In my youth, my friends held far stronger opinions than they do today. One of the most fervent and unusual debates between two of my friends centered on the otherwise benign topic of holiday cards. Who even remembers how it got started?
The first friend, a recent Catholic convert who would later become a priest, held that a person should send out cards tailored to the recipient – Christmas cards to the Christians, Hanukkah cards to the Jews, and New Year’s cards to the secular humanists. The second friend, a Jew who had considered joining the rabbinate but entered the entertainment industry instead, maintained that people should mail out cards appropriate to the sender – the Christians sending Christmas cards, the Jews sending Hanukkah cards, and so forth – to be both authentic and sincere.
We once put a tremendous premium on those twin virtues of authenticity and sincerity, hence our prolonged discussions about topics like holiday cards. To be clear: this debate was not a one-off argument, but rather got revisited occasionally, as part of a larger interfaith conversation that was ongoing. Over time, I could imagine such debate becoming a regular annual event, beginning immediately after each Thanksgiving. I could also envision myself vacillating from year to year.
When I sat between the future priest and the would-be rabbi decades ago, I had little clue that I would someday become a minister myself. Had the three of us walked into a bar together, we could have been the start of a joke. We usually opted to visit one another’s apartments or hang out in the park instead. Where the tensions most flared, there was also our abiding affection and admiration for each other, which was unmistakable even when everything else was up for review.
With hindsight, I have tender regard for the naivety of this discussion. My two friends were falling over each other in their shared scramble to grow the greatest joy. “Happy Holidays” for them had a breadth and depth that seems distant from the commercial crush common to December. At the heart of it were such earnest questions. Will I join with you in your celebration or would you rather join with me in mine? What gives us the most convincing cause for celebration?
Nowadays, the kinds of holiday cards I send out vary year after year. A couple of years ago, I sent out a card with an Irish blessing, knowing full well that few of its intended recipients were Irish. The blessing was a wintry one: May you have warm words on a cold evening, a full moon on a dark night, and the road downhill all the way to your door. Very nice, I thought. I’ve also sent out gorgeous Hanukkah cards, as well as Christmas cards emblazoned with a picture of the chancel of my home church, and even Epiphany cards depicting the three kings marching into the new year.
While I am glad to get nearly any piece of personal mail, especially cards, the one bit of correspondence that gives me pause is “Season’s Greetings”. The phrase strikes me as so insistently generic, as though it were totally irrelevant which season was the referent, as though it were of no consequence what cause we had for celebrating, when it of course matters tremendously to those of us celebrating the holidays in intentional ways. It has the distinct feel of ‘your name here’, but I would prefer to get a Kwanzaa card from an actual celebrant, not being African-American myself, than to get demographic non-specific “Season’s Greetings”.
Our present reality is that we inhabit a pluralistically religious landscape; I certainly see the richness of that. Yet I stubbornly resist every incentive to become part of a religiously pluralistic culture that places its faith in a specious law of averages, one homogenizing spiritual diversity. People have very different belief systems than I do; I am happily reconciled to that fact. What I can no longer brook is persons acting either surprised or offended by the fact of difference.
The menorah that sits in the lobby of my apartment building is not an affront to my faith any more than the Christmas tree standing alongside it is an endorsement. The words of my would-be rabbi friend still sound in my ears, reminding me of the generosity of spirit that can lay behind such gestures of inclusion. Today, my categorical objection is to any given celebration being defined over and against any other one. Celebrate the Winter Solstice, by all means, if you truly feel called to that, but for God’s sake, don’t peddle it as the anti-Christmas.
Last year, a seasonal billboard sponsored by an organization called American Atheists caused a furor around metropolitan New York. Above a glittering scene of the Nativity read the statement: “You KNOW it’s a myth. This season, celebrate REASON.” A fatal flaw in this argument is THE CAPITALIZATION. If others are communicating with me in capital letters, if they’re shouting at me IN PRINT, I feel fairly sure that reasonableness has fallen far behind.
Aggressive atheists tend to behave aggressively. Make no mistake — the fundamentalists of the political left are every inch as ideological as the fundamentalist of the right. They are both polarizing the dialogue to a troubling degree. Religious wars are not only for the religious sort anymore, because the anti-religious have joined the ranks. A ministerial colleague of mine refers to their school of thought as “the-Communists-in-the-basement” brand, which seems an apt enough description, since they’re generally looking to blow the whole thing sky high. In addition to being unconvincing, that seasonal billboard was oppositional and ill-informed, not unlike a certain immature strain of adolescent.
Certain seasonal salutations we could all do without. The American Atheists proved a stark contrast to my friends in their younger days, the future priest and the would-be rabbi, who were struggling to find the clearest method of sharing their notion of the sacred with one another. Their challenge was to handle responsibly the holiness they sensed all around them, within themselves and in each other. How could any one season contain all of that?
Our obvious conclusion was that one season could not, which helped to explain the varied liturgical year across religious traditions. One holiday could never serve to discredit another. Who cared if it was somebody else’s holy day? It was none the less holy on that score.