Reflections On The Ethical Holiday



“Christmas is built upon a beautiful and intentional paradox; that the birth of the homeless should be celebrated in every home.”

—G.K. Chesterton.

“It’s Christmas Eve. It’s the one night of the year when we all act a little nicer, we smile a little easier, we cheer a little more. For a couple of hours out of the whole year we are the people that we always hoped we would be.”

— Frank Cross (Bill Murray) in “Scrooged”

CHARLIE BROWN: I guess you were right, Linus. I shouldn’t have picked this little tree. Everything I do turns into a disaster. I guess I really don’t know what Christmas is all about. Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?

LINUS: Sure, Charlie Brown. I can tell you what Christmas is all about.  Lights, please?

“And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flocks by night. And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them. And they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, ‘Fear not, for behold, I bring you tidings of great joy which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the City of David a savior, which is Christ the Lord.’ And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on Earth peace, goodwill toward men.’”

That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.

—Charles M. Schulz

“Our hearts grow tender with childhood memories and love of kindred, and we are better throughout the year for having, in spirit, become a child again at Christmas-time.”

― Laura Ingalls Wilder

“Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before! What if Christmas, he thought, doesn’t come from a store. What if Christmas…perhaps…means a little bit more!”

― Dr. Seuss, “How the Grinch Stole Christmas”

“Want to keep Christ in Christmas? Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, forgive the guilty, welcome the unwanted, care for the ill, love your enemies, and do unto others as you would have done unto you.”

― Steve Maraboli, in “Unapologetically You: Reflections on Life and the Human Experience”

“My idea of Christmas, whether old-fashioned or modern, is very simple: loving others. Come to think of it, why do we have to wait for Christmas to do that?”

― Bob Hope

“I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

― Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

“There are many things from which I might have derived good, by which I have not profited, I dare say,’ returned the nephew. ‘Christmas among the rest. But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round—apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that—as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!”

― Fred, Scrooge’s Nephew, in Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”

“One of the most glorious messes in the world is the mess created in the living room on Christmas day. Don’t clean it up too quickly.”

—Andy Rooney

“Christmas is not a time nor a season, but a state of mind. To cherish peace and goodwill, to be plenteous in mercy, is to have the real spirit of Christmas.”

― Calvin Coolidge

Christmas is a necessity. There has to be at least one day of the year to remind us that we’re here for something else besides ourselves.”

― Eric Sevareid

“Christmas is the season for kindling the fire of hospitality in the hall, the genial flame of charity in the heart. ”

― Washington Irving

“Are you willing to stoop down and consider the needs and desires of little children; to remember the weaknesses and loneliness of people who are growing old; to stop asking how much your friends love you, and to ask yourself if you love them enough; to bear in mind the things that other people have to bear on their hearts; to trim your lamp so that it will give more light and less smoke, and to carry it in front so that your shadow will fall behind you; to make a grave for your ugly thougts and a garden for your kindly feelings, with the gate open? Are you willing to do these things for a day? Then you are ready to keep Christmas!”

― Henry van Dyke

“Christmas, my child, is love in action.”

― Dale Evans Rogers

“I truly believe that if we keep telling the Christmas story, singing the Christmas songs, and living the Christmas spirit, we can bring joy and happiness and peace to this world.”

― Norman Vincent Peale

“Unless we make Christmas an occasion to share our blessings, all the snow in Alaska won’t make it ‘white’.”

― Bing Crosby

“I know what I really want for Christmas. I want my childhood back. Nobody is going to give me that. I might give at least the memory of it to myself if I try. I know it doesn’t make sense, but since when is Christmas about sense, anyway? It is about a child, of long ago and far away, and it is about the child of now. In you and me. Waiting behind the door of or hearts for something wonderful to happen. A child who is impractical, unrealistic, simpleminded and terribly vulnerable to joy.”

― Robert Fulghum, “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten”

“I sometimes think we expect too much of Christmas Day. We try to crowd into it the long arrears of kindliness and humanity of the whole year. As for me, I like to take my Christmas a little at a time, all through the year. And thus I drift along into the holidays – let them overtake me unexpectedly – waking up some find morning and suddenly saying to myself: ‘Why, this is Christmas Day!”

― Ray Stannard Baker

“The Magi, as you know, were wise men–wonderfully wise men–who brought gifts to the Babe in the manger. They invented the art of giving Christmas presents. Being wise, their gifts were no doubt wise ones, possibly bearing the privilege of exchange in case of duplication. And here I have lamely related to you the uneventful chronicle of two foolish children who most unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures of their house. But in a last word to the wise of these days, let it be said that of all who give and receive gifts, such as they are wisest. Everywhere they are wisest. They are the Magi.”

—O. Henry, “The Gift of the Magi”

“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….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.”

—- Me

“Scrooge was better than his word. He did it all, and infinitely more; and to Tiny Tim, who did not die, he was a second father. He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world. Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them; for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset; and knowing that such as these would be blind anyway, he thought it quite as well that they should wrinkle up their eyes in grins, as have the malady in less attractive forms. His own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for him.

He had no further intercourse with Spirits, but lived upon the Total Abstinence Principle, ever afterwards; and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God Bless Us, Every One!”

—-Charles Dickens, “A Christmas Carol”



44 thoughts on “Reflections On The Ethical Holiday

  1. Thank you for this. I loved reading it.

    Today I’m having Christmas in tropical, mosquito-filled southern India for the first time. Until today I was wondering if I was “missing’ Christmas by not being back home in the States. That was not the case.

    At church this morning, hundreds of cheerful friends wished me “Happy Christmas.” A child gave me a fruitcake. There was a boy dressed like Santa Claus and holding a bunch of balloons. (Santa isn’t really a thing here, and gift-giving isn’t really a Christmas tradition, as far as I’ve experienced. So any Santa sighting, even a 3-foot tall one, is pretty cool.)

    The wife and I had a medical-type appointment at a clinic today, and the office, like so many other places, was decorated for Christmas, with a tiny tree. Every receptionist and nurse (all Hindu) greeted us with “Happy Christmas!” and shook our hands. They were excited to see some Christians, so as to wish us well on “our” holiday. Whatever you’ve seen in the news about religious persecution and violence in India, here in Chennai everyone is, as a rule, respectful and kind when it comes to making space, and honoring, everyone else’s traditions and holidays.

    On the taxi-ride home, the Bollywood radio station-breaks wished everyone a “Merry Christmas” in between songs. (For context, Christians make up only about 6% of the local population.)

    So far we’ve had 3 taxi or auto-drivers, and each of them was excited to wish us “Happy Christmas” and share our excitement. (They also each got a substantial Christmas bonus added to their fare.)

    And best of all, I am the same giddy kid today that I would have been in California. Indian Christmas is in no way inferior. Christmas knows no geography.

  2. That “Total Abstinence Principle” line at the end of A Christmas Carol confused me for years, until the internet was invented and I could look up what in the world he was talking about.

    Dickens must have been as boyish as Scrooge when he wrote that past paragraph; it’s such an unexpected place to stick a silly pun.

  3. Joseph and Mary were not homeless. They had traveled to Bethlehem due to the requirement that they return there for tax purposes (and we thought filling out of 1040’s on April 14th was arduous). Or, they went to Bethlehem due to the Roman decree to take a census. Or, there is no truth to either the census or the tax theory. Rather, pretending that Jewsus was born in Bethlehem re-enforced the idea that the Messiah would be from the House of David and being born in Bethlehem satisfied that part of the legend more than his being born in Nazareth. No matter why Joseph and Mary were in Bethlehem, they lived in Nazareth where they had a home and Joseph was a self-employed carpenter. As far we we know, they had a nice home and raised a rather large family.

    Because so many people had to travel due to the tax/census requirements, the inns were full. According to the legend, the inn keeper simply ran out of rooms. He did not prevent Joseph and Mary from staying in one of his rooms. He would have had to remove someone else from their room in order to make space for Joseph and Mary.

    The inn keeper did allow Mary and Joseph to stay in the stables, which is not as horrible as we like to pretend. This was Israel — with a climate like Southern California. It was not in dead of winter; it was in the warm springtime.

    How many other people who had arrived in time to obtain lodging inside the inn, then had three wealthy dudes give them gold? None! Now if you ask me which is better — to stay inside without any gift of gold or to stay in the stable and have people give me a lot of gold, I chose the stable and the gold.

    Religion is a bunch of stories we invent that reflect how we feel about the world and about ourselves.

    • This is the longest, most involved exercise in irrelevancy and pedantry I’ve seen in a very long time. Anyone who has to give birth in a stable is, by definition, without a home for that particular evening, which is beside the point anyway. I’m confident Chesterton knew the story.

      The comment is trolling. Watch it. You’re on thin ice already.

      • Yes, I’ve noticed for quite some time that providing a different perspective and telling people to think for themselves does result in threats.

        All these stories are nothing but myths. The dangerous part of these religious myths is that they are often used to harm other people. Orthodoxy requires punishment and banishment for those who point out that the emperor isn’t wearing any clothes.

        If you want to get down to the scholarship of Joseph and Mary and the manger, it never happened. There was no census at that time, even though the Romans did take extensive censuses. The likelihood that Joseph and Mary would have been in Bethlehem for a census or taxes is extremely unlikely.

        The idea that people who are on a journey are homeless is sophistry. If I drive to Beverly Hills and the Four Seasons doesn’t keep my room as I arrive too late, I am not homeless. As for lodging, in the story they had a place to stay. People are too wedded to one way of thinking. They want the maudlin sentimentality that Joseph and Mary were suffering, but they ignore the GOLD.

        Scholars have traced the evolution of these various myths and shown where and how many of them entered the literature. The way in which human beings have manufactured religious myths poses a problem to those people whose religion insists that it has the One Truth. When a religion adopts the idea that it exclusively knows The Truth, then all its myths have to be defended as if they were factually true.

        Is the story of Ruth true? No, of course not. It was written to counteract the idea that Jewish males should divorce their foreign born wives. Hence the story that King David was descended from Ruth, who was not originally Jewish.

        Did King Solomon write Koheleth? No. Does it matter? No.

        As long as people are not so foolish as to believe that they hold the one Truth, it does not matter that the stories are often false, or 1/2 false, or sometimes accurate.

        What matters is that people do not accept what they are told as Faith, as Faith requires the abdication of the mind.

        • This guy must be delight to be around. Methinks he spends an inordinate amount of time hating Christianity for this not to be personal.

          You need more happiness.

          Merry Christmas.

        • Fascinating. And what is it that you think this pedantic rant has to do with the post above it? None that I can see.

          See, when there’s a post constructed of diverse quotes from others, that means, see, that multiple perspectives of various people with different disciplines and talents are employed to form an overall picture, like a mosaic. Arguing the minutia of a single quote is like bickering over the shade of a single tile. I don’t care about whether Joseph’s family was technically homeless; Chesterton’s point was clear, and that’s all that matters. Nor does the post depend in any way upon the reality of the Christmas story, or even faith. The post is about religions as much as it’s about Santa Claus, or perhaps you missed that? Sorry.

          The post IS about the relevance and value of the holiday itself–The Christmas Carol is fiction, but it carries great truths. Go ahead, explain to me that there really was no Scrooge. That’s about as useful and germane as quibbling over Chesterton’s quote.

          There aren’t many regular commenters to this blog that can’t think for themselves: don’t pat yourself on the back. What they can do is stay on topic and be a hell of a lot clearer than whatever that was, and manage to avoid tangential lectures on Ruth and David.

          • It’s been a crazy busy Christmas (and Advent) season for me, so I’m just getting around to reading such things now. I was going to write something about the importance of stories and myth but pennagain beat me to it. (Good thing I kept reading before I did something idiotic.) I will say, though, that anyone who doesn’t understand the importance of myths and myth-making to the human psyche needs to read some Carl Jung and/or Mircea Eliade.

            As (one of?) the resident Catholic(s) among the commenters here, I will say that I did notice something important in scottzwartz’s post — He falls into the same trap about which he seems to be complaining: literalism, otherwise known as fundamentalism within certain faith traditions.

            The biblical narratives are NOT history books. In ancient times, stories weren’t written down originally, but instead passed along the way most stories “live” — by being told over and over by enthusiastic storytellers who knew that they had something important to relate, and then being told by those listeners, and on and on out into the world. This was known as “kerygma,” and anyone familiar with biblical studies is familiar with this term.

            By criticizing one tiny portion of your post, Jack, scottzwartz manages to fall into literalism in 2 ways, which is slightly impressive. By picking apart tiny portions of the Christmas “story,” as mentioned in one or more of the memorable quotes you use, he loses track of the intention of the post. He turns a poetic post into a history critique. In addition, he of course writes as though everyone but he who follows the “meaning” of Christmas is a biblical fundamentalist. Indeed, some are. But not all, and I hope not most. Some religious people who get cranky about “keeping Christ in Christmas” are a different sort of fundamentalist. They all need to read their bibles, Matthew 25:34-40.

            The spirit of Christmas has grown far beyond the “story” of the first Christmas. Anyone can embrace the spirit of Christmas, but they have to stop being Scrooge first.

            Merry Christmas, Jack, and all people of good will.

            • Regarding your scripture reference: I’m not certain that a passage demonstrating the attitude with which Christians should approach others they encounter in life undermines the desire by “fundamentalist” to believe in the infancy and childhood stories found in Matthew and Luke.

              • Hmm, did not intend to imply that it undermines any fundamentalist reading of scripture. I’m not even saying that the stories aren’t “true,” in the best sense of “Truth.” Truth is one thing. Fundamentalist adherence to “Facts” is another.

                I think I was just trying to point out the flaws in scottzwartz’s “logical” critique of the blog post and the quotes contained therein. But who knows? I am old, dehydrated, sleep-deprived, and a little crazy.

            • Your interpretation of my comments is interesting. My point was quite simple — myths have different interpretations. I do not recall criticizing the role of myth in human society.

              I did challenge the idea that a myth has one meaning for everyone, and I also did point out that those who decry the commercialism of Christmas should reflect on the three wise men’s bringing GOLD to the baby Jewsus.

              Of dear, there I did it again. By adding a “w” to Jesus, I reminded people that Jesus was Jewish when he was born, while he lived, when he died and when resurrected (if you believe that occurred).

              I do not understand why some people seemed to be so upset with the word Jewsus.

              • To be clear, adding the “w” is as facile as it is asinine. I’m not sure why you think you need to remind anyone that Jesus was a Jew. It IS however understandable that some may get upset, a) because they DON’T need reminding that he’s a Jew b), His name IS spelled J-e-s-u-s, which it fairly important for accuracy, as Jesus is the Anglicization of the Greek work Iesous, which in turn is the Greek version of the Hebrew “Yeshua”.

                I mean, you shouldn’t be annoyed if we modified your name to remind people of your tangential and irrelevant intellectual pursuits should we?

                I’m not certain your criticism of the gift of gold exactly parallels into a type of Roman-empire era commercialism. It’s meaning in the Christmas story is manifold and deep – as a symbolic gift of the wise men to a KING (as they saw Jesus) to an immediate example of God’s providence, that is the practical need that Joseph and Mary, would be engaging in an expensive travel to a foreign country (and it was an expensive proposition in those days).

                You’ll have to do some better analogizing than your emotion-driven non-sequitur to see the word “gold” in the story and start screaming “commercialism!” in the next instance.

    • “They had traveled to Bethlehem due to the requirement that they return there for tax purposes…Or, they went to Bethlehem due to the Roman decree to take a census. Or, there is no truth to either the census or the tax theory.”

      OR, there is no census OR tax “theory,” and every single informed person in the world is well aware that Roman censuses such as this were done FOR tax/tribute purposes, and Joseph would have been expected to register for the census and pay a “poll tax.”

      Sweet marmalade. The conflation of not knowing a thing about what you’re talking about…and thinking you’re a skeptical genius…It’s like you ate a whole wheel of cheese and pooped in the refrigerator. I’m not even mad. I’m impressed.

  4. You tell it, Linus! That’s what the Christmas story is all about. Indeed. The King James version is pure poetry.

    And for the Scottzwartzes of this world, our profound pity:

    Myths came before art, before language, before the written word, before religion. Human perceptions are first in dreams, in ideation — only later in definition. The idea of hunger is infinitely stronger than the name of a food or the fact of its existence or being sated in appetite. The image of the wolf gnawing at our entrails is exponentially greater than the knowledge of our digestive systems. Mere seconds of nightmare figures can strike more fear in our hearts than reports of the evil that men did yesterday. Myths express every known human emotion so that all human beings who know the stories can share and understand and come together.

    Deny the mythology of your existence and you stand solitary and worse — cursed without imagination.

    Myths are the most powerful cultural forces on Earth.

    Myths are the roots of reality, not the other way round.

    ~[thus speaks the resident Jew-born Atheist]

  5. Thanks Jack! Merry Christmas to you and your family, may you be renewed by this season nd blessed in the year that comes. And the same wishes to all your readers.

  6. Thank you Jack. Reading this beautiful post of yours is a wonderful gift. I look forward to what you will give us for the remainder of the twelve days. I am already being kinder due to it and not responding to scott.

  7. Jack, I hope you don’t mind…I printed off a copy of this and intend to share it with my Uncle. He lives in Florida, is 95, technologically illiterate (no e-mail & hates computers) and has Alzheimer’s. But he loves to read uplifting things like this. I’ll make sure to give proper credit.

  8. Excellent! I want to add a reading of this to my annual ritual of watching It’s A Wonderful Life. Thank you for this compilation of gems ~ upon reading them I feel “terribly vulnerable to joy!”

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