Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Happy Holidays! No, really!

Today’s Orlando Sentinel –cum-National Inquirer features yet another earth shattering unscientific “poll” about current events. Just below the question asking whether UF Quarterback Tim Tebow “got robbed” when he did not win the Heisman Trophy (good to see my answer of “Who cares?” got 10% of the vote) one finds this burning question: “Are you offended when someone wishes you the generic “happy holidays”? (Is it any wonder the Sentinel’s parent Tribune Company is in Chapter 11 proceedings?)

While I had promised myself I would withdraw from active interaction with the world for Advent season, I broke my promise and posted this response:

Who is anyone to be offended? Upon what basis? Happy holidays is not only polite and thoughtful, it's also accurate. Holidays, plural, is what is being celebrated. It's an ancient holiday season dating back to the Stone Age observance of the winter solstice and the return of light to the world.

The placement of the Christmas season in that context was not accidental though clearly Christmas is a latecomer to the seasonal observances. The chances Jesus was actually born on Dec. 25 are precisely 1/365 given that we have no idea what day his birth occurred. The recently converted Roman Empire set the date on Dec. 25 to Christianize a pre-existing Saturnalia observance in the 5th CE. But it makes symbolic sense in that the solstice celebrates the return of light to a darkened world. Jesus is not *the* reason for the season itself, to quote the hackneyed claim, he's simply one of the reasons albeit a major reason in western culture.

To those presume a right to be offended, perhaps you could hold onto your righteous indignation until after the holidays are over? The holiday season is a particularly insensitive time to wage the culture wars. How about a little peace on earth, goodwill to humanity this year?

Of course, this was the restrained version of my response to the question. I feel about this non-issue much the way I feel about the prospect of fundamentalist physicians seeking governmental exemptions from treating patients their moral code suggests are impure. So long as such persons work in private practice where they may pick and choose their patients, while I may disagree with their brittle worldviews based in their personal prejudices and their resulting questionable professionalism, I would argue that they have the right to make such choices. But when any professional health care provider leaves the private sphere to work in public hospitals or clinics, they no longer have that right. Public health facilities treat the public, all of it. And in a diverse, multi-cultural (and thus multiple moral code) society, there is no room for privately held religiously legitimated prejudices becoming obstacles to needed health care.

Of course it’s perfectly appropriate to wish your parishioners a “Merry Christmas!” at the conclusion of midnight mass. That’s what they’re there to celebrate. And when I know a person is Christian, it is my practice to wish them a Merry Christmas, even prematurely during Advent. But Orlando has mercifully become a diverse urban center with many religious traditions represented. While Christianity in its various forms (the largest single expression being Roman Catholic) remains the dominant religious tradition here as in the rest of the country, it is not the only holiday celebrated at this time of year. Our country has made Christmas a national holiday so everyone gets the time off work whether they are Christian or not.

We all celebrate this holiday season – perhaps with the exceptions of our resident Ebenezer Scrooges - even if we are not adherents of any particular religion. This is the time for gratitude for another year’s passing, for the many blessings of our lives, not the least of which are our families of birth (recognizing that for some people, family histories may not be the stuff of celebrations) and our families of choice. It is NOT the time for righteous indignation or culture wars arising out of insecurities about one’s religious understandings. I am secure enough in my own Christian identity to wish others a happy holiday season even if they will not be celebrating my tradition’s observance of it. And I pray that the 40% who say they are offended by Happy Holidays greetings can learn to live with a bit more ease in this increasingly diverse culture in which they find themselves.

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes.

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