Monday, December 17, 2007

A Solstice Carol: When PC Means Plain Courtesy

Here in the U.S. we have a faux "War on Christmas"; something dreamed up by faux journalists to take out minds off real troubles like war, a tanking economy, and global warming. Meanwhile, our friends on the other side of the pond continue to debate what the Brits call Winterval. Poly Tonnybee wrote an very thoughtful article for the Guardian some years back titled Welcome to Winterval. It's about the appearance of Winterval in secular, multicultural Britain, and the Pagan origins of the Christmas celebrations: She writes that:

"Joseph (is) missing from the crib in many shops - a stable single parent family scene. (Joseph was always a problem. Why is his genealogy traced back to King David, when he was only the step-father? No, no answers on postcards please.) ....the BBC is putting on an alternative nativity play with Jesus as a girl. Birmingham Council calls Christmas "Winterval". Primary schools have introduced Three Wise Women instead of the Kings. Vicars are dropping "gender-biased" hymns such as God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen. A Baptist minister has written a carol portraying the Virgin as a "blessed teenage mother". A Greenwich comprehensive chose John Lennon's So This Is Christmas instead of a carol - and an academic has declared the snowman a symbol of masculine dominance.

.....Mithras, the Persian sun god worshipped in the late empire, came from heaven and was born as a man to redeem humanity from its sins. He was also born of a virgin on December 25 and it was shepherds who first learnt of his birth. (He too had a last supper with his disciples and ascended into heaven.) The Egyptian god Horus, whose worshippers filled Rome at the same time, was another saviour of mankind, born to a virgin.

Temples were filled with cribs with the infant Horus watched over by his virgin mother Isis; 1,700 years before Christ, Isis had an annunciation when a spirit descended and she conceived when an "ankh" - symbol of life - was put to her lips. Isis was worshipped with familiar names: Queen of Heaven, Star of the Sea, Our Lady and Immaculate Virgin. What's more Isis and Horus had a flight into lower Egypt from a persecutor called Herrut soon after birth, also protected by a kindly stepfather. Virgin mothers of gods are found in China and Mexico, among Etruscans and Scandinavians.

In Greece, January 6 (later taken as Epiphany by the Christians) was the date the virgin goddess Kore gave birth to Dionysus, whose name was sometimes Ies and sometimes Jesus. Krishna was born of a virgin. Even the birth of Caesar Augustus was described by sycophants of his day (writing at the time of Christ's birth) in words almost identical to that used in the bible: "saviour of the whole human race", destined to bring "peace on earth", his arrival bringing "glad tidings to the world".

As for the star, the birth of Buddha was heralded by one, and wise men were told of his coming. The massacre of innocents, trying to find the newborn child dangerous to a leader, crops up in many religions. Thus endeth the lesson of the secularists.

The universality of the myth makes sense. Rebirth in the dead of winter is a universal (northern hemisphere) cause to celebrate. Whatever stories and romances are woven around mythical infants, the wonder of human birth remains a humanist sentiment: creative primary school teachers are quite free to add and change it as much as they like. If, in the great religious melting pot of Rome, the Christian story eventually won out over the rest, it was St Paul's marketing skill in adding sophisticated populist elements: the child is poor, rich and poor alike bow down to it, worldly wealth not his domain, unlike the royal virgin births of earlier religions. Christianity was nothing if not opportunist."

Michal Bywater dislikes all this PC stuff. Writing for The Humanist he says "For Christ's sake, It's Christmas":

"Surely, if anyone should refer to Christmas as "Christmas", we should: atheists, or secular humanists, or rationalists, even if we can't decide what to call ourselves. Because if one thing is essential to rationalism, it's calling things by their proper names."

But it isn't only Christmas that occurs this time of year, is it?

Here in (mostly white, mostly Christian) Oregon, we hear "Merry Christmas" quite a lot. And I am always happy to say "Merry Christmas" in return. I will often add "and Happy Hanauka" or "Merry Solstice" or "Happy Kwanza to you" as well".
Try it, it's fun. Pick a Winter festival - there are lots - I've got a list and I'm checking it twice, just so I don't leave anyone out. Cheerfully wish them a Happy Divali and move on.

I'm all in favor of P.C. behavior. Where I come from we call that Plain Courtesy. (2) It's courteous to honor someone's traditions and I value courtesy very highly. Let us also remember that there is no one, single tradition celebrated this time of year.

As for me, I choose to respect my own traditions and show respect to the traditions of others. Whenever I practice tolerance, I find myself in good company. As Religious notes in their section on winter celebrations:

E.J. Dionne, Jr wrote a column titled "Peace on Earth?" in the Washington Post for 2004-DEC-21 -- perhaps by coincidence on the Winter Solstice, a date celebrated by Atheists, Wiccans, and many followers of Aboriginal religions. He is a Christian who greets fellow Christians with "Merry Christmas" at this time of year. He greets Jews with a "Happy Hanukah." To those whose religion is unknown to him, he gives a "Happy Holiday" greeting.

He writes:

"Some Christians see the broader culture as unremittingly hostile to their faith and wonder why it's easier to celebrate Santa, Rudolph and the Grinch than to sing praise to Jesus, Mary and Joseph. Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and nonbelievers, meanwhile, insist that government should not push the faith of the majority into the faces of those who do not share it....."

"What in the world is 'Christian' about insisting on saying 'Merry Christmas' to a devout Jew or Hindu who might reasonably view the statement as a sign of disrespect? At the level of government: Is it really 'Christian' for a religious majority to press its advantage over religious minorities, including nonbelievers? "

"Personally, I am partial to seasonal celebrations that acknowledge our religious diversity by allowing traditions to express themselves in their integrity. This is better than allowing only a commercial Christmas mush that satisfies no one except the retailers. Trying to delete every form of religious expression from the public square leads to foolishness. But one thing is even more foolish: for the religious majority to feel 'oppressed' by a public etiquette designed to honor the rights of those outside its ranks....."

"The great Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr wrote that 'the chief source of man's inhumanity to man seems to be the tribal limits of his sense of obligation to other men.' I fear that in these Christmas debates, Christians are behaving not as Christians but as a tribe: 'We will pound them if they get in the way of our customs and rituals'.

"Tribal behavior is antithetical to the spirit of peace and good will. In this season, we ought to be taking the most expansive possible view of our obligations to others."



So, whatever and however you celebrate, may you have a lovely holiday season.


(1) From A Solstice Carol - Xena Episode

(2) My thanks to Gloria Steinem for the translation

No comments: