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Is it just me, or is there a bit more normalcy this year than last as far as Christmas goes? It seems so, at any rate. Ad agencies seem to have moved past their jitters for the most part: somewhere in the text or narration there is usually a Merry Christmas included, and I’ve seen several TV ads that feature crosses in the jewelry sales, right along with everything else. The school concerts around here were called Christmas concerts, and nobody seems to have had a heart attack over it. It seems even headline writers at some news agencies have picked up on it, after a fashion. For instance, I saw a headline a few days ago that called the signing of some sports star to some team “an early Christmas present” for the fans. Imagine that. A Christmas present instead of a holiday present. Right there in print. From a news agency. It’s pathetic, I know, that we’ve been reduced to noticing such things and hoping they augur something, some lessening of hostility, some reduction of a virulent fever or the falling away of mass madness. But there it is.

On the other hand, like any bullies I think the folks who go into temper tantrums at the mention of the phrase “Merry Christmas” or city decorations that showcase angels or Santa Claus instead of merely snowflakes or snowmen – like any bullies I think they like to make people angry. They feed off the reactions they get. And so this year I’m not giving them the satisfaction, if I can help it. I am going about my business as if they don’t exist. If we bump into each other and they take a swing at me, that’s different. I will defend myself – although perhaps not in the angry way they might like to see. (I don’t subscribe to the silly notion that religious people are supposed to wander around saying, “Peace, Dude, Yeah, right, whatever floats your boat, don’t mind me, I’m busy being nice and can’t be bothered with, like, you know, standing up for anything or actually having principles, because, you know, like, can’t we all just get along?” Neither do I let my enemies choose where and when and how I fight back. Heh.)

But sans being mugged I will proceed to wish one and all a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year without blinking, without undue emphasis, without a chip on my shoulder, and as if I assume that everyone on the planet is capable of accepting greetings of good cheer in whatever terminology.

I believe that everyone is capable of that, by the way. I think the grinches choose to be that way. I think they can choose to stop being grinches, too.

I grew up in a community that had many Buddhists and I can’t remember any of them making spectacles of themselves when somebody wished them a Merry Christmas. I seem to remember some of them wishing me Merry Christmas right back, in fact.

Perhaps that was because Christmas was no more religiously significant to me than it was for them so we were being mutually secular about it, but I don’t think so. I think they were just nice people and friendly neighbors, who knew how to celebrate Christmas in their own way without being distressed by those of us not walking the same path.

When I was a child, my family went whole hog on Christmas. We put up stockings. We bought and wrapped gifts. Lots of gifts. We decorated the house. We had a feast. We put up a tree. We decorated that tree to beat the band, every year trying to do better than the year before. We’d put a star or an angel on top of the tree. We had little angels we hung on the tree, and Santas, too. Some years there was a small creche on the fireplace hearth. And every year, if I seemed interested in what the angels or the creche meant, my mother gave me one of her infamous lectures on how people used to believe in stuff like that but we knew better these days. These ornaments were just for fun, like the flying reindeer ornaments we also had. They were just traditional, and tradition was good as long as you knew it was only tradition. Angels and Santa and Jesus and Mary and Joseph and The Three Wise Men were just representations of fairy tales that had been found to be just stories, stories that some people still bought into, but only if they were taught the old superstitions by unscrupulous church leaders who used the fairy tales to hold onto power and make people follow them around like sheep.

Uh, huh. You read that right. My mother used Christmas as a teaching moment for her atheism, which she thought was going to free mankind to finally achieve its full potential. (I beg to differ these days.) But I never saw her attack Christmas as a holiday, or make a stink in public, or tell anybody else how to celebrate the day. She’d bundle me up and let me go caroling house to house with friends who were doing it as a church group, and wish us all a good time. To her, of course, it was only singing and spending time with friends. The songs didn’t mean anything. And when I got back from my lovely time, if there was any sign that any of that ‘awful mind-numbing religion’ had tried to rub off on me, she’d give me the full treatment on how it was so sad that some people were that credulous and actually wasted their time believing in that stuff. Another teaching moment, neatly utilized.

Christmas in our house was a way of showing how nice and generous people could be without religion. It was “proof” that nobody needed a God.

While I think she was right about individuals being able to “be nice” without religious observation, Mother fought a losing battle on the religion-as-superstition front. Somewhere along the way I figured out that the religion she hated wasn’t what religion really was, and that ended that. I mean, when what you’ve been taught is to bow to reality, and you find God is real…

Well, at any rate, I do think some people have either grown tired of the Christmas battles or have decided such battles are counterproductive. And thank goodness. I was tired of all the noise and mindless lashing out. I am glad to see it subsiding. My heartfelt thanks to anyone out there who has decided to be neighborly instead of confrontational this holiday season.

On the other hand, if you do run across atheists and other non-Christians who don’t have the courage of their convictions and therefore go nuclear to find themselves sharing the planet with people who like to spread some joy at Christmas, may I suggest a niceness offensive first (for instance, invite them to join in the fun instead of standing on the outside looking in, if they feel like outsiders looking in), and then an email to the Alliance Defense Fund if that doesn’t work? ADF provides free legal help to people who find their religious freedoms being trampled.

This may come as a surprise to you, but the law is actually on the side of Christmas celebrations, even in schools and other public buildings. The ACLU doesn’t win many actual skirmishes on this front, except by intimidation. Once they get into court, in other words, they usually get trounced, or so I understand. There are some rules and boundaries to observances on public property and with captive audiences of young folks rounded up for educational purposes (as well there should be), but they’re pretty easy to follow. You can find out about them from ADF or other places that have people who specialize in religious freedom laws, and they are also covered in John Gibson’s book The War on Christmas. Gibson’s book, in addition to covering outrageous illegal moves by people intent on pushing Christianity into the closet, has some good notes on bad mistakes made by people trying to fight back. Unless you’d like to make the same mistakes out of ignorance, I’d suggest reading the book. (Not that I can remember all the lessons I picked up reading it! Time to reread it, I guess.)

On a related note, could we try to remember, during all the hustle and bustle and battles over what’s right, that retail businesses are private enterprises? The people who run them are free to celebrate or not celebrate however they want. If you want to thank them for Christmas displays, or snort at Happy Holidays displays, feel free. But please. Could we be civilized about it? For one thing, not everyone who is saying Happy Holidays is trashing Christmas. Happy Holidays used to be a standard greeting that included Christmas as well as other holidays, and I suspect for many people that’s still the way they mean it. Season’s Greetings – same thing. That’s fair enough, in my book. For another thing, it is their store. You are under their roof. They do have rights. I mean, would you walk into somebody else’s house and tell them how to decorate, talk, or think? Store owners and managers and clerks no more ought to be expected to leave their minds and hearts at home than anybody else.

Engage them in conversation? Sure.

Abuse their hospitality, when they’re sitting ducks because of the job they have? I wish you wouldn’t. It’s bad form and bad manners, if nothing else.

We have a friend who is losing 65 pounds – so that she can enlist in the Army. She has taken up jogging and calisthenics, fitting them into a busy day in which she works full-time plus, in addition to raising kids. She is successful at her job, in which she helps run an insurance business. She doesn’t need to join the Army for financial reasons. She just thinks it’s the right move, now that her kids are nearly grown. She was in the Army pre-kids. She has some idea of what she’s getting into, if she can talk the recruiter into signing her up. She let herself get matronly when she was concentrating on motherhood, but once she decided to get back in the military she sat herself down, made a list of what she needed to do, and is doing it. She is matter of fact about all this. She wants to serve, and will do what it takes. She would likely wind up as a filing clerk. She doesn’t care, as long as she’s serving. She might end up in a war zone. These days, there is a good chance of that, of course. She doesn’t care about that, either. Her kids are grown. Army offices get good protection, too, she says. But if they get attacked? She shrugs. Whatever comes, she’ll deal with it. It’s worth it to her. It’s what she thinks she ought to do. She mentions the pension plan and perks, but this is cover. She could do as well or better financially out of the Army. But she wants in, and that is that.

Sometimes I wonder if there’s anybody in Old Media who understands people like this.

I do, to some extent. I look around and most of the people I know are intent on being useful. On making something of themselves. They want to make a difference. They like the idea of helping total strangers, even at some risk to themselves. They want to be able to look in the mirror without avoiding the eyes looking out at them.

The Old Media template of Americans fighting for wealth makes no sense at all to me. The Old Media declarations about “occupation” in Iraq are just as odd. I understand the concept of helping an oppressed people break loose from a tyrant and then hanging around as back-up until they get their feet under them, and then going home again. What I don’t understand is how you can call that an occupation.

You might as well call paramedics responding to a car wreck occupiers, for all the sense that makes.

I look at media coverage and shake my head. I wish they understood.

The sad case of the Kim family from California, which got stuck in snow and stranded while trying to take a shortcut in the Oregon Coast Range on their Thanksgiving vacation, has prompted a lot of people to trot out the saying “There but for the Grace of God go I.” This is fine as far as it goes, since we know what they’re saying is that they can see themselves getting into the same situation, and are – for the most part – showing that they emphasize with the family. (In the Kim’s case, James Kim tried to walk out to get help and died in the attempt. His wife and their two young daughters were rescued when spotted by air search crews. And, indeed, they had stumbled into just the sort of situation anybody who likes to travel off of main highways has stumbled into at one time or another.)

Empathy is good. But may I say that the phrase is horrid? As used that way?

I’m speaking both as a former atheist and as a woman who tries to be godly these days. As an atheist, that phrase held me back. Think about it. Atheists hold that God doesn’t exist, but they’re also prone to thinking that if He is out there he’s not worth worshipping for one reason or another. They also contend that religious people are superstitious fools. To say ‘there but for the Grace of God go I’ when somebody else suffers a tragedy plays into that. Nicely. Completely. It paints a picture of people who are sunk in superstition or a God who rolls dice and capriciously hands out sorrows. It sorts people into us versus them. It certainly doesn’t paint a healthy picture of what Grace is or what it does. Does it?

I don’t mean to undercut the amazing power and realness of God and of His Grace. But that’s just it. I think this phrase reduces the concept of Grace to something mean and narrow. It reduces the concept of God to something mean and narrow. It reduces religion to something it isn’t. Religion isn’t a neat-o vending machine that lets you have nice things and good luck in return for going through a few rituals. Perish the thought.

Religion is turning toward God, who can make you whole. Whole isn’t the same as lucky. And, if I may say so, I think it’s not right to say “There but for the Grace of God go I” when what we mean is “There but for dumb luck go I.”