Hi, Rana here. I'm cross-posting this from my own blog, since Shakes Sis is feeling sick. Apologies for the length!
There seem to be several stages one goes through in one's life with regards to Christmas and getting presents. When you're a kid, it's all about the excitement and the tree and the presents and trying to stay up to catch Santa in the act, and waking up far too early for your parents' comfort. My brother and I even went so far as to have our toys exchange presents when we woke up at 5am, to stave off the frustration of waiting for the adults to wake up and drink their morning coffee. By the time you're a teenager, the adults are the ones that wait for you to wake up, bleary-eyed and hair standing on end, and you no longer believe in Santa Claus, though you still put out socks and some gifts get labeled "From Santa" in a burst of pure altruism. You know you've hit adulthood when you not only don't mind getting socks for Christmas, you request them. Then eventually you hit the stage of "I don't need anything. Food or books are fine."
I reached that stage this year. I honestly don't want or need anything for Christmas. I have a house that not only has everything I need, it has more than that. Some of it is stuff I've been carting around for years; some of it is stuff that was sent me after my godparents died. The former I've been meaning to winnow down for years; of the latter, only a scant handful of objects has any personal meaning, though much of it is nice (even more of it is not, and was dumped straightaway into donation boxes). The house -- and me -- is burdened with junk and paper and clothes I don't wear and clothes I love but which have worn out. The clutter is tiring and frustrating, instead of comforting. I want things to be simple, to have only what makes me happy and inspired.
I'm feeling that way about the holiday season, too. The holidays have always been somewhat complicated in our family, at least as far as the religious aspects are concerned. There are a lot of small "traditions" in my immediate family -- putting up the tree Christmas eve, putting silly joke gifts in socks and overflow paper bags, laughing at certain odd ornaments as they're unpacked -- but Christmas has always been more about getting together with the family than anything else. (I've been with my parents for every single one of my life.) My mother and I are "lapsed" UUs (meaning, every few years we might attend a church service, but otherwise ignore our purported religious communities), my brother is an atheist, and my father has long been indifferent to organized religion and says little about what he actually believes. We put up a creche or two, but they're more about the wee little animals and the tradition of getting it out each year than anything truly religious. So the spiritual content of December 25th has always been pretty low, as far as we're concerned.
Yet I won't say that I don't feel the pull of the holy during the winter holidays, nor that I am unmoved by the professions of cheer and the twinkling of the lights. Indeed, part of me is deeply moved by the idea of family and friend gathering together to celebrate their bonds, by the rituals of hanging sweet-scented pine and glittering garlands from the eaves and mantelpieces, by candlelight and song, and food and gifts generously exchanged, by the contrast between the cold dark outside and the warmth and light and cheer within.
To me, this transcends the frameworks of established religion, and so I have long been in the habit of wishing people happy holidays rather than merry Christmas. For these are holy days to me, but holy by dint of love and affection, not by creed and sacred texts. When I offer my wishes for cheer and happiness and good fortune, I want all my friends to feel embraced and nourished by them, not alienated and offended. I have friends who are Jewish, atheist, agnostic, Buddhist, UU, pagan, and, yes, Christian. Thus far, they have all met my wish for a happy holidays with the spirit with which it is intended: a recognition and celebration of our shared humanity and desire for warmth and friendship during a time of darkness.
So it is with irritation that I hear of people insisting that to offer such a wish is to be insulting or denigrating of their beliefs. They claim that doing so is to reject the spirit of the season, to piss on their spiritual rights. I would argue that this is exactly what they are doing, in demanding that they get special treatment and sectarian attention granted to no one else, in denying the celebration of diverse spiritualities during a time of shared darkness. It is, in a word, selfish. In another, defensive.
To me, a greater attack on our sense of shared humanity than universalism is particularism, selfishness, and greed. In this, I am saying nothing new. People have been complaining about greediness trumping spirituality, about commercialization and secularism and the decline of morals for decades now. Yet I see this as part of a larger pattern. It as if we as a culture were trapped in the greedy years of childhood, when presents loom large and are eagerly anticipated and the family focuses on you, but without the companion joy and wonder and altruism that causes babies to gaze on lights and candles with awe, and small children to write letters to Santa asking for jobs and clothes for their parents, and other children to carefully craft cookies or snowflakes or handprint ornaments for their loved ones.
I will not go so far as to insist that we should all learn to take joy in socks -- even when they are unique and cozy handknitted ones -- nor that we should reject the idea of exchanging gifts outright, but I am troubled by this notion that our holidays -- our holy days -- are most important as excuses for indulging one's greed and selfishness. It is hard enough living through days of darkness; to insist petulantly that it is better to do so proud, huffy and alone than in the company of one's fellow beings is both foolish and mean-spirited. We are all small creatures in the dark, huddling together to keep warm. If we in our pride and arrogance insist on standing alone as special, we will freeze long before winter's end, and it is no one's fault but our own.
I hold up a candle to you, the warm scent of cider wafting from the open door behind me, and I say invitingly, gesturing toward the coziness and laughter inside, "Happy Holidays!"
If you refuse my invitation, and would rather stand crossly outside waiting for a "proper" greeting, well... there's a shovel out there, and my driveway's still rather snowy... You might as well make yourself useful while you're pouting. The cider will be waiting for you if you change your mind. I hope you will.
Cross-posted at Frogs and Ravens.