Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Distress During the Holiday Season

I'm probably treading on some unstable ground here, but the whole subject of Christmas is really starting to annoy me big time. I think it was the whole situation in Ashland that was the true tipping point for me, because the whole thing just struck me as completely unnecessary and made the folks involved look rather stupid. For those of you not aware of what happened, an elementary school in Ashland put up a holiday tree that doubled as a gift tree for those wanting to help others during the holiday. Some parents misunderstood the purpose of the tree, and asked for it to be removed, which then set off a firestorm of backlash. The school district hadn't considered a policy about Christmas decorations before, but ended up putting the tree back up after lots of controversy over the whole thing.

The fact that this created such an issue doesn't surprise me, because Christmas in and of itself is a rather touchy subject for lots of people. For some, it's the holiday of giving gifts, massive consumerism, and the final big holiday for the calendar year, while some view it as a time to be with family and friends in a celebrative way to build bonds. There's the whole story of Santa Claus, holiday movies, and specials about various aspects of the holiday. There's also the redemptive story of Ebenezer Scrooge, who was a selfish old man who learned the true meaning of the holiday by being tormented by spirits all night, and there's dozens of versions of this story in film. Combine all of this with the story of Jesus and his birth, and the religious significance behind that, and all of the stories and songs around this event, and there's plenty of imagery that is associated with this holiday.

And for many years, there was some congruence in those visions, whether it was implied or just not thought of. As a kid going to Catholic school, the thought of these varied images never crossed my mind, as the holiday represented many things to many people. I could wrap my head around what each thing represented, and not worry about the divergent messages. The holiday represented the birth of a significant figure in many ways, but at the same time, you could celebrate friends and family and be a good kid while waiting for a dude in a red suit to bring you toys. As I grew up, the significance of other holiday celebrations, like Boxing Day, Hanukkah, and Kwanzaa became more apparent, but I felt that each of them fit within this rather large umbrella of what the holiday represented.

There is also a part of this time of year that applies to everything, the simple holiday spirit of being nice to others and showing the spirit of giving and compassion. We act nicer to others, we show compassion by giving of ourselves to friends and family with gifts, while also thinking of those in need with donations of time, money, or thoughts. For the rest of year, we might not think of people as much as we'd like, but for the holidays, the true spirit of showing what others mean to us by giving them a gift from the heart, whether it's a tangible item or something more abstract. It doesn't matter what you do, as long as you think of others and show them what they mean to you, however big or small the effort it.

I thought this concept fit very nicely in both situations. In the story of Jesus, it was the spirit of thinking of others that led to the impromptu celebration of his birth in a stable. There was no rooms available, so they stayed in a stable, yet the wise men and animals welcomed him and made the moment special regardless of the situation with gifts and song. In the story of Santa, well, gifts are the central part of what we celebrate, as people give gifts to those they care about, while Santa has a collective of elves that apparently are skilled in making just about everything in the North Pole.

But what I'm seeing more and more of lately is the happy coexistence of these concepts crumbling in a massive wave of contempt and misunderstanding. People who celebrate the religious aspect of Christmas get upset when symbols of their holiday get cheapened in a mass of low prices and shopping until you drop, yet those that celebrate Santa are upset with overtly adding religious or commercial messages to this whole mess. It's no longer Christmas trees, they are called holiday trees. And we sign songs that don't have any association with Jesus, Frosty, Santa or whatever because we don't want to offend anyone.

What the whole thing strikes me of the controversy that was talked about in two of the most excellent cartoons of all time, the Simpsons and South Park. In a South Park Christmas celebration, a war erupted between the Jewish community, Jesus followers and the Santa fans, and the school play became a Philip Glass celebration of a minimalistic holiday. The trainwreck was averted with the appearance of Mr. Hankey, who if you don't know what he is all about, you're missing out. The Simpsons had an episode where Krusty the Clown hosted his "non- denomininational holiday special", which essentially gave attention to all of the various celebrations that occur this time of year.

The concept behind both of these was to celebrate the season with friends and family, regardless of your beliefs or professions. Instead of thinking of what might work for you, it's time to think more collectively as a group of people and celebrate the things that bring us together. Instead of dividing, it's time to celebrate diversity and bring folks together, and I think that's a good message. I would also go so far to say that we all need to do a better job of giving to others and helping folks in need, because many of us have more than what we need, and it's important to give to those in need.

For me, my most special holidays have involved celebrating the various aspects of this holiday, from gathering with family to eat massive quantities to celebrating with gifts for those I cared about, not caring if I received anything in return. I enjoyed hanging out with my wife's family on Christmas Eve eating Chinese food and catching up on things, then getting up on Christmas morning and opening gifts while our cats go mental at all the boxes and wrapping paper available for play. But my memories also go back to my sister getting us up at 5 AM to open gifts because she couldn't sleep, then her falling asleep at 10 AM because she was exhausted. I also spent many a late night on Xmas eve with my mom at midnight mass, which was one of the few times she attended church. It was time that we could spend together; just the two of us, and that was all that mattered.

I suppose that what all this has reminded me of is that holidays are all about building memories, regardless of how you celebrate, with those that you care about. And during this time of year, it's important to be aware of being nice to others and considerate of their beliefs and celebrations instead of trying to drive a wedge. Should it matter that a holiday tree is up in a school, but shouldn't it be more about celebrating the season with a symbol that everyone can enjoy while it also is set up to help others?

I get this whole situation is bigger than just that, and there's a lot more to this whole argument. And not everyone buys into my line of thinking, because things like this draw out passion like other sensitive subjects, like politics. While I think it's important to use your voice and share your perspective on things you believe it, it's also important that we all remember and respect the things that bring us together but also separate us into the unique individuals we all are. Without differences, we'd all be the same people, thinking the same things, doing the same things, and the world would be a rather boring place. It's important to celebrate the differences, but also respect them enough to allow people to profess what they believe without prejudice or retribution.

I know that's hard to do at times, because even during this time of year, I have issues with it. At bowling last night, I got frustrated with an opponent who didn't practice proper bowling etiquette, as she kept going up to bowl while I was on the boards. Instead of dealing with the issue and saying something, I let the situation stew and internalize, and it affected my score big time. I should have dealt with it by saying something, but instead, I let the situation bug me. I should have trusted that I could have said something without being looked down on, but instead, I just let it ride. Ok, this is rather simplistic in the grand scheme, but at the same time, nothing big is tackled without starting with simple steps. And it starts with simple human respect for yourself and others, and that's really what this time of year should be all about.