I spent much of teenagerhood as an ”angry atheist”, or at least I would have if there’d been much religion around me to rail against. The most I could muster was some half-hearted kvetching about school end-of-year ceremonies being held in a church. Conservative christians were mythological creatures you only read about in horror stories from across the Atlantic. Half unicorns, half boogeymen. Fifteen-year-old me would not have expected to ever be on their side.
To be fair, I’m not on their side as such. But I’m sympathetic – for some meanings of the word. It’s not so much that I agree with what they want, but it bothers me when people’s concerns are dismissed for the wrong reasons, rather than acknowledged and then dismissed for the right reasons.
The title is a bit of a spoiler, but in case someone missed it: what I’m talking about is the so-called “War on Christmas”. Christmas season is approaching and a lot of people are getting ready to fill up social media’s outrage section (if only they had a separate outrage section) with rants about how christmas is under attack or how stupid people are for thinking that christmas is under attack. Considering what this year has been like so far it might get worse than ever this time.
It being a preoccupation of American conservatives, my familiarity with the ”war on christmas” idea comes mainly from people who mock it. My main source of fast-food-quality argumentation to snack on during any multisecond window of free time I can get as a father of toddlers is Reddit, which isn’t exactly the nerve center of cultural conservatism. So I sort of have to stitch things together, drawing on similar situations I’m more familiar with.
The story seems to go like this: The word “christmas” and symbols of christmas are disappearing from the public arena. Both government entities and corporations shy away from them in an effort to be politically correct. If you put a conspiratorial spin on it, you could say that christmas is intentionally being removed from public life. Such patterns of thematically similar things happening in several places probably triggers our agency detection mechanisms, causing us to see singular intention where there is only unplanned parallelism.
Imagining agency where there is none is one way of setting off people’s this-is-obviously-wrong alarms, since a war is intentional and coordinated and this is not. Case closed. Or is it? You don’t have to take everything literally. Words are often used figuratively (citation needed), and in this case “war” is. Using it is hyperbolic, sure, but that isn’t the same thing as false, it just means that something is described as more important and dramatic than it actually is.
Still, how can christians be so deluded as to think that christmas, this behemoth of seasonal holidays, is in any way threatened? Reddit tries to find out by asking (on the atheism forum, suggesting it’s mostly a rhetorical question) “How can American Christians truly think there is a war on Christmas?“, but unfortunately no answer is particularly enlightening.
The question is accompanied by a picture of an empty parking lot on Christmas Day, meaning that if christmas has the power to keep the mighty retail stores closed it’s hardly threatened. And it’s not, christmas is by far the largest celebration in the western world and quite popular in some other places as well. To suggest that christmas is threatened because major institutions are making an effort to be more welcoming to non-christians (or non-christmas-celebrators, I say as a christmas-loving non-christian) seems obviously absurd.
Alright, erisology hat on. Engage armchair.
I wrote before that if someone says something ridiculous they may mean something other than what you think they mean. That tends to happen in cases like this when people disagree about the validity of some concept; some people think that X is clearly a real thing and those who deny it are lying or stupid or both, and other people find it equally obvious that X just points to something completely imagined. People can look at the same thing, see something different and declare the other blind. I wrote about this in the last half of this article.
A commenter on the Reddit thread said:
They don’t believe that there is a war on Christmas. They are lying.
Really? Everyone? That interpretation makes sense if “there is a war on Christmas” necessarily means “the existence of christmas is threatened” or “someone is out to destroy Christmas”. Nobody could believe that, so they must be lying. But these interpretations are not the only possible ones, and insisting that they are means you’re fighting straw men. At least “weak men”, since there are probably a few nuts who do think that, there always are. But an idea doesn’t gain traction on a large scale if it’s obviously wrong (and a wide conspiracy to lie is not credible). Even the most biased, twisted narrative needs a basis in reality to be accepted by more than a lunatic fringe.
So why does this come off as obviously wrong to so many? Because the meanings of vague, abstract concepts are more slippery than we usually think. When faced with a new concept people’s reactions ought to be “Ok, what does that mean, exactly? What claim is being made?” but that doesn’t happen. Instead we make a half-unconscious, split-second interpretation and treat that as the obviously correct one.
Here in Sweden the word “mass immigration” has for a while worked as a tribal shibboleth. Those who don’t like immigration use it to refer to the large flow of immigrants that’s been entering the country for a number of years now. Their opponents don’t use it and claim there is no such thing. The expressing seems to serve very little function besides as a mark of allegiance. I’ve seen it used a number of times, but never have I seen anyone (on either side) ask for clarification. If you claim that we have “mass immigration”, what are you claiming? “A lot of people are immigrating”? If so, then yes, this is fairly trivially true, the numbers are high both by historical standards and compared to other countries. Those who say no clearly don’t interpret it to mean this. Maybe “there is a concerted effort to immigrate in a large group, through collective decision” which seems equally clearly false.
The disagreement is not at all a matter of facts or empirical claims. It’s about whether immigrants should be conceptualized as an undifferentiated mass (anonymous and threatening) which fits the anti-immigration narrative, or as individuals (sympathetic people with faces) which fit the pro-immigration narrative. It’s perfectly understandable that there is disagreement about that. What irks me is that we pretend (to others and to ourselves) to disagree about the truth of statements.
This happens all the time, what is really a matter of differing attitudes gets treated as if it’s a matter of facts. It’s not about “what is true?” but “how should we model the world?” or ”what concepts should we use to refer to things?”. Those are ultimately about values, temperament, intellectual styles or underlying self-interest and these questions don’t have correct answers as such. And I guess that’s why we pretend, because then we can think of it like we’re right and they’re wrong.
An even better example is the minor brouhaha on a similar theme a year ago when a survey showed that one fifth of the population agreed with the statement “humankind can be divided into races”. Media outlets reporting the news pointed out that biologists have dispensed with race as a biological category, making sure the scandalous implications were clear. But the statement is actually extremely ambiguous, and the correct answer depends entirely on how it’s interpreted.
People very obviously do look different depending on where in the world their ancestors came from, and the features that vary are correlated, forming clusters. To make an analogy: the spectrum of visible light is continuous, but we still divide it into colors we give different names. Logically speaking you ought to be able to divide humans into races the same way even though you’d have to draw somewhat arbitrary boundaries, just like with colors. Seems like the answer could be “yes”. On the other hand, people’s features vary gradually, and much like the color spectrum form a (multidimensional) continuum. So if you mean “humans come in neatly separate ethnic categories” then the answer is “no”. I honestly wouldn’t know how to answer that question if I got it. Or rather, I would know because I know the question is really about attitudes and people are expected to (and do) interpret it the way that implies the answer they want.
An encounter with an ambiguous yet controversial-sounding claim starts with an instinctive emotional reaction. We infer the intentions or agenda behind the claim, interpret it in the way most compatible with our own attitude, and then immediately forget the second step ever happened and confuse the intended meaning with our own interpretation. This is a complicated way of saying that if you feel a statement is part of a rival political narrative you’ll unconsciously interpret it to mean something false or unreasonable, and then think you disagree with people politically because they say false and unreasonable things.
Depending on your political attitude, you interpret the phrase “War on Christmas” as meaning something obviously true or obviously ridiculous. We’ve discussed the ridiculous interpretations, what are the reasonable ones? What is the kernel of truth around which a hyperbolic narrative has congealed, and why do people find christmas threatened when by all accounts they have no reason to?
Another Reddit commenter hits on something important when criticizing an article that complains about the Infamous Plain Red Starbucks Cups of 2015:
The author doesn’t seem to understand that things like this are meant to make people of all cultures feel welcome, not to make Christians feel unwelcome. There is absolutely nothing about the “war on Christmas” that is actually anti-Christian. Really, it’s just opposed to a Christian monopoly on the holiday season.
Right. ”Christmas Warriors” are not worried christmas will disappear altogether, but that it will be removed from its privileged ”default” position. When public institutions and corporations stop using christmas symbols it means they are no longer making the assumption that everyone celebrates christmas. And since not everyone does it’s only fair and right to not make that assumption — if you did it would make many people feel excluded.
Liberal western societies have become increasingly concerned with this sort of issues recently, making more and more efforts to show respect to people who in various ways aren’t like the majority. For example, just in the last year or two I’ve seen it become way more common to include a third option on forms asking about your gender/sex, so you can pick some version of the answer that the dichotomy doesn’t apply to you. This concerns a very small minority of people, much smaller than the proportion of Americans that don’t celebrate christmas. Abolishing christmas’s “monopoly on the holiday season” seems overdue.
So it’s not strictly untrue that there is something going on that some conservatives call “war on christmas”, it just shouldn’t be called a war because it’s not actually an act of aggression. Christmas is just being asked to move over a bit to make room for few more around the table.
Unfortunately ”aggression” is not a technical term. It doesn’t have a perfectly unambiguous definition and a word with the unfortunate combination of fuzzy edges and charged connotation will get stretched and used as a weapon. Any action that has a negative effect on somebody else, however indirect and regardless of intention, can be called aggression if it’s rhetorically useful. By this logic de-monopolizing christmas can be called an act of aggression and a “war” if this somehow hurts christmas. But didn’t we just say it didn’t? Christmas is doing quite well.
Not necessarily. It still exists but it’s not the same as it used to be.
Christmas is a holiday and set of traditions, an institution. It’s a prime example of what we call social reality. Social reality exists. Not the way material objects like a rock or Neptune or a social-material composite like the European Parliament exist but the way abstract social entities exist: by “making” people think and do certain things. That’s not some second-class-existence consolation price, that’s what it means for social phenomena to exist.
I’m sure there is a sociological term for this but I don’t know it: some traditions/observances/holidays/rituals are the practical equivalent of common knowledge. Common knowledge are the things we normally assume other people know — not just what everyone knows, but what everyone knows everyone knows, etc. We can call this practical equivalent common practices. Common practices are things that ”everyone” does and that everyone knows everyone does and everyone knows everyone knows everyone does it. Christmas used to be a common practice in the western world (because the people who didn’t practice it didn’t count, and people “don’t count” in this context because they’re few, culturally powerless or both) but this is no longer quite the case.
Remember, social reality is real when people act like it’s real. That implies, obviously, that a practice is only real to the extent that people practice it. When something in social really becomes universal enough that it’s held by ”pretty much everyone” (i.e. nonconformists are dismissed as noise rather than acknowledged as a different signal) it goes through a qualitative shift, like water suddenly freezing to ice when the temperature drops. It hardens as social reality becomes as firm as it can be, knowledge becomes common knowledge and practice becomes common practice. It becomes assumed and unquestioned.
On some level we know, now in the (post)modern world, that social reality is ultimately arbitrary and only exist in our collective heads. If everyone just started to do things differently social reality would change. And we’re kind of uncomfortable with that, uncomfortable with the lack of ultimate, cosmic justification for what we do. Not everyone is equally uncomfortable with this, however, and that fuels a lot of political and cultural disagreements downstream.
Living in genuinely multicultural societies as we must in the 21st century (the alternative is both unworkable and unacceptable) forces us to confront, on an everyday basis, the fact that the particulars of our traditions and practices are arbitrary. Humans have evolved to live in small tribes, and small tribes have unified cultures, traditions and practices. All knowledge is common knowledge and all practices are common practices. In these conditions, facts of social reality can easily be considered as rock-hard as facts about the physical world. We don’t even understand the difference.
In large pluralistic societies only a few such features are hard enough for us to be able to push their arbitrariness out of our mind. When social practices cease to be the norm, the broadly unquestioned norm, they’re no longer maximally real. To go from consensus to just majority view, from immovable background to foreground player, even the biggest and strongest, is a demotion in ontological status.
This has happened before, to a lot of things. One of the more dramatic cases is that of the Earth. See, the Earth was destroyed during the early scientific revolution. But it’s still here? Yes, the physical object is here but the concept of Earth, the piece of social reality that represented the physical Earth and its relations to other things have been destroyed. Most of us aren’t aware it ever existed.
Philosopher Owen Flanagan’s book The Problem of the Soul is about how the concept of free will is incoherent and must be destroyed and replaced with a sturdier version. He knows this will be tough and uses the Copernican revolution to explain how someone might be dissatisfied with a non-magical account of free will:
Now imagine a forlorn defender of the Ptolemaic view who has accepted defeat saying to his therapist, “We have lost the earth. There is no earth. Earth doesn’t exist.” Is this guy out of touch with reality? Maybe not. There is a sense in which Ptolemaic astronomy and Copernican astronomy can be said not to mean the same thing by the term “earth” since they assign it radically different, indeed mutually inconsistent properties. According to the first view, the earth is stationary and the center of the universe. According to the second view, the earth is in double rotation- first, on its own axis, second, around the sun and is not even the center of the solar system, let alone the universe. The therapist, if she is wise, will see what it is that legitimately worries the Ptolemaic. She might try to relieve his despair by saying, and saying truly, that there is still a sense in which the two views do mean the same thing by “earth,” namely, “this heavenly body we call home.” But the Ptolemaic may rightly respond that he meant much more by “earth” than this thin idea, this primitive core sense. By “earth” he meant this heavenly body we call home and that is stationary and lies at the center of the universe. Earth, in his sense, no longer exists. He sees this and even accepts that it is true, but it sickens his soul.
The Earth being the at center of the universe before the Copernican revolution was much more than just a matter of astronomy. It was central to the whole moral order of the universe. Higher was better, and the moral ladder extended from Hell in the bowels of the Earth, past the surface and onto the Heavens. Nowadays the idea of moral order being built into the structure of the universe is just weird. The Ptolemaic was right, his world was destroyed.
Could the Ptolemaics reasonably have claimed there was a ”war on Earth” going on during the scientific revolution? Well, doing so would be hyperbolic, paranoid-sounding and inscrutable to outsiders but they would have had some kind of point and it should be acknowledged that they were in fact losing something, however necessary the loss was. I can easily see how, just like thinking that being in the center of the universe is what makes Earth Earth and magical circumvention of causality is what makes free will free, a modern christian could think that a “monopoly on the holiday season” is necessary for christmas to really be Christmas.
So can I justify protesting about the things ”christmas warriors” protest about? Well, you can of course protest about what you want, but I can’t agree that de-monopolizing christmas should be judged as a net negative and stopped. What’s happening has to happen, the alternative would be wrong. But I’m also just a little bit sad that it has to happen and I think it’s ok to feel that way. I really do sympathize with the Ptolemaic. And maybe I’m being naïve but I suspect people would be less angry and less likely to unreasonably demand change if only their concerns were understood and acknowledged.
I really don’t want to say ”dismissed” here because it kind of precludes acknowledgement. I want a word that says ”understood and taken into account but not getting its way in the end”. Interestingly there doesn’t seem to be a word like that.
It is intentionally done by each actor, but the pattern as a whole is not intentional. There is a middle ground between completely independent actors doing similar things and a unified conspiracy — such as technically independent actors acting similarly because they’re loosely unified by a particular set of ideas or interests. Both the left and the right often identify such semi-coordinated formations, and they tend to find them in different places, calling them things like “the cathedral” or “the kyriarchy”. These things tend to sound like conspiracies when you talk about them, possibly also when you think about them.
I think that outright lying is much rarer than most people think, at least in situations like this.
Declaring large sections of the population lunatic fringe is getting more popular. I don’t think this is very healthy.
It should be noted that the analog of “race” is not normally used in Swedish to refer to humans, making its connotation closer to “breeds” in English.
Which humans with their sophisticated social instincts are pretty good at, although not as good as they think because our current social environment is extremely unnatural.
For some reason there seems to be a bug in the human reasoning system that thinks adding hyperbole to an argument makes it sound more persuasive, when instead it often does the opposite. I can see two possible explanations: either we’re just not well adapted to talking with people who don’t share our worldviews, or we’re bad at distinguishing effective “convincing opponents”-rhetoric from “riling up the soldiers”-rhetoric.
Neither is marriage, which has an almost identical controversy surrounding it. I think there is something similar going on when people say that the world wars and associated cultural movements ”destroyed objectivity, truth and progress” — my reaction has always been that those things are alive and well, thank you very much. But that might be because I haven’t experienced the world before postmodernity and don’t know what these things were like before; if you actually thought that absolute certain knowledge or a perfect society was possible I guess it had to be horrible to have to let that conviction go.
“Common practice” does mean something like this in music history, where it refers to the period in european classical music (roughly 1600-1900) where everyone composed in a cohesive tradition with common standards and practices. I don’t know if it or a similar term is used in other fields.
It’s typical of social constructivists to deliberately conflate physical things with the concepts that represent them in discourse (please hold objections of the kind ”it’s concepts all the way down!” until after the lecture. Thank you.). This is usually a highly annoying habit that obscures the useful part of what they have to say in exchange for making it more radical-sounding and exciting (it also makes you feel clever, I noticed). I’ll try to avoid doing that when using their ideas.
I may be butchering this.
Being religious in today’s world is quite hard for me to imagine accurately, and I guess that many still feel that moral order in inscribed in the structure of the world somehow, and that we’re erroneously denying it by treating it as arbitrary (and treating Christmas like just any celebration). But that’s a matter of religion and such disagreements are really beyond argumentation, you’ll need to start at a much more foundational level before you get to such details. I’ve tried to give an account that doesn’t depend on the accuracy of religious beliefs. I think it works, and I think of religion as the ultimate expression of the desire to reify social reality anyway.
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12 thoughts on “Case Study: The War on Christmas”
“When faced with a new concept people’s reactions ought to be “Ok, what does that mean, exactly? What claim is being made?” but that doesn’t happen. Instead we make a half-unconscious, split-second interpretation and treat that as the obviously correct one.”
Yes. How do we bypass this mechanism of “instinctive emotional reaction,” as you put later? Is it tribal? Is it the way an idea is phrased that turns off those who hear it? The source who delivers it? The qualification “ambiguous-sounding” makes me think phrasing plays a part, but is not necessarily the orchestrator, since all language is ambiguous, and phrasing merely alters degree.
Indeed, this essay seems at its core about the slipperiness of language, about how hard it is to be understood by people even slightly unlike you. I see where your interest in the subcultural side of language compression comes from, and the ways in which the problem runs so much deeper.
“We pretend to disagree” is a fascinating and controversial way to phrase this idea, and the fact that the wording makes me want so badly to… push back on it… strikes me as a good indicator of its effectiveness. So often, when two seriously committed — committed, that is, to generosity and discovery instead of victory — parties attempt to bridge a gap, to resolve a disagreement, the outcome is “Oh, I guess we basically agree.” This is a resolution of conflicting attitudes, yes, and of /positionings/. Positionings relative to others, in response, as counterballast, as differentiation. This isn’t necessarily bad. To use your own example: I think it’s a good thing, perhaps, and at least with good intent, that progressives argue the non-existence of race as human category. An essentialist tradition of identity politics is a discursive heritage which has proved infinitely damaging. But if the other side doesn’t understand this… this compensation… to get to a nuanced equilibrium… then they perceive progressives as ignorant to biology or fact. It magnifies perceptions of partisanship far beyond actual disparities in worldview.
(None of this is not to imply that fundamental disagreements in worldview and ideology never exist. But as one winnows down from global to national, then state/regional/cultural groups, these disagreements become increasingly minor.)
Have you read any of Sarah Perry’s work on narratives, virality, and conspiracy theories? I think they’re up your alley.
I also think, based on your Ptolemaic section and interest in neologisms, you would appreciate the term “ambijectivity.” It may be worth a Google search.
I apologize; I just checked your blogroll and you’re likely already familiar with the linked concepts. Glad to see you’re back writing; looking forward to future posts.
Thanks for many interesting thoughts! I’ll just write some brief comments because I have to get back to work…
I’d say this essay is about two things that conveniently come together in this particular controversy: progressives’ and conservatives’ differing feelings toward the postmodern condition, and the destructive potency of the combination of reason as being fundamentally about rationalization and persuasion rather than inquiry, and the slipperiness of language. “Ambiguous-sounding” may have been a bad phrase, since I explicitly meant that things are almost always more ambiguous than they sound.
Unfortunately the instinctive emotional reaction bit seems close to hard-wired (at least if I understand Haidt correctly) and needs to be explicitly overridden the way you might try to do with other biases. I don’t think it’s going away any time soon.
IThe “Oh, I guess we basically agree” thing has happened to me more than once and it’s a large part of what led me into thinking that misunderstandings are a large component of dysfunctional disagreement in general. Hence “erisology”.
don’t think we “pretend to disagree” as such, more that we are half-conscious collaborators to a misunderstanding about the nature of disagreements because we want them to have correct answers.
About the race thing… yes, I think it’s a good thing to emphasize the continuity and non-categoricalness about ethnicity (I don’t like the word race, it strikes me as blunt and unpleasant), but that can be done more effectively by not opening oneself up to criticism by asserting something indefensibly strong. I’m for a similar reason somewhat worried by the recent turn towards re-essentialization (albeit of a sociological kind) of “race” among anti-racist activists.
I absolutely agree that fundamental disagreements do exist, but they’re often buried beneath several layers of confusion, which makes things worse.
I am no longer a Christian and was never particularly invested in this, but I think there’s more to it than this. Besides the “war” part being hyperbole, you also need to understand that there are multiple definitions of “Christmas” in play. Does this refer to a specifically religious holiday commemorating the birth of Jesus or a holiday consisting of all sorts of traditions that have nothing in particular to do with that? This is why some evangelicals like to remind people “Jesus is the reason for the season.” The issue is essentially cultural appropriation (reverse appropriation?), though that’s not really part of their language. They see a sacred religious holiday being stripped of everything that made it sacred while everything else about it is being amplified by a variety of forces at work in our culture. Christmas trees and lights and a Santa Claus not too closely connected to Saint Nicholas are in no danger, but what will become of the religious holiday? Will “Christmas” become like Valentine’s Day — celebrated by people of all religions in a country where no one knows it’s named after a Catholic saint? That would be the death of Christmas to people worried about the “War on Christmas”, and the fear isn’t totally unrealistic.
The concern is probably overblown. Religious Christmas lives on in church, though it is regarded by most kids as the boring part of Christmas. And how big of a deal is appropriation anyway? What concern is it of yours what others do with (parts of) your traditions? Christmas was born of cultural appropriation and may die of it; this is a major part of the creative process of cultures. The ultimate irony is that the parts of the holiday appropriated from other religions are the parts that appears secular and seem to be the most sticky — Christmas has turned into a Protestant country’s secular version of a pagan winter solstice celebration plus (Catholic) Saint Nicholas Day. And most of us enjoy it just fine that way!
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Someone just pointed me in the direction of your blog and I’m finding it fascinating. I know I’m way behind the times but I have a question: why do you think it’s desirable for Christmas to lose its centrality?
The other changes you mention having been made are ones to make people feel more included. But Christmas is already inclusive (I speak as a third or fourth generation atheist whose family celebrates a secular Christmas happily). You know, the whole “Peace on earth and goodwill to all”. This isn’t like barring some people from a university education because of their skin colour. You don’t need to eat a particular food, or drink a particular drink, or play to a deity you don’t believe in. All you need to do is decorate in red and green, wish people a Merry Christmas and celebrate.
The people who don’t celebrate Christmas are excluding themselves by choice (with the exception maybe of the very poor who don’t tend to be politically active). Maybe they feel that they have good reason to. Maybe they feel that they have to. But why should their deliberate decision to exclude themselves impose an obligation on the rest of us to abandon our tradition of inclusivity? If you want to turn down all invitations to be merry and to enjoy peace and goodwill then I figure you can jolly well content yourself with whatever reasons are behind your choice.
And who wants to lose all shared traditions from our public culture? To be limited to the bare minimum of human survival? What a depressing thought.
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I’m not sure exactly what you’re getting from this but I don’t find it desirable, as such. The loss of common culture in the 20th century is something I’m concerned and sad about. And in general, I very much support making an effort to take part in the traditions of the society you live in. I’m a something like third generation atheist as well and for me Christmas has never been about religion per se.
What I feel I can’t justify is trying to maintain a default position “by force”, so to speak. It’s still people’s choice and at some point it must be acknowledged. I can feel quite some sympathy for the position that a dominant/centered cultural practice has a certain right to remain so, but I don’t want that principle to be taken too far.
I agree with you that it would be really wrong to force people to celebrate Christmas – be that by passing a law mandating Christmas or beating people up or the like. But isn’t that a weakman position? What’s actually going on is stuff like boycotting businesses who use bland language (or outside the USA, government entities) or pushing back against people who are trying to make “Happy Holidays” the default greeting, it’s using social pressure to ‘force’ institutions to notice that many of their customers really value the communal, public nature of Christmas.
And I don’t understand what you mean by “It’s still people’s choice”: of course people are choosing to support Christmas as a public, communal festival. Is this something about how we don’t really choose our preferences in some Platonic sense, instead we are all the product of our cultural backgrounds?
As for acknowledging, the whole point of democracy is to acknowledge the choice of the majority of people. From my observation, businesses and institutions are falling over themselves to acknowledge people’s choices on this, they’re even denying that there’s a war on Christmas.
I think by “by force” I mean something more like expending work and social pressure to maintain a cultural default that no longer reflects its society – working against the natural evolution of that society, I suppose. But I understand if that isn’t convincing. I’m conflicted myself.
I mean that while it’s generally good to take part in a majority culture’s traditional celebration it’s of course your own choice to do so. Problems arise because choices not to eventually start to naturally erode the solidity of the tradition. To avoid that I guess you need to either pressure people to take part or artificially pretend that they don’t exist and I find it difficult to justify any of that.
I keep replying to old posts, but this comment really intrigued me…
You don’t need to eat a particular food, or drink a particular drink, or pray to a deity you don’t believe in. All you need to do is decorate in red and green, wish people a Merry Christmas and celebrate.
…because logically, that’s totally correct, but if you look around the Jewish blogosphere, you actually will find some conversations that go something like this:
Person 1: “Yeah, I’m Jewish, but I do enjoy looking at the Christmas decorations around town, listening to some seasonal classical music, having a relaxing day and a nice dinner with my family, and watching Scrooge on TV. I mean, hey, December 25th is a federal holiday in the US and I’m off school/work, so I might as well enjoy it!”
Person 2: “If you celebrate Christmas in any way, shape, or form, you are *literally* celebrating the birth of Jesus, which is an insult to our Jewish heritage. The only reason that you even have the day off is because the academic and governmental calendars were set up that way in service of Christian supremacism.”
The Persons 2 in these conversations in my experience are not Orthodox folks, but fairly secular left-wing/”woke” types.
Another example: on the “Ask a Manager” blog, whenever the topic of “holidays at the office” comes up, you’ll find people coming out of the woodwork to say very earnestly that pine tree decorations and “Secret Santa” are inherently religious and thus deeply offensive to non-Christians.
I’ve been trying to figure out why I’m so much less bothered than a lot of other Jews about this, and here are my thoughts — the most recent post on 5/22/20 actually helped me crystallize some of this a bit.
Along the lines of the 5/22 post, you could say that I too grew up in a fairly “conservatism-free” environment. My hometown is a small, very liberal, very cosmopolitan college town in a deeply blue state. (I’m a mid-to-late Millennial, to give some context as to the time period.) What passed for conservatism there was extremely tame compared to conservatism in certain other places. Much as John describes in that later post about conservatism existing “across the Atlantic”, religious fundamentalism was kind of a cartoonish boogeyman to me and my contemporaries — we didn’t encounter anyone who seriously thought that way. My own religious upbringing was also not strict by any means. I remember a moment in college when I thought “huh, yeah, I guess I’m an atheist” — which gives you some idea of the level of effort I’d previously dedicated to thinking about such things.
Things were not perfect, obviously, but it wasn’t an environment where Christianity was held up as a superior way of life, where we were pressured to pray in school, where creationism was in any danger of being taught in science class, where “concerned” parents or teachers tried to ban Harry Potter or D&D for being “Satanic”, or anything like that. I sang in local youth choirs between the ages of about 7 and 15, and I never had a problem with singing religious music. The Faure Requiem, the Britten Ceremony of Carols, the Vivaldi Magnificat, etc. are great music and I was glad I got to sing them!
Anyway, it wasn’t until I was an adult that I truly realized the extent to which some people *did* grow up in an environment where Christianity was pushed on everyone and held up as superior. If you were Jewish, or atheist, or Muslim, or whatever, and you were constantly being told both explicitly and implicitly that you were going to hell, or that Christians were better people…and your community chorus performances *were* meant to be an endorsement of Christianity…and you saw pine tree decorations go up every year *along with* the message that Jesus was the “reason for the season”…then maybe yeah, you wouldn’t be a big fan of the symbolic elements like certain music and decorations, even when used by people for whom they don’t symbolize anything at all. (Or people for whom they symbolize other, totally idiosyncratic things like “my childhood memories of singing in choirs”.)
As for cultural universality…this is something that I’ve seen come up a lot around Thanksgiving in recent years. I’ve read a few tweets saying things along the lines of “Thanksgiving is for spending time with family and for peaceful reflection” (i.e., not for shopping). I am not a rabid Black Friday shopper by any means, so these tweets are not aimed at me, but nevertheless I feel a pang of resentment when being told which days “should” be special or sacred to me! If Thanksgiving ceased to exist, I would not really care. And much though I can find things to celebrate at Christmas, I’m not sure I would bother to do so if I had more free choice. I’m approvingly intrigued by the growing trend of companies giving employees a certain number of “floating holidays” instead of some of the set holidays — partially in order to avoid having to police a million religious accommodations over the course of the year, I think, but it also seems like those companies are acknowledging that not everyone has the desire to observe particular holidays, and so to some extent they let them choose instead. And jettisoning some shared traditions from your own life doesn’t necessarily mean limiting yourself to “the bare minimum of human survival” — not if you replace them with traditions or practices of your own, which are meaningful to you and/or your loved ones.
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Thank you for taking the time to write this long, thoughtful comment. I appreciate it. I think it illustrates very well the complexities around how people imbue symbolic actions with different meanings and have very different opinions on how we ought to change or preserve those meanings, which all interacts with whether we actually do the meaning-laden things in question.
Another way to understand what is going on (assuming one wants to, which is a rather big if…) is to create an analogous situation in a different space.
One aspect of this that I think you missed is the business of “The True Meaning of Christmas” (which, according to the mass media has something to do with family, nostalgia, and giving presents while pretending they’re not important). Note that this “True Meaning”
(a) has nothing to do with Jesus or any other aspect of Christian Theology
(b) is imposed as the “True Meaning” by people who are not Christians, or barely care that they are.
So what, you say, what’s wrong with bland talk about family and nostalgia.
Well, let’s take a parallel view. Suppose I created an after school special about “The True Meaning of Equality” in which I said that this true meaning was all about colors: buying clothes that are rainbow colored, painting a baby’s room green, choosing whatever color car you feel like. Sure, there are some fundamental wokists who claim that it’s supposed to actually represent some crazy biological theory that makes zero sense (if you listen to them, they will claim with a straight face that men and women are absolutely identical, identical in thought, identical in physical capacities). But all sane people understand that the words are a metaphor, they are hardly literal.
So are the wokists justified in being upset at this “War on Equality”?
Would they be more justified if every children’s cartoon, every sitcom, every supposedly controversial movie about a woman who tried to be exactly equal to a man in psychology and physiology, but discovered that the True Meaning of Equality was that she could feel comfortable wearing blue trousers, made this same point?
What’s actually the problem here? Do you not want people to have a choice of colors?
At the end of the day, it boils down, doesn’t it, to whether you believe that Jesus really WAS God. And it boils down to whether you believe men really ARE equal to women psychologically and physically (or whatever the shibboleth is this week). And it especially boils down to “Who are you to tell me the True Meaning of my beliefs”.
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Good points. I agree that a lot of serious Christians probably are upset at this (I think they don’t have much of a leg to stand on, esp. considering how midwinter celebrations are older than Christianity and clearly co-opted into Christmas, but that’s a separate matter) but I see it as a different thing than most complaints of “a war on Christmas”, which to me seems to involve the disappearance of symbols more than an erosion of the perceived meaning of those symbols (i.e. “Christmas isn’t about Jesus anymore” seems to me different complaint). But maybe my view is limited, given that I’m seeing it from such a distance.