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Merry Christmas One and All…

…on the occasion of this thoroughly enjoyable, marvelously syncretic celebration.

“For the people who were shovelling away on the house-tops were jovial and full of glee; calling out to one another from the parapets, and now and then exchanging a facetious snow-ball – better-natured missile far than many a wordy jest – laughing heartily if it went right, and not less heartily if it went wrong. The poulterers’ shops were still half open, and the fruiterers were radiant in their glory. There were great, round, pot-bellied, baskets of chestnuts, shaped like the waistcoats of jolly old gentlemen, lolling at the doors, and tumbling out into the street in their apoplectic opulence. There were ruddy, brown-faced, broad-girthed Spanish onions, shining in the fatness of their growth like Spanish friars, and winking from their shelves in wanton slyness at the girls as they went by, and glanced demurely at the hung-up mistletoe. There were pears and apples clustered high in blooming pyramids; there were bunches of grapes, made, in the shopkeepers’ benevolence, to dangle from conspicuous hooks, that people’s mouths might water gratis as they passed; there were piles of filberts, mossy and brown, recalling, in their fragrance, ancient walks among the woods, and pleasant shufflings ankle-deep through withered leaves; there were Norfolk biffins, squab and swarthy, setting off the yellow of the oranges and lemons, and, in the great compactness of their juicy persons, urgently entreating and beseeching to be carried home in paper bags and eaten after dinner. The very gold and silver fish, set forth among these choice fruits in a bowl, though members of a dull and stagnant-blooded race, appeared to know that there was something going on; and, to a fish, went gasping round and round their little world in slow and passionless excitement.” Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol (1843)



Shouldn’t it be OccupyHoliday?

Cross-posted on the Corner.

Via the Vancouver Sun:

OTTAWA — Adbusters, the Vancouver-based magazine that inspired the worldwide Occupy movement, has a new target: Christmas. Calling its campaign OccupyXmas, the anti-capitalist magazine is calling on consumers to buy nothing for Christmas this year…Christmas, Lasn [the magazine’s founder] said, has been hijacked by commercial forces. “It’s been an empty, soulless kind of ritual that very, very few people enjoy. This is a chance for us occupiers to take Christmas back and have a bit of fun and remind people that Christmas can be a helluva lot more than just shopping and Black Fridays and maxing out on your credit card.”

“Very, very few.” Really?

And just when you think that Lasn cannot get more patronizing:

Lasn said antagonizing people is what the Occupy movement is all about. “It’s about antagonizing people and slapping them around a little bit and waking them up to reality.”

…Buy Nothing Christmas just sounds good, Lasn said. But what it really means is a different kind of Christmas, one that puts “the spiritual side of Christmas back in the game rather than the consumption.”

What humbug. I wouldn’t describe myself as retail’s best friend, but Christmas has evolved a bit over the centuries. The spiritual side is there for those who want it, the consumer splurge is there for those who want that (and there’s room for plenty in-between). As for me, I’ll opt for the made-in-Dickens variety, a marvelous, syncretic festival of food, drink, family, good cheer, nostalgia, tradition and, yes, a present or two.

Food, Drink, Dancing & Other Christmas Horrors

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Happy Eostre Everyone

That early Christianity was a highly syncretic religion is no great revelation (so to speak), nevertheless this Guardian piece on the pagan traditions incorporated within the Easter celebration is (if you discount the irritating hints of nature worship lurking in its penultimate paragraph) a good read.

In particular, I didn’t know this:

In an ironic twist, the Cybele cult flourished on today’s Vatican Hill. Cybele’s lover Attis, was born of a virgin, died and was reborn annually. This spring festival began as a day of blood on Black Friday, rising to a crescendo after three days, in rejoicing over the resurrection. There was violent conflict on Vatican Hill in the early days of Christianity between the Jesus worshippers and pagans who quarrelled over whose God was the true, and whose the imitation. What is interesting to note here is that in the ancient world, wherever you had popular resurrected god myths, Christianity found lots of converts.

In the meantime, I’m glad to report at least one restaurant in New York City yesterday afternoon was serving hot cross buns (a traditional English Good Friday Treat), and very good they were too…

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On Christmas

A few years ago I stopped saying “Happy Holidays” as my default and switched to “Merry Christmas.” The main issue for me is that I didn’t want to get hung up on a name. As someone who doesn’t accept that Jesus Christ was the Son of God I don’t celebrate the season for that particular reason. But winter festivals have been common across the northern hemisphere long before Christmas, and if you dig through the literature from many fundamentalist Protestants you’ll find they’ve done a good job cataloging the exact pagan antecedents of many Christmas traditions. If I lived in a nation which was mostly non-Christian I would celebrate the same communal holidays which symbolize the importance of such festivals in a properly functioning society, the name would simply be different.

As a person without supernatural beliefs the holidays have no nominal connection to what is “up there” for me. Rather, they are about what is “down here.” We don’t live in utopia, but for this small period of the year we put aside our concerns, worries and grievances, and celebrate all that there is to celebrate.



Miscellany, December 29

  • Per John Tierney in the Times, a new review of the literature has “concluded that religious belief and piety promote self-control”, which may help explain why religious belief is often associated with greater success in such goals as personal health and marital stability. Mere going through the motions doesn’t seem to be enough, “Dr. [Michael] McCullough told me, because personality studies have identified a difference between true believers and others who attend services for extrinsic reasons, like wanting to impress people or make social connections. The intrinsically religious people have higher self-control, but the extrinsically religious do not.”
  • A new Vanity Fair article based on interview with GWBush administration insiders includes this quote from David Kuo:

    “The reality in the White House is – if you look at the most senior staff – you’re seeing people who aren’t personally religious and have no particular affection for people who are religious-right leaders,” Kuo said.

    “In the political affairs shop in particular, you saw a lot of people who just rolled their eyes at … basically every religious-right leader that was out there, because they just found them annoying and insufferable. These guys were pains in the butt who had to be accommodated.”

    Note, by contrast or otherwise, DH’s just-preceding post on GWB’s personal beliefs.

  • For those who haven’t overdosed on the subject, the gang at Volokh Conspiracy have a lot to say about the “Merry Christmas” vs. “Happy Holidays” question, with attention to the use of the latter phrase (long before the recent culture wars) as an attempted way to avoid awkwardness between Christians and Jews. Relatedly, David Kopel brings word that readers of the Boulder, Colorado, Daily Camera, have now heard from one of the world’s touchiest atheists on the subject.

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Have a Merry Christmas!

Just wanted to wish everyone a Merry Christmas.  Also, out of curiosity, what’s your favorite Christmas song? I like “Little Drummer Boy.”



Miscellany, December 15

  • Someone has called us the “world’s most boring blog“. I think not everyone must agree, because in the three and a half weeks since we launched we’ve had more than 100,000 page views and, remarkably, 2,300 reader comments.
  • Confirming the descent of the whole topic into absurdity, Fred Phelps’s Westboro Baptist Church of funeral-picketing infamy has jumped into the controversy over the Christmas display at the Washington State Capitol in Olympia by demanding that it be allowed to put up a sign saying “Santa Claus will take you to hell”.
  • Another occasion for mirth: in a full-page Times ad promoting the anti-anti-Prop 8 cause, the Becket Fund announces that the undersigned “commit ourselves to opposing and publicly shaming anyone who resorts to the rhetoric of anti-religious bigotry”. So who’s prominently featured among the signers? Bill Donohue of the Catholic League, famous for such outbursts as “Hollywood is controlled by secular Jews who hate Christianity, in general, and Catholicism, in particular. It’s not a secret, okay?” along with other noted voices of moderation like Chuck Colson and Alveda King. [P.S.: Thanks to Ken in comments for pointing to this post exposing the dodginess of the actual content of the Becket statement.]
  • Yes, the phrase was floating around long before we appropriated it for a blog title. Here’s Robert Tracinski in 2006 with a column entitled “The Secular Right”, which begins:

    We all know the basic alternatives that form the familiar “spectrum” of American politics and culture.

    If a young person is turned off by religion or attracted by the achievements of science, and he wants to embrace a secular outlook, he is told–by both sides of the debate — that his place is with the collectivists and social subjectivists of the left. On the other hand, if he admires the free market and wants America to have a bold, independent national defense, then he is told — again, by both sides — that his natural home is with the religious right.

    But what if all of this is terribly wrong?…

    Tracinski goes on to engage with Heather’s writing, mostly favorably, but argues against her embrace of “skepticism” as a basic posture.

  • I think Ken Silber is right to express frustration with the nowadays standard bit of traditionalist Unified Kvetch Theory that makes much of the “accusation that the left is all about ‘the self,’ as if collectivism and egalitarianism were not leftist tendencies.”

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Washington Christmas display, cont’d

In one of the first posts at this site, Bradlaugh noted the flap in Washington state about how Gov. Christine Gregoire had supposedly — in Bill O’Reilly’s words — “insulted Christians all over the world” by ordering/allowing the adding of a plaque with an in-your-face atheist message to the holiday decorations (which included a Nativity scene) at a state office building.

Who brought the red tape?

Who brought the red tape?

Most of us, including me, took exception in one way or another to the atheist plaque or at least its wording, and I speculated that Gov. Gregoire’s office might have responded to the atheist group’s request in some way more likely to engender peace among all believers and good will toward men at the holiday season (more).

Well, I should have realized at the time that all public controversies are more complicated than Bill O’Reilly makes them sound, and in particular I of all people should have been more alert to ask the question “Who was suing or threatening to sue whom?”

Now I read this from Ed Brayton at Dispatches from the Culture Wars:

The governor has no choice, folks. There is a legal settlement, negotiated by the ADF, that requires that all individuals and groups have equal access. This was done specifically to get access for a nativity scene. This reminds me very much of the school in Virginia, where a Christian group sued the school to be allowed to send fliers home with students. Then the next year, when a humanist group used the same process to advertise a humanist summer camp, they were outraged.* They’ve used equal access arguments to get their foot in the door, then they want to slam that door on others.

The ADF stands for Alliance Defense Fund, one of the hyperlitigious Christian Right lawyer strike forces that I expect to be covering often on this site. And while Gov. Gregoire is a liberal Democrat, the state’s highly regarded Republican attorney general, Rob McKenna, released a joint statement with the governor explaining why the state felt that it had no choice and incidentally making clear who the litigious party was in all this: the ADF.

Americans United also covers the controversy:

The ADF was ecstatic over the settlement, so it seems rather funny that this year, when an atheist group wanted to [avail itself of the settlement’s terms and] display its own sign, that suddenly O’Reilly wants to point his finger at the governor, not his allies who started this mess.

It still seems faintly incredible to me that the ADF could sue to force the insertion of a Nativity scene in a state office building whose managers would have preferred innocuous holly-and-candy-cane displays.** But clearly I should be paying more attention to this area of the law.

*P.S. See comments, in which a commenter notes, and Brayton agrees, that this wording is faulty and should not have identified the group that filed the original school lawsuit as the same group that was outraged over its later implementation.

P.P.S. The settlement indicates that the sequence of events was as follows: 1) Capitol had been allowing “holiday tree” with no apparent sectarian content; 2) in effort to be even-handed, authorities granted request to add menorah; 3) presence of menorah allowed ADF to sue arguing that sectarian symbols were on display so that nativity had to be added too.




Miscellany, December 7

  • Ann Althouse on Bill O’Reilly and the Washington atheist sign:
    Atheist Christmas sign

    Atheist Christmas sign

    Another December, another battle in the “War on Christmas.” I think the sensible people don’t want to fight about religion, but there are always extremists — pro-religion and anti-religion — who seek glory in the fighting. Tolerance and peace is the better path. Please take it.

    Earlier discussion here and, generally, here.

  • Current laws in most states protect the Roman Catholic Church’s right to turn away abortion-seekers even as it accepts public funds to provide other ob/gyn services at its vast network of hospitals. Now the church hierarchy vows to behave like an Ayn Rand hero (hey, I meant that as a compliment) and close down (not sell) the hospitals, no matter how grave the consequences for patients, if the pending, Obama-endorsed Freedom of Choice Act winds up knocking out such laws. As one much interested in the law of religious accommodation, I’ll say that I’m strongly inclined to defend the current laws that excuse the Catholic hospitals from having to perform abortions. At the same time, I’m equally strongly opposed to newer Religious-Right-backed proposals for the law to create opt-out rights within organizations, thus enabling devout employees of secular clinics and hospitals to announce to their startled supervisors that they will no longer perform their job duties when that means facilitating abortions (or sterilization, contraception, in vitro fertilization for unmarried women, or whatever). It seems to me a relevant factor that nearly everywhere in the country the publicly funded patient can choose from among an ample variety of secular health care options, while likewise the committed opponent of contraception has a great many possible job options other than working behind a Walgreen’s pharmacy counter. But I suspect that many commenters will favor policies that are more absolutist in one direction or the other.
  • Aside to some of the usual suspects: I know you dearly love to feel that churches are being persecuted and driven into the catacombs over their social-conservative political activism, but when even big-league separationist Barry Lynn says the Mormon and Roman Catholic churches are in no danger of losing their tax exemption over their promotion of Prop 8, maybe it’s time to just admit that they’re in no danger of losing it. Kthxbai.

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Religion & Culture

With all the Christmas posts, I thought readers might find this of interest: The Grinch Delusion: An Atheist Can Believe in Christmas.  The fact is that religious traditions are a part of human culture, and they interact with ostensibly non-religious parts of human culture.  To extirpate all that is religious from one’s life is to extirpate human culture.  As it is, a holiday like Christmas is a complex compound of many disparate strands and affinities.  There was a War Against Christmas during the Cromwellian interregnum because of the association of the holiday with “Papism.”  Of course the War failed because Christmas is not fundamentally Catholic or Protestant; winter festivals have likely been part of European history since the rise of agriculture with its particularly seasonal rhythms (many of the holiday traditions, such as Christmas cookies, predate the arrival of Christianity to northern Europe and the Christian Church occasionally attempted to suppress them during the early medieval period). Note that even the Christmas-skeptic quoted in the above article is selective about his aversion to festivity with a religious tint:

Even hardliners like David Silverman, the national spokesman for American Atheists, the group founded by Madalyn Murray O’Hair, find it difficult. Many of Mr. Silverman’s fellow atheists celebrate the Winter Solstice, which occurs Thursday at 7:22 p.m. Eastern Time, or HumanLight, a humanist event created in 2001 by a group of New Jersey residents and observed this coming Saturday. But not Mr. Silverman, who feels that any such doings around Christmastime are suspect. “There’s such a Christian flavor to it,” he said of the season, “that it’s just not to my taste.”

But he added that, as with his mother’s Passover, some seasonal participation is just too hard to avoid.

Besides, he admitted, “I do like to go to the parties.”

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