the love of friends and family and gratitude for your blessings this season. I prefer the old fashioned “Merry Christmas”, which often surprises people when they discover I’m an atheist. Loyal readers will know, however, that I’m no ordinary atheist; I am A Positive Christian Atheist.
As A Positive Christian Atheist, I take to heart all of the teachings of the ancient philosopher known as Jesus Christ. The bronze-skinned, nappy-headed carpenter from Nazareth taught us about the Truths of Humanity – that we should love our neighbor as we love ourselves, that we should judge not lest we be judged, that we should turn the other cheek, that the meek will inherit the earth, that we should not be vengeful, and that we are all equal in blessings and rights. So why wouldn’t I celebrate this man’s birthday?
(You did know that Jesus wasn’t the straight brown-haired, Anglo-skinned, Aquiline-nosed, blue-eyed Savior from the paintings, right? I think the Anglo Jesus would have really stood out among all the dark-curly-haired, olive-skinned, large-nosed, brown-eyed people of the Middle East. So much so that Judas would not have had to point him out of a crowd to the Romans who came to arrest him. But I digress…)
Of course, Jesus wasn’t the only man to discover some of the Truths of Humanity – Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha), Mohammed (the Prophet), Mahatma Gandhi, Thomas Jefferson, Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, Mother Theresa, and many others have all championed the Truths of Humanity to some degree. However, it is the Christmas season, and if we celebrated every birthday of every person who made humanity a little bit better, we’d have as many days off from work as the Europeans. So we’ll just stick with Jesus and his birthday for now, lest our productivity plummet and the American worker and the dollar fall even farther behind those six-weeks-off-per-year Europeans and their Euro.
Actually, it’s just the Winter Solstice (the shortest daylight period of the year in the Northern Hemisphere), celebrated as the “Saturnalia” by the party-hearty pagans of ancient times, which was unacceptable to the Christians of the time. Rather than try and likely fail to cancel “Saturnalia”, the Christians decided to celebrate Christ’s mid-springtime birth during “Saturnalia”, and thus “Christmas” was born. It’s really quite a miracle of marketing and re-branding when you think about it. Imagine re-christening a Fort Lauderdale Spring Break Wet T-Shirt Contest as an Easter Resurrection Rebaptismal Ceremony, then stopping by 2000 years later to find Floridians decorating palm trees with breast-shaped blinking lights and hanging sheer white cotton T-shirts over the mantle, waiting for a visit from Busty Claus in her Flying Corvette pulled by eight bosomy nymphettes.
OK, stop imagining that. Let’s get back to our “Merry Christmas” discussion, or as seen on crowded reader boards, “Merry Xmas”. By the way, those of you Christians who dislike the “X” in “Xmas” – “don’t ‘X’ out Christ this Christmas”, you wail – have only your earliest followers to blame. The early Christians would identify themselves with the symbol of the fish and the Greek letters for “fish” (IXΘYΣ) were a secret message (I=Jesus, X=Christ, Θ=God’s, Y=Son, Σ=Savior) about Jesus. The Greek letter chi (or “X”) is the first letter in “Christ” when written in Greek. Your own ancestors were abbreviating “Jesus” as “X” long before Christmas existed! Blame the ancient Christians or blame the makers of small reader boards, but leave the heathens out of it.
The primary differences between me and the garden-variety Christian types is that I put no faith in the deification of Jesus; in fact, I put no faith into the existence of deity at all. There is no God; there is only a need for humans, beset by forces they cannot comprehend, to anthropomorphize the unknowable. And, in typical self-aggrandizing human fashion, a tendency to put humanity at the center of God’s creation, created in the very likeness of God, special above all the other mega-giga-tera-gajillion other things in the universe. We’re God’s special people, we live in the best land on the planet, our God is the right God, our way is the right way… sound like any presidents or terrorists you know of?
Santa Claus and God serve much the same purpose, too. He knows when you are sleeping, he knows when you’re awake, he knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake. That pretty much describes both of them. He’s making a list, checking it twice, gonna find out who’s naughty or nice. Are you sensing a pattern here? An omniscient father figure who will grant you great gifts if you behave or foul rewards (if he visits you at all) if you misbehave. Even the typical foul reward – a lump of coal in your stocking – has a satanic brimstone-like quality to it. As for me, I don’t believe in either Santa Claus or God. For the first belief I’m considered a well-adjusted normal adult; for the second belief I’m identified as an amoral libertine heretic. I assure you I am none of these things, except perhaps “adult”, if by adult you mean “over 21 years of age”.
While I do celebrate the Christmas holiday, there are some standard Christmas traditions that I cannot abide. I’ve never liked Christmas trees. I can’t understand the need to take a perfectly good living tree and kill it to create a bone-dry, needle-dropping, fire hazard of a mess. Maybe it is just because I’ve always lived with cats that saw Christmas trees as their own personal Everest and Christmas ornaments as abominations that must be destroyed. Maybe it was those Christmas tree lights I tried to plug in as a five-year-old that shocked my curious ass halfway across the living room. Maybe it was that year my mother wept about the poverty that denied our purchase of a Christmas tree, so much that my brother and I went to the fields outside and captured the largest tumbleweed we could find, brought it in the house, and decorated it with all the Christmas ornaments and lights, which made Mom cry again. I’m not necessarily against O Tannenbaum, but now there are fabulous, reusable artificial trees to be decorated that don’t leave needles everywhere. Take that money you spend on a new tree each year and drop it in the Salvation Army bell-ringer’s kettle.
Ah, the bell-ringers. This has been another Christmas favorite under siege, with Target becoming one of the latest stores to ban the noisy charity from their doorstep. Here’s a situation that mirrors so much about Christmas and Christianity. Everybody appreciates the Salvation Army and the work they do. Most people are very giving and have no problem donating to the bell-ringers. And really, nobody really minds the occasional “ringy-dingy” of the hand bell the solicitor rings.
It’s that constant, over-bearing, never-subsiding “ringy dingy ringy dingy ringy dingy ringy dingy ringy dingy ringy dingy” that most people find offensive. Yes, we heard your bell, yes, we know you’re taking donations for charity. Could you maybe just give it a jingle every now and then when there’s a fresh face to see? I’ll bet it wasn’t even Target’s shoppers that complained. I’ll bet it was the overworked minimum-wage, poor-benefits cashiers near the door who are already burdened with irate Christmas shoppers, malfunctioning scanners, and half the staff calling in “sick”.
It’s like that Born Again™ family member or co-worker you know who just can’t stop talking about Jesus. Everything is Jesus, Jesus-this, Jesus-that, praise Jesus, thank Jesus, God’s will, God’s plan, grace of God, ringy dingy ringy dingy ringy dingy. Yes, we get it, you’re a Christian. Could you maybe save your shout-outs to Jesus for strictly religious discussions? An extra lump of coal goes out to those athletes who thank Jesus for their performances. Yeah, when God isn’t too busy negotiating the complex interactions between two colliding spiral galaxies, he’s blessing you with the skill to catch that last-second touchdown pass against the Dolphins. Two extra lumps of coal go out to all those hip-hop stars wearing Lincoln-log-sized diamond-encrusted platinum crosses. Jesus was all about wearing exorbitant iconic Roman-torture-device bling-bling to prove to the shorties you’re rich enough to fuck.
Then there is the Better Homes & Gardens version of Christmas bling-bling: the house decorated with Christmas lights. Personally, I think the money spent on the electricity necessary to decorate your house with thousands of tiny lights would be better directed toward helping to pay the electric bills of the needy. But hey, what are a few extra watts when it comes to keeping up with all the other houses on your block and quieting the nagging of your children? The poor can always just light a candle and put on a sweater they got from the Salvation Army bell-ringers.
It wouldn’t be so offensive if folks would string up a few lights. I don’t have a problem with a few lawn decorations or a nativity scene, either. But then every year there’s the showdown with the guy who must outdo all his neighbors. I’m sure you have this guy in your town – lights in every conceivable nook and cranny of his house and yard, full-scale Santa and reindeer on the roof, animatronic nativity scene, using more kilowatts and producing more candlepower than Caesars Palace. I was going to cut-and-paste the details from a news story about such a freak who is disrupting his neighborhood’s traffic and annoying the neighbors near him who don’t wish to live near the lights of a Las Vegas casino, but after I paged through Google’s first ten hits on the subject, I figured you could just find an exemplary case on your own evening news.
One bit of Christmas lights news, though, that’s not your typical neighborhood squabble. Out on the island of Cuba, we’re trying to negotiate a 100 million dollar food and agriculture deal. Meanwhile, that nation’s government has begun major military war games as a warning to the United States not to attempt an invasion. (I wonder why Cuba thinks we’d disregard forty years of détente in favor of an unprovoked, pre-emptive invasion against a powerless enemy. That’s not a very Christmas-like sentiment, Fidel.) So in order to promote Christmas cheer, the US mission in Cuba put up a whole bunch of Christmas lights, and in the center they put up a large neon “75”, meant to highlight 75 dissidents rounded up and jailed by the Castro regime. The Cuban government is demanding the removal of the “75” display, the mission is refusing. I’m no fan of Castro and I’m all for the right to dissent, but it seems to me displaying a big neon “you suck” sign is not the best way to keep the peace or negotiate a food deal, and it’s certainly not in the spirit of Christmas.
The funnier bit of Christmas decoration news comes from England, where Madame Toussaud’s Wax Museum made a nativity scene with celebrities standing in for the Biblical figures. I thought it was a brilliant piece of art designed to poke fun not at the birth of Jesus, but rather the extreme to which we take the worship of celebrity. However, many people were offended by David Beckham and Posh Spice as Joseph and Mary. Come on, how could anyone have taken this so seriously? Tony Blair and George W. Bush were offered up as two of the Three Wise Men – it’s obviously a joke.
When you’re talking about people who believe in the literal truth of the Bible, complete with the inherent self-contradictions, defiance of physics and biology, and supernatural phenomena, there is no room for joking. Something seen as coincidental, funny, or silly to A Positive Christian Atheist takes on the stature of a divine miracle or obscene blasphemy. Take for example the appearance of the Virgin Mary on a partially-eaten toasted cheese sandwich. A normal person would say that the random cooking of butter on bread led to a pattern with a faint resemblance to a person. But a person filled with the Holy Spirit would not only see an apparition of the Holy Mother, but would pay thousands of dollars on eBay to own the sacred sandwich.
It’s not really a problem when fanatic Christians start seeing Jesus’ mom in their lunch. To each their own – you could give those thousands to the Salvation Army bell-ringer or you could buy a half-eaten holy sandwich on an internet auction. The problem I have with the fanatics is that it is so hard to draw a line between harmless religious fervor and sociopathic delusion. For every religious zealot that hears God telling them to protest an abortion clinic in Missouri, there’s another religious zealot setting off a car bomb in Mosul. Behavior that would get you institutionalized in the real world – speaking in tongues, handling deadly serpents, killing innocents in the name of God – is behavior revered as holy in some sects.
However, Christmas is mostly now a secular holiday, dedicated to the American Capitalist mantra of “Shop ‘Til You Drop.” This year we find that luxury retailers are doing some great business hocking heated leather massage chairs and automated executive putting green practice mats, but traditional low-end retailers like Wal-Mart are seeing a drop in holiday sales. This, of course, is shocking news to the Bush Administration, since the vast majority of their tax cuts went to the lower and middle-classes, while the top 1% is just barely squeaking by under the oppressive nature of progressive taxation. (Sarcasm, though, is trading at an all-time high.)
I like most of Christmas. I like wrapping presents, watching children rip them open, putting up stockings, watching the Christmas TV specials, the gathering of families, traditional Christmas dinners and desserts, and even hearing the same damn fifty-seven Christmas songs every damn year that I had to play every damn day in band since the age of eleven. And as long as you’re not decorating your house to be visible from outer space, lecturing me about the “X” in “Xmas”, or demanding that Christian nativity scenes be placed on public-owned property, I like most of your Christmas, too.
Oh, I almost forgot: what’s with Egg Nog? I suggest that one should be very suspicious of any drink with eggs in it, and more suspicious if this drink is only offered at one time of the year. If Egg Nog were any good, you could get it all the time. Hell, if it was any good, Coke and Pepsi would be marketing competing versions of Egg Nog. In fact, just to be safe, stay away from all forms of Nog.
Merry Christmas / Happy Hanukkah / Felicitous Festivus to all of you.