Benjamin Franklin recognized the importance of regularly focusing one’s attention on ethical conduct rather than the usual non-ethical goals, needs, desires and impulses that occupy the thoughts of even the most virtuous among us. He suggested that every morning an individual should challenge himself to do good during the day. In the 21st century psychologists call this “priming,” a form of beneficial self-brain-washing that plants the seeds of future choices.
The Christmas season operates as an effective form of mass population priming, using tradition, lore, music, poetry, ritual, literature, art and entertainment to celebrate basic ethical virtues and exemplary conduct toward other human beings. Kindness, love, forgiveness, empathy, generosity, charity, sacrifice, selflessness, respect, caring, peacefulness…all of these are part of the message of Christmas, which has become more universal and influential in its societal and behavioral importance than its religious origins could have ever accomplished alone. Secular and cultural contributions have greatly strengthened the ethical lessons of Christmas. “It’s A Wonderful Life” urges us to value our ability to enrich the lives of others, and to appreciate the way they enrich ours. “A Christmas Story” reminds us to make childhood a magical time when wishes can come true. O. Henry’s story “The Gift of the Magi” proves that it is not the value of gifts, but the love that motivates them that truly matters. Most powerful of all, Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” teaches that the admirable conduct the spirit of the season can inspire need not be short-lived, and that if we use Christmas properly, as Ben Franklin used his morning exhortation to good conduct, it can make all of us better, happier, more virtuous human beings.
At this point in civilization, the religious context of Christmas almost does more harm than good. Though the day chosen to celebrate Jesus of Nazareth’s birthday has been spectacularly successful in promoting the ethical and moral ideals he taught, the idea that Christmas is indistinguishable from the religion he founded has made it the object of yearly controversy, as if celebrating Christmas is an affront to other faiths. This is a tragedy, because every human being, regardless of religious belief, can benefit from a culture-wide exhortation to be good and to do good. “Happy Holidays!”—the bland, generic greeting of those afraid to offend those who should not be offended—does nothing to spur us toward love, kindness, peace and empathy. “Merry Christmas!” does. This is not just a religious holiday; it is the culture-wide ethical holiday, the time when everything should be aligned to remind us to take stock of our lives, think about everyone else who lives on earth with us, and to try to live for others as well as ourselves. Christians should be proud that their religion gave such a valuable gift to humanity, and non-Christians should be eager to accept it.
It is foolish and self-destructive for there to be a “war on Christmas.” Charles Dickens understood. T there is hardly a word about religion anywhere in his story. Christmas is the ethical holiday. Christians can and should celebrate it as they choose, but whether they do or not, the Christmas season is more important than any one religion, even the one that gives the holiday its name.
It is important because it primes us to be good. There should be nothing controversial about that.