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December 1, 2005 Newsletter

Well, here we are, another year gone by in the blink of an eye and Christmas is fast approaching.  Given what I’m hearing on the news lately, I suppose I’m already in trouble for using the “C” word in this installment of my newsletter.  It would seem there is a purported movement afoot to “ban Christmas” not only this year, but forevermore.

The American Family Association (AFA), Bill O’Reilly of Fox News, and others have publicized the fact that most major retailers (who certainly don’t mind generating 20% or more of their annual profits in the name of Christmas) have removed the word “Christmas” from all their in-store promotions and retail advertising.  AFA, in a petition circulated via the Web, named Kmart, Sears, Kohl’s, Home Depot, Lowe’s, Target, JCPenney, Best Buy, Wal-Mart, Kroger, OfficeMax, Walgreen’s, Staples, BJ's, and Dell as examples of retailers who have chosen instead to promote “Happy Holidays” and “Season’s Greetings.”  There seems to be quite a firestorm brewing, so I’ve been spending some time thinking about it.

This sort of has me between a rock and a hard place, since I’ve gone to great lengths to establish myself as a guru of sorts on the topic of “common sense”—even to the point of writing a series of books on commonsense living, beginning with Teaching Common Sense, which came out earlier this year—I have no choice but to at least attempt to apply a little common sense to this debate.  This hasn’t been easy.  After all, common sense, as I define it, is “practical wisdom,” and this debate is anything but practical to me.  But, I did my research, did some thinking and even some soul searching, and tried to apply a little common sense, and as a result I’ve concluded that this whole idea of banning Christmas in the United States is just ridiculous.

Don’t get me wrong.  I have a very open mind.  I love all people equally, regardless of any social divisions human beings can dream up.  I think all my selfless humanitarian mission and volunteer work with people of all nationalities and ethnicities proves how inclusive I am in my thinking and my actions . . . forsaking no one.  Mine is not a narrow-minded opinion.  It’s just simply not practical to me to attempt to remove from our culture a holiday that has not only been observed in this country for centuries, but has been observed in other countries around the world longer than our country has been in existence.  (And, by the way, Christmas continues to be observed in those countries without controversy, I might add.)

This debate appears to be unique to the United States.  I don’t guess it’s any wonder, since we are, of course, a nation founded on freedom and built up from a diverse melting pot of immigrants and cultures.  I suppose debates such as these just go with the territory.  I do respect and appreciate that uniquely American right to speak out openly about what we do and do not believe.  But let’s face it.  This whole political-correctness thing is getting out of hand.  Sometimes I think we need to remind ourselves as a nation of what all behavioral scientists know, and that is that any strength taken to its extreme can and will become a weakness.

Crystal Humphrey, a UT student and staff writer for The University of Tennessee’s online newspaper, The Daily Beacon, has written a wonderful article on this subject, entitled Xmas not same as Christmas (follow this link to Crystal’s article: UT Daily Beacon Nov 28 2005 "Xmas not same as Christmas").  In her editorial, she observes that this movement to turn a Judeo-Christian tradition into a “non-denominational winter holiday,” all in the name of political correctness, actually flies in the face of the very principles of inclusion for which it pretends to strive.  Crystal points out that this movement actually disrespects the population who do observe Christmas as a Judeo-Christian tradition.  Therefore, trying to silence that population, by “banning Christmas,” is no better than Christians trying to force their religion on someone.

Like it or not, Christmas is a religious holiday.  It’s a holiday intended to observe the birth of Jesus, whether you believe him to be the Messiah and the Christ Child, or simply a great philosopher.  Regardless, remembering his birth is still the reason for the holiday.

Christmas has been observed in the world since 98 AD.  In 137 AD, a solemn feast was ordered in Rome to celebrate the birth.  And from as far back as 336-350 AD (depending on which source of information is referenced) December 25 has been designated on the Roman calendar as the day to observe Christmas.  It is an inarguable fact that it is a long tradition in the world with a rich history.

In the European countries, the traditions of celebrating Christmas were enriched in the 1100’s with the addition of St. Nicholas to symbolize the spirit of giving.  Throughout the 1400’s and 1500’s, the nativity (the circumstances of Jesus’ birth) was a favorite of the artists of those eras.  In the days of the early American settlers, Captain John Smith wrote that Christmas had been enjoyed by all in the Jamestown Settlement.  During the 1800’s, most of the Christmas carols we enjoy today were written, and Santa Claus emerged to replace St. Nicholas.  Then, on June 26, 1870, Christmas was declared as a federal U.S. holiday, which it has now been in this country for over a century.

When I worked in The Netherlands, I became familiar with the Dutch traditions for the national observance of Christmas.  A special Advent (the season of the coming of Christ) ceremony is held to “scare off evil spirits,” reminiscent of the vanquishing of evil in the world through Christ’s coming, which they commemorate and declare with blasts of homemade horns.  In addition, the Dutch observe the tradition of “Sinterklaas,” a cultural event of giving, from which the modern Santa Claus was derived.

Sinterklaas is said to have originated from St. Nicolaus, the Bishop of Mira, Turkey, who did good things for children.  Instead of living at the North Pole as the American Santa does, Sinterklaas lives in Spain.  No one I asked in the all-white Dutch country knew the answer to the mystery of how they ended up with a black Santa from Spain, much to my amusement.  But one thing is certain, they love their Sinterklaas.  (Some theories are that there is a connection between the origin of Sinterklaas and the prior Spanish domination over The Netherlands.)

In the Dutch tradition, halfway through November there is a big spectacle when the Sinterklaas arrives in The Netherlands.  Television crews await his arrival from Spain at a port where he docks his steamboat full of presents, along with the horse on which Sinterklaas travels, and Zwarte Pieten (literally translated "black Pete", who is Sinterklaas' helper. . . my stars, can you imagine what an outrage that would set off in this country?!)  They are welcomed by a huge crowd of children and parents.  Simultaneously, Sinterklaas arrives at every city or village in The Netherlands.  Suspicious children, who understand the impossibility of simultaneous sightings of Sinterklaas throughout the country, discover that this grand event unfolds with the help of “hulp-Sinterklazen” (people who help Sinterklaas by dressing up like him).

After his arrival, Sinterklaas goes on a tour through the village accompanied by several Zwarte Pieten, who throw different types of sweets around on the ground for children.  After this day, Sinterklaas begins his assessment of all the children’s behavior in the past year, and proceeds to hand out presents.  It all culminates on the evening of December 5.  With the exception of the date, it sounds a little familiar, doesn’t it?  It should, because the early Dutch settlers who came to our country brought these age-old traditions with them.  Too bad this centuries-old tradition of giving and celebration of life is politically incorrect now.  I wonder when someone in The Netherlands is finally going to wake up and realize this and start a “ban Sinterklaas” movement?

I suppose, with all the Mexican and Central American immigrants moving into the United States, we’ll have to ban Christmas in their countries, too, won’t we?  No more “Feliz Navidad.”  That’s too bad, because “La Posades”, the remarkable buildup to Christmas Eve, is perhaps the most beautiful of all their colorful traditions.  Working, traveling and volunteering in Mexico, Nicaragua and Guatemala created in me a desire to know more about the customs celebrated in these unique cultures.  La Posades (Spanish for The Inn) begins on December 16th and commemorates the events in the journey of Mary and Joseph (Jesus’ parents) from Nazareth to Bethlehem.  After dark, each night of the “Posada,” a procession begins led by two children.  The children carry a small pine-decorated platform bearing replicas of Joseph and Mary riding a burro.  Other members of the company, all with lighted long slender candles, sing the “Litany of the Virgin” as they approach the door of the house assigned to the first Posada.  Together they chant an old traditional song and awaken the master of the house to ask for lodging for Mary (who is about to give birth to Jesus).  Those within the house threaten the company with beatings unless they move on, just as the Bible records innkeepers responded to the original Virgin Mary.  Again, the company pleads for admittance.  When the owner of the house finally learns who his guests are, he jubilantly throws open the doors of welcome, with Ave Marias and a prayer.  Then it’s time for the “Piñata” filled with goodies for the children, refreshments and dancing.  On Christmas Eve another verse is added in the Ave Maria telling the Virgin Mary that the desired night has come.  Small children dressed as shepherds stand on either side of the nativity scene, while members of the company kneel and sing a litany, after which the Christ Child is lulled to sleep with the cradle song, “El Rorro” (Babe in Arms).  Just imagining this reminds me of numerous, sweet little Christmas plays I’ve participated in or watched down through the years.

These are beautiful traditions that harm no one, just as I am not harmed by the Jewish tradition of lighting the Menorah during their celebration of Hanukah, and I, for one, would shudder at the thought of telling these good folks that they need to forget Feliz Navidad in favor of something more politically correct like Fiestas Felices (Happy Holidays) or Saludos de la estación (Season’s Greetings).  Just doesn’t quite have the same ring as Feliz Navidad, does it?  Even in Spanish, it seems something important is lost in the translation.

Nevertheless, in this country anyway, the translation has already begun.  While visiting my sister and her family in Nashville the weekend before Thanksgiving, I discovered definitive proof.  She and her friends and neighbors were already complaining about the use of “Xmas” instead of “Christmas.”  Radio broadcasts were even announcing the date, time and location of various upcoming “Xmas” parties and events.  I was a little shocked myself, I’ll have to admit.  I’d never before heard anyone actually use—I mean actually pronounce—the word “Xmas” in a sentence.  But, despite my shock and surprise then, and even as I write this now, I have to smile at the irony.  The tradition of sometimes substituting “Xmas” for “Christmas” actually began in the early Christian church.  In Greek, “X” is the first letter of Christ’s name.  So, the Greek letter “X” is frequently used as a holy symbol.  Now tell the truth.  Doesn’t that just give you a little chuckle?  In our so-called politically correct attempts to be all-inclusive (by removing Christ from Christmas), we’ve actually substituted a centuries-old holy symbol?  In the immortal words of Larry the Cable Guy from The Blue Collar Comedy Tour and cable television show, “I don’t care who you are, that’s funny!”

Oh well, the debate will rage on, I’m sure.  And what I’ve said here will probably only add fuel to the fire, rather than help put it out.  Nevertheless, I feel compelled to share my opinion.  Apparently, I’m not alone.  Some pretty big hitters are beginning to swing their weight around too.  In addition to cable news personality, Bill O’Reilly, I heard today that by order of Speaker of the House, Dennis Hastert, the “Capitol Hill Holiday Tree” has been renamed the “Capital Christmas Tree.”  And I also read today that, in reaction to the AFA petition and all the media attention, Lowe’s has issued a statement claiming the “Holiday” language on their banners was actually a “mistake,” and all “holiday” signs have been removed and replaced with signs that refer to all their trees as “Christmas Trees” —all 49 live and artificial varieties.

Bottom line, for me, it all comes down to something pretty simple, if not exactly practical.  I’m a teacher at heart; and, when I think about this from a teacher’s perspective, it takes a slightly different direction.  I’ve always said you can’t alienate someone whom you’re trying to teach.  If I believe that, and I do, and if I believed that both sides of this Christmas showdown are actually trying to teach the other side about their beliefs and opinions (which the jury is still out on, but for the sake of argument, I’ll give both sides the benefit of the doubt), then by my own standard logic it would be in both sides best interest to stop alienating one another, by insisting their opinion is the only correct opinion, and instead settle on a compromise that doesn’t alienate either side.  And I guess that’s pretty much where this whole “Happy Holidays” and “Season’s Greetings” idea originates from.  But now I have a dilemma, because my own conclusion, derived from my own commonsense logic, in this case simply doesn’t sit well with me.  It only leaves me feeling wishy-washy and empty.

Apparently, even in the midst of my quandary, there is another lesson, and that is this.  You have to draw the line somewhere.  Despite some otherwise questionable methods, Malcolm X had it right when he said, “If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.”

I stand for Christmas, and Thank God, in this country, at least for the time being, I have the right to do that.