Every Who down in Whoville liked Christmas a lot. But the Grinch, who lived just north of Whoville, did NOT!
—Dr. Suess, How the Grinch Stole Christmas
As a kid, I loved Dr. Suess’ story about the angry recluse who spied on the citizens of Whoville from his home on top of a mountain. As you may recall, the Whos loved Christmas and they partied a lot, and the Grinch saw the sparkle and heard the noise from all that partying, and it bugged him. So much so, that he snuck down the mountain one Christmas Eve after the Whos had gone to bed, and stole all of their decorations, food, and presents in an effort to stop Christmas from coming. Then he went home, snickering to himself as he imagined the surprise that the Whos were going to get the next morning when they discovered that Christmas hadn’t come.
However, it was the Grinch who got the surprise when he learned that Christmas had come anyway because it was not the trappings that made the day, but something much more meaningful.
I think in many ways, we have turned into a country of Grinches and Whos. All we have to do is turn on our televisions or log onto social media these days and we are inundated with Grinchy stories about “The War on Christmas.” Every day, somewhere in this country, someone is launching a protest, filing a lawsuit, or having a meltdown because someone had the audacity to display a manger scene on public land or say “Merry Christmas” in front of a department store. And those who support such activities are reciprocating with their own protests, lawsuits, and meltdowns against the protesters.
All of which makes me wonder: when as a country did we become so thin-skinned and easily offended that we cannot tolerate anybody or anything that does not line up with everything we personally believe in? In its purest sense, Christmas is a Christian holiday. It celebrates the birth of Christ. However, the celebration of Christmas is two percent cultural tradition (much of it borrowed from ancient pagan religions) and ninety-eight percent commercialism. Be honest now—what do laughing snowmen, sugar cookies, and plastic trees adorned with twinkle lights have to do with the birth of Christ?
Even if we factor in those things that do point to the birth of Christ, such as manger scenes and traditional carols, what does it matter? At their simplest level, they don’t harm anyone. Non-believers can choose to ignore them as part of the overall glitz of the season, or they can use them as educational tools to teach their children what many people in the Western world hold dear to their hearts.
I was brought up in an unconventional family but we loved to celebrate. I am a Christian, but until fairly recently my father was an atheist. My mother was an agnostic. However, both of my parents celebrated Christmas with a passion. And that meant all of it. We had a manger scene on top of the television, plastic Santas on the lawn, a Christmas tree in the living room, and Christmas songs by Nat King Cole, Bing Crosby, and Gene Autry blaring through the house. And presents. Piles and piles of presents.
You see—my dad, in addition to being an atheist—was ornery. He didn’t want anybody telling him what he could and could not celebrate. And he enjoyed other people’s celebrations, too. He took our family to Chinatown in San Francisco, and we watched them celebrate Chinese New Year. Later, when we moved to Colorado, we attended Cinco de Mayo festivals. We enjoyed those traditions, and we learned about other cultures in the process, and those activities in no way cut into our family’s faith (or lack thereof).
Over the years, I’ve cultivated friendships with people of varying outlooks. One of these friends, Judy, is a devout Christian. During the early seventies, she lived in Turkey because her husband was stationed there while in the Air Force. Turkey is a Muslim country, and Judy and her family made friends with a number of Turkish people. One year, during the Muslim month of Ramadan, Judy fasted along with one of her Muslim friends, just to see what it was like. She also accepted an invitation to the celebratory feast of Eid in her friend’s home after it was over.
Another friend of mine is an atheist who was raised in a Jewish family. Although she does not believe in God, she enjoys celebrating traditional Jewish holidays with her family because it’s part of her heritage. When she’s not with her family, she celebrates nothing at all or goes to Christmas parties at the homes of friends because she likes a good party as much as anyone. Interestingly enough, her holiday card is the first one I get every year. It says, “Happy Holidays,” as does my card to her.
Speaking of “Happy Holidays,” I may be a bit slow on the uptake, but it was years before I realized that many retail establishments had substituted “Happy Holidays” for “Merry Christmas.” It didn’t offend me because I simply hadn’t noticed. I guess it’s because, growing up, I heard both greetings and I just assumed “Happy Holidays” was an efficient way of saying “Merry Christmas” and “Happy New Year” at the same time. I say “Merry Christmas,” myself, but I’ll take a nice greeting wherever I can get it. If someone were to say to me, “Happy Eid,” “Joyous Kwanzaa,” “Happy Hanukah,” or “Rockin’ Festivus!” I would say, “Thank you. Same to you.”
So why can’t we all just get along? If we can’t embrace different cultures and celebrations, can’t we at least tolerate them? When I was a child, my brother and I used to bug each other during long car rides. We’d make faces at each other, hum, and otherwise go out of our way to get under each other’s skins. My mom had a simple solution to this: “Just ignore each other.” “But he said . . . ” “But she said . . . ” we’d cry, whining over some real or imagined slight. “Get over it,” she’d say. “Or better yet, focus on something outside the car . . . like that antelope over there.” Wise woman, my mother.
Having grown up in a family that not only tolerated, but embraced viewpoints and celebrations outside of our own, I find it hard to comprehend why some people have no tolerance for the customs and traditions others hold dear. However, if all references to Christmas were banned from our culture, it would still live in my heart and in the hearts of others. Whether you celebrate the birth of Christ like I do, or enjoy Christmas from a purely secular perspective, it’s a cause for celebration. Christmas brings out the good in people, from charitable organizations like Toys for Tots and the Salvation Army bell ringers, to the New York City police officer who made the news in 2012 when he spontaneously bought a pair of boots for a barefoot homeless man. Yes, we can and should do good deeds all year long, but if it takes a holiday like Christmas to get the job done, I say bring it on.