I don’t know what perverted instinct it is that has persuaded colleges and schools to make their campuses a Christmas-free experience. Nor can I get into the scrimy and misguided minds of people like Roselle Park New Jersey Councilwoman Charlene Storey, who resigned over the city council’s decision to call its Christmas tree lighting a Christmas Tree Lighting, pouting that this wasn’t “inclusive,” or the CNN goon who dictated the bizarre policy that the Christmas Party shot up by the husband-wife Muslim terrorists had to be called a “Holiday Party.” Christmas, as the cultural tradition it evolved to be, is about inclusion, and if someone feels excluded, they are excluding themselves. Is it the name that is so forbidding? Well, too bad. That’s its name, not “holiday.” Arbor Day is a holiday. Christmas is a state of mind. [The Ethics Alarms Christmas posts are here.]
Many years ago, I lost a friend over a workplace dispute on this topic, when a colleague and fellow executive at a large Washington foundation threw a fit of indignation over the designation of the headquarters party as a Christmas party, and the gift exchange (yes, it was stupid) as “Christmas Elves.” Marcia was Jewish, and a militant unionist, pro-abortion, feminist, all-liberal all-the-time activist of considerable power and passion. She cowed our pusillanimous, spineless executive to re-name the party a “holiday party” and the gift giving “Holiday Pixies,” whatever the hell they are.
I told Marcia straight out that she was wrong, and that people like her were harming the culture. Christmas practiced in the workplace, streets, schools and the rest is a cultural holiday of immense value to everyone open enough to experience it, and I told her to read “A Christmas Carol” again. Dickens got it, Scrooge got it, and there was no reason that the time of year culturally assigned by tradition to re-establish our best instincts of love, kindness, gratitude, empathy, charity and generosity should be attacked, shunned or avoided as any kind of religious indoctrination or “government endorsement of religion.” Jews, Muslims, atheists and Mayans who take part in a secular Christmas and all of its traditions—including the Christmas carols and the Christian traditions of the star, the manger and the rest, lose nothing, and gain a great deal. Christmas is supposed to bring everyone in a society together after the conflicts of the past years have pulled them apart, What could possibly be objectionable to that? What could be more important than that, especially in these especially divisive times? How could it possibly be responsible, sensible or ethical to try to sabotage such a benign, healing, joyful tradition and weaken it in our culture, when we need it most?
I liked and respected Marcia, but I deplore the negative and corrosive effect people like her have had on Christmas, and as a result, the strength of American community. I told her so too, and that was the end of that friendship. Killing America’s strong embrace of Christmas is a terrible, damaging, self-destructive activity, but it us well underway. I wrote about how the process was advancing here, and re-reading what I wrote, I can only see the phenomenon deepening, and hardening like Scrooge’s pre-ghost heart. Then I said…
Christmas just feels half-hearted, uncertain, unenthusiastic now. Forced. Dying.
It was a season culminating in a day in which a whole culture, or most of it, engaged in loving deeds, celebrated ethical values, thought the best of their neighbors and species, and tried to make each other happy and hopeful, and perhaps reverent and whimsical too. I think it was a healthy phenomenon, and I think we will be the worse for its demise. All of us…even those who have worked so diligently and self-righteously to bring it to this diminished state.
Resuscitating and revitalizing Christmas in our nation’s heart will take more than three ghosts, and will require overcoming political correctness maniacs, victim-mongers and cultural bullies; a timid and dim-witted media, and spineless management everywhere. It is still worth fighting for.
More than five years ago, Ethics Alarms laid out a battle plan to resist the anti-Christmas crush, which this year is already underway. Nobody was reading the blog then; more are now. Here is the post:
Yes, it has come to this. The period between Thanksgiving and Christmas season is a pre-unethical condition, getting worse every year. (Pre-unethical conditions are situations that experience teaches us deserve early ethics alarms, since the stage is set for habitual bad conduct.) The financial stresses on the public and the business community in 2010 will only fuel the creeping tendency to ignore the moral and ethical values that are supposed to underlie the winter holidays—charity, gratitude, generosity, kindness, love, forgiveness, peace and hope—for the non-ethical considerations that traditionally battle them for supremacy: avarice, selfishness, greed, self-pity, and cynicism. Combine this with the ideological and political polarization in today’s America and the deterioration of mutual respect and civility, and the days approaching Christmas are likely to become an ethical nightmare…unless we work collectively to stop that from happening.
Retail stores set the standard, as they have for a couple of years now, by abandoning the Thanksgiving tradition of leaving one day for employees and the rest of the public to gather with their families in faith, gratitude, or just the spirit of love and fellowship. Millions of Americans were willing to chuck the symbolic values of Thanksgiving to be sure to get bargain prices on wide-screen TV’s and videogames. Next came the line-jumpers, the fights over merchandise, and the near riots. People who had just arrived for a Black Friday Toys ‘R’ Us sale in Wisconsin charged ahead of a line that had waited hours, causing a stampede (Ethics tip: if you are going to hold such a sale, it is irresponsible bordering on criminal not to have crowd control measures in place outside the store).
Charity? As discussed here, various chains have decided to ban or severely limit seasonal charities’ on-premises solicitations, in accommodating customers who found them annoying. Those customers are the early troops of the large army of holiday spoilers, including the parents who threaten to sue schools who have students singing “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” or reading “The Night Before Christmas,” and who regard “Merry Christmas!” as a politically incorrect greeting, as well as the Christmas warriors who are determined to make community governments miserable by fighting to have manger scenes in the town square.
Add to them the whimsy-challenged fun-vandals, often grade school teachers, who feel it is their mission in life to make sure no child over the age of four believes in Santa Claus, and the soul-dead radio programmers, who have collectively decided that traditional Christmas carols, some of the loveliest music in the Western canon, are controversial and should be dumped in favor of endless versions of “Santa Baby,” “Blue Christmas,” and “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer.”
Our ethics alarms should be ringing as loud as sleigh bells. Every one of us, regardless of our religious beliefs, should remind ourselves that this time of year that causes so many people to succumb to despair, combativeness and selfishness is also an opportunity to embrace, re-establish and celebrate ethical values. Make a pledge to be cheerful and forgiving, even when we are provoked. Let’s not start arguments; let’s end them. Try to make others happy—not just those we want to impress or owe something to, but as many people as we can, strangers and friends alike. Use the season as an excuse to heal old grievances, and revive damaged friendships.
Give something, anything, to someone in need. Show the mail carrier, the 7-11 clerk, and all those people you deal with throughout the year that they aren’t just faceless props to you, but a part of your life.
Read the Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (you can find a link to it on Ethics Alarms), out loud if possible. Watch a “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” “A Christmas Story,” “It’s a Wonderful Life,” and “The Homecoming.” Listen to Nat, Gene, Dean and Burl. Hear Bing sing “White Christmas,”of course, and remember that the song was written by a Jew, Irving Berlin, who celebrated the holiday because of the virtues it symbolized, and because he wanted his children to share in the cultural experience.
Most of all, like Irving, try to find ways to make the holidays magical for children. One inspiring role model is Alek O. Komarnitsky, who combines a Christmas light display that can be controlled by visitors to his website with fundraising on behalf of Celiac disease research. [ NOTE: Alex retired his tradition 2014, sadly.]
It is hard, very hard, to think about doing the right thing every day, all year long. Having one season that focuses our attention, through music, stories, movies, literature, traditions and memories, on being the best we can be to everyone is a gift to civilization and the species. Let’s not let it slip away, and become an ugly time that brings out our basest instincts.
The ethics alarms are ringing.
That same year, I elaborated on the point that Christmas is an ethical holiday, and critical to the mission of creating and preserving an ethical society and culture. This post also bears re-publishing. Here it is:
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. 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.
Maybe I’ll be able to report on a Christmas revival in a few years. If I can, I guarantee that we’ll have a happier, more ethical nation too.