Holiday Season Belongs To Us All
A few holiday seasons ago, clerks in some stores were reprimanded for wishing their customers “Merry Christmas” as they finished ringing up a sale. The proper formula, they were told, was a nonsectarian “Happy Holidays”. This year, the situation is different. Customers are to be sent on their way with “Merry Christmas”, or so store workers are instructed.
At the other end of this particular spectrum lies the hissy fit thrown by North Hempstead Town Supervisor Jon Kaiman, who interrupted a priest’s brief prayer during a Christmas tree lighting event in a town square recently. “This is not a religious ceremony,” Kaiman declared.
If Kaiman based his objections on Constitutional grounds, we think he missed the entire point of the First Amendment. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” to us does not mean a brief, nonsectarian prayer cannot be spoken at a public gathering in a public place. Indeed, the motto “In God We Trust” is inscribed on every denomination of this nation’s currency. The Founding Fathers plainly intended to include some sort of Divine Being in this country’s collective consciousness.
It seems to us that store management’s instructions and Kaiman’s actions indicate that the pendulum can swing too far in either direction. Priests, ministers, rabbis, imams and Buddhist monks, to name just a few of the people who make spiritual guidance and leading some form of congregant worship their professions, all ask for guidance and express thanks for blessings received privately and publicly. So do those who follow them in these varying religions and belief systems. More than one atheist of our acquaintance has in our hearing expressed thanks or invoked some sort of Supreme Being—and meant it. The term “Merry Christmas” is in itself a blessing--“merry” originally meant “blessed”—and we know of no religion that would restrict asking blessings only upon those who have professed belief in that religion alone. All religions foster gracious behavior: to us that includes thanking anyone who wishes us well for whatever reason.
For several millennia, humankind has regarded the depths of winter as a good time to throw a party. The father of the character George on the sitcom “Seinfeld” called this season “Festivus”, meaning “a festival for the rest of us” who don’t necessarily follow a given belief system. Though the “Seinfeld” show included some negative family dynamics in the episode where the term was introduced, we think “Festivus” is as good a name as any. In the midst of the bleakness of cold and snow the mind of man looks for a reason to celebrate the promise of the coming of spring. A festival of some sort, be it the Roman Saturnalia, Jewish Chanukah, Christian Christmas or the Buddhist Bodhi Day (December 8, the day that enlightenment came to the Buddha) is appropriate, given the weather and the fact that December 21, the winter solstice, is not only the shortest day of the year, it’s also the day that will see the earth beginning to tilt on its axis toward the sun, bringing longer days, gradually warmer temperatures and a new growing season to the Northern Hemisphere, where most of this newspaper’s readers reside. It’s the promise of new life out of frozen ground, light out of darkness and hope out of the winter of our discontent.
It is the holiday season. Five o’clock may bring nightfall, and winter may bring on its worst, but we still think there are reasons to celebrate. We also think that courtesy knows no season and no religion. “Merry Christmas”, Happy Chanukah”, Happy Kwanzaa”, “Happy Holidays” and ”Season’s Greetings” —even “Good Festivus” spoken in a spirit of courtesy and good will are always appropriate.