Merry Christmas

Boy, do I feel Target’s pain. They exile specific reference to Christmas in their ads and store decorations in order not to offend people who “don’t celebrate it” (except perhaps as a secular exercise in demonstrating love through stuff), and then they get slammed for offending Christians, at least the Christians whose principal exercise of faith would appear to be lying in wait to make people feel guilty for something. In all of this, the guiding principle seems to be to “not offend”, but the principle has evolved quite far from its origins in Golden Rule manners to mean something like “don’t say or do anything that the most sensitive person with the largest chip on his shoulder could interpret, on his most truculent day, into something offensive”.

The Christmas wars alone could keep an army of Jonathan Swifts busy for years; I don’t know where to begin counting ironies, though Reuters has a nice roundup of current idiocy here that mentions this pointed jape. Christmas displaced Easter as the principal Christian holiday quite some time ago, with annual tut-tutting from here and there about the commercialization of the secondary Christian mystery, but no important revolt in Christian circles; some big churches are to close on Christmas Sunday this year expecting too few worshipers to bother with. No-one has figured out how to make real money from Peeps and hard-boiled eggs, I guess, so Easter is toast.

A minor Jewish holiday having no theological relationship to Christmas was inflated to completely inappropriate parallel status, first by school administrators trying to be fair, then by many Jews. (If Christians had maintained the historic importance of Easter in community activity, Passover would have been embraced in the same ridiculous way; in fact the Italian for Passover, Pasqua Ebraica, means Jewish Easter, truly an oxymoron for the ages.) A new holiday was invented by and for blacks uncomfortable with the asserted inclusive aims of Christianity (or with the spotty record of white Christians in walking their talk with regard to race); it seems not to have held up in recent years. The Moslems, whose lunar calendar is not solar-adjusted, are unable to play this game as their holidays cycle around the solar year. If they would stand still, I’m sure something would be inflated, not necessarily by them, into a sort of “Islamic Christmas”.

The attempt by the Christian right to put a lien on anything red and green is as outrageous as the political right’s appropriation of the flag, and I hope they wake up and start being extra-Christian around the holidays, instead of extra-self-righteous and extra-nail-everyone-they-can-catch for offending them or not displaying enough pietism. (Of course my idea of being extra-Christian is heavy on turning the other cheek, hating the sin and loving the sinner, hoping for a lot of redemption, seeing God’s goodness in everyone wherever possible, helping the meek to inherit what they’re too shy to ask for, and like that.)

The facts of the situation are that we have at least three distinct community rituals called Christmas. One is the Christian celebration of Jesus’ birth, and I hope all my friends certain of Christ’s divinity have a merry one, and when I meet them this time of year I try to remember to say so. The second is a US legal holiday, and a period around it, in which we ambiguously (and rightly so) note that lots of Americans have thought this birth is a very big deal, and that lots more think it’s in any case a really nice idea to gather in families, exchange gifts, have a decorated tree, and so on.

This holiday has accreted, with and without specific religious reference, an enormous amount of delightful social capital including Nutcracker, Messiah, and Christmas Carol performances, carols, parties, fundraising for good causes, temporary home decorating projects, yummy irresponsible eating and cooking with special dishes from different places, being out and about shopping and looking and meeting people and working at the homeless shelter, and on and on. I hope all my friends, and everyone else, have a really merry one of these too, and when I go around saying Merry Christmas this is what I mean. (I am a New Year’s grinch, believing that (American) Labor Day marks our de facto new year, and finding Dec. 31 celebrations usually forced and overfueled with ethanol).

Finally, Christmas denotes an orgy of buying chattels beyond any possible benefit, insane advertising and price-cutting, insecurity about whether one has chosen exactly the right gifts for enough people, some distasteful piggishness among the young (well satirized in Calvin and Hobbes), and an outbreak of completely shameless extortion (my newspaper deliverer left me an envelope addressed to him with a card inside; God help you if you live in a New York apartment building). If this third version of “Christmas” goes away, or returns to a focus on signalling love rather than a potlatchesque one-upping and showing-off, it will be fine by me, as there is no way this third Christmas can ever be merry. All those trees that die for Sunday newspaper inserts would be better as Christmas trees or 2x4s.

I am not a Christian, so if someone wishes me a Merry Christmas in this environment, I have alternative ways to take it. One is to enjoy the experience of being wished well by another, impute good will to the source, and enjoy the second Christmas incrementally more.

Another is to take offense, and here the options are rich and varied:

“How dare you address me in this matter without being fully informed of my confession! You are thoughtless and careless to bet the odds on (i) the Christian preponderance in the US population (about 3 in 4) and/or (ii) my name, rather than making inquiry of me or my friends before you say something nice to me. You should be ashamed.”

“Ah, ‘Merry Christmas’, you say. I bet you mean that in the imperative mood, ordering me under cover of a greeting to convert to your religion. You’re a child of the cossacks and the inquisition, and so are the stores with their holly and ribbons, just carrying on centuries of oppression and abuse. You should be ashamed.”

“Merry Christmas? You said that out loud, here in a government institution [I teach in a state university]? Do you realize you’re creating an establishment of religion? You should be ashamed.”

Once I get in this track, my friend can’t win. “‘Happy Holidays’? You sound like a Wal-Mart sign. I only celebrate one of them, and I’m offended that you blur your greeting over the one[s] I don’t.”

I could easily produce a similar paragraph on alternative ways to take a merchant’s, or a friend’s, attempt to be nice while not giving offense by saying “Have a nice holiday.”

The point is that we have as strong a duty to take things as though people mean well, even if we could nail them for making a mistake, as we do to be gracious and thoughtful on the sending side. Anyway, I cannot for the life of me understand how a reasonable person of any faith can take offense at someone’s well-meaning attempt to spread cheer, or turn it into a trap. (I don’t even mind being proselytized, within reason; it’s a compliment that someone wants to save my soul and often leads to an interesting theological argument.)

Jews are about one American in fifty, Moslems another one (depending on how you count). The idea that the popular culture of December in the US should ignore or hide its religious sources, or that it should not be overwhelmingly Christian-flavored, seems to me to get it completely wrong. Nobody’s rights are violated by demographic facts. Italian schools have a crucifix in each classroom; that’s a bad idea for us, and a cross would be as well. But singing Christmas carols in school in season is no more establishing religion than letting the chorus sing Bach is preaching Lutheranism. Life isn’t better when we don’t get to look at other cultures, its better when we do; religion matters, so we ought to be about learning more, not less, in school and out, about what other people believe and don’t.

Merry Christmas, readers. I hope you overdose shamelessly on stollen and panettone and latkes. And a Happy New Year, retroactive three or four months or both, as you prefer.


Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.