Where I spray-paint my thoughts…

Merry Whatever


The other day I was doing one of those rat-race things in my brain that we all do (at least, all us women) at this time of year, going through the list of stuff to remember. This particular bit of reasoning had to do with the kind and efficient couple who clean our house every week. Those of you lucky enough to pay someone else to clean your house know that at Christmas it’s customary to give a little extra as a thank-you gift — at least I assume it is, because I’ve been doing it for a few years now. However, we have new cleaners this year, and they’re a couple I knew slightly back in high school. When we went to school together, they were Jehovah’s Witnesses. I don’t know if they still are, because like most people I don’t stand around as I’m leaving the house on Thursday mornings discussing my cleaners’ religious affiliations with them; any conversation we do manage to squeeze in if our paths cross has more to do with me running out of Mr. Clean than with whether or not Jesus is co-eternal with the Father.

But in this case, the question suddenly took on signficance, because I thought, “Well, if they’re JW, I really shouldn’t put their Christmas bonus in a Christmas card, because they don’t celebrate Christmas. Should I call it a New Year’s bonus? How are they with New Year’s? Maybe I should just put a little monetary gift in a thank-you card and not make reference to any holidays or occasions.” And the interesting part of this is not what I decided to do (but if you’re reading this, dear cleaner-friends, don’t worry … I didn’t decide to forget the whole thing and keep the cash), but what it made me realize. It made me think about HOW LONG I have been doing these mental gymnastics over Christmas vs Holidays vs Winterval vs Whatever, and how completely I don’t care what you call your holiday, or whether you observe it at all. And I actually owe it all to the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Let me back up and explain a bit.

I grew up going to a Seventh-day Adventist school in St. John’s, Newfoundland. Due to a quirky little educational system we had in those days, a number of different churches ran their own schools with full government funding, so there were no tuition costs. This meant that our school was run by the Adventist church, staffed by Adventist teachers, taught an Adventist Bible curriculum, but was attended by a diverse mix of students, of whom about 10-20% were actually Seventh-day Adventists. Others were just kids from the neighbourhood, and there was always a fair contingent of kids from other conservative churches who had decided our school was a “safe” place to send their kids.

During my school years, this contingent was largely made up of Jehovah’s Witnesses, who at times outnumbered Adventists as the single largest minority group in our Adventist-run school. Every class had a JW or two in it, just as every class had an Adventist kid or two. And, just as we don’t normally discuss the divinity of Christ with our cleaning persons, kids don’t usually stand around on the playground discussion what dates your church has set for the Second Coming, or other distinctive doctrines.

But one distinctive doctrine was made clear to us early on: the Jehovah’s Witness kids didn’t celebrate Christmas. Or Easter. Or even their own birthdays.

But mostly Christmas. This was what we noticed, because Christmas is HUGE in elementary school, what with the concerts and the parties and the gift exchanges, all of which these kids were excused or excluded from (this could be good or bad, depending on whether the activity was fun, like a party, or stressful, like learning parts for a Christmas play). We knew this, we accepted it, and, as we got older, we tried to accommodate it. I remember vividly a Student Council discussion sometime in junior high or high school that centred around the question: If we called our Christmas banquet a Winter Banquet instead, could the JW kids attend? (Of course, the majority were already accommodating the minority by having a Christmas banquet rather than a Christmas dance, though in this case that was because the minority was running the show: you couldn’t have dances at an SDA school no matter how much the majority of kids might want them).

I don’t remember the outcome of the Christmas Banquet vs. Winter Banquet debate; what I remember is how early we got trained in trying to understand and accommodate other people’s diversity. And the JW parents were right, at least to a point — the SDA school was  a good place to send their kids, because Seventh-day Adventists, in those days anyway, had a high respect for religious liberty, including the liberties of those who disagreed with us. It seemed to me, from my standpoint as a teenager, that our teachers and school board had an understanding: If we were ever in a situation where we were required to attend school on Saturday or something else that violated our beliefs, we’d want people to make accommodations for us. In this situation, since we were the ones in power, we had to do the same, whether that meant allowing the JW kids to have study hall in the library during Bible class (a privilege envied by many) or planning the occasional “Winter” activity so they wouldn’t be left of out of everything.

We probably didn’t do a perfect job of it, and for all I know the JW kids who attended school with me may have felt scarred for life by their exclusion from Christmas celebrations. But the point is, we knew the issue was real and even as kids we were confronted with it and forced to wrestle with it. Not everyone else believes, worships, or celebrates the same way we do. So deal with it.

It’s that matter-of-fact attitude I miss these days, as we get deluged with the annual flood of self-righteous outrage about “Keeping Christ in Christmas” and taking back the sacred term “Merry Christmas” from the godless oppressors who force us to say “Happy Holidays.” Or whatever it is people are getting outraged about this year.

I hate this attitude. Like it’s some huge, persecuting hardship on you to have to take other people’s feelings into account? Excuse me, isn’t that what we used to call “respect”? How does it take Christ out of your Christmas, or mine, if we say “Season’s Greetings” to a neighbour who’s not Christian? Most of the non-Christians (or non-Christmas-celebrating Christians) I know don’t get bent out of shape if someone does wish them Merry Christmas, but what is it going to hurt you to take a moment to be inclusive and non-offensive?

If anything enrages me more than the annual whine about “taking back Christmas” and people insisting on saying “Merry Christmas” to their Hindu neighbours, it’s when I hear my fellow Seventh-day Adventists jumping on this bandwagon. Lately it seems we jump on a lot of these bandwagons, decrying other people’s desire for basic human rights and allying ourselves with people who spread hate speech, all in the name of our own “religious freedom,” which seems to be moving towards meaning the freedom to offend others as much as you want as long as you’re doing it in God’s name. I feel like as Adventists we’re drifting away from our historical position that religious liberty for us means religious liberty for everyone, even people we disagree with. I hate to see us climbing aboard the Ship of Righteous Indignation along with the right-wing evangelicals, who would (in my humble opinion) be the first to push us overboard if they ever wanted to, I don’t know, pass a Sunday Worship Law or something.

People who think that saying “Happy Holidays” mysteriously takes something away from their ability to worship  Jesus on the day arbitrarily chosen to celebrate His birth, are in the same category as people who think that giving gay people the right to marry somehow “hurts” traditional male-female marriage. I don’t get this and I never have. Giving rights to people you disagree with doesn’t take away from your own rights — if anything, it means your own are more likely to be safeguarded when you need them. And being respectful and courteous to people, taking their feelings and wishes into account — which, 99.9% of the time, is all that “political correctness” entails — is pretty much a Jesus thing. Kinda one of the main reasons He came, probably not on December 25 but on some night a long time ago: to teach us to be a bit decent to each other, to, I don’t know, treat others the way you’d want to be treated?

So Merry Yule (Dec 21), Happy Hanukah (Dec 8 – 16), Good Bodhi Day (Dec. 8). Sorry it’s a bit late to say Shubh Diwali (Nov 13) or Eid Mubarak (Oct 26). If we’ve missed your religious holiday, or you’re not religious, or you don’t care to combine religion and holiday celebration, then Happy New Year, Happy Holidays, Season’s Greetings, or — you know what, just enjoy a few days off work. I find that I can say all of these things and none of them detracts in the slightest from the Nativity scene in my house or the emphasis I place with my family on commemorating Jesus’ birth and His mission. You can wish me whatever you’d like to wish me, and let’s all try to be nice to each other, OK?

Because when you get up on your high horse about people taking away your right to say Merry Christmas … I’m pretty sure Baby Jesus cries a little.


18 thoughts on “Merry Whatever

  1. Just this morning I started a draft on my own take on the “war against Christmas.” You have written such a cogent defense of all our religious liberties and respect for our fellows that I would be ill-advised to try to top this. I can’t help but think that we (Christians) are picking the wrong battle. We should, imo, all get off the Ship of Righteous Indignation, to use your excellent term, offer the message of salvation to a dying world whom the Lord loves, and generally attempt to live Christian lives. Christ’s sermon on the mount comes to mind.

  2. Well said, Trudy. Thank you. And Merry Whatever right back at you.

  3. You truly are the bomb. Thank you so much for this.

  4. “Act justly, love tenderly and walk humbly with your God”….no matter what religious stripe you are (or aren’t). Good blog, Trudy. Well written. As a former teacher, I always felt for the JW’s in my class. But they were on the ball, intelligent and “well versed”. What was the reason why the 7th D Adventists didn’t dance? I’m sure somewhere in the bible I read about “dancing and praising the Lord” or something to that matter. We are also hearing more about mormons and the “cult” word. Some guy named Smith and his visions??!!! Wow, next thing they’ll come up with is a God, a virgin and a virgin birth. Oh wait, that story seems to have been around many times in history long before Jesus. Sometimes, I just don’t know. But whatever you believe or don’t believe, be just, loving, and even if your god is money, use it wisely to help others. Merry whatever to you too!

    • Mike, the rule against dancing was shared not just by the SDAs but many of the “evangelical” churches that got their start around the same time in the 19th century (and that came to Newfoundland in the late 19th/early 20th century) — Pentecostals, Salvation Army and others would have had the same rules. The idea was (and still is in many churches) to avoid dancing not so much because the action was wrong in itself as because going to dances was associated with “worldly” entertainment and might go along with drinking, casual sex, etc. So we never had dances in SDA schools or even at weddings.

      Strangely enough, I always think of this as a very evangelical Protestant thing, but there must have been a restriction on dancing (or at least the idea that it was to be avoided) in at least some Catholic communities too (maybe not in Nfld). I was watching a performance in the Maritimes by an Acadien group one time and they demonstrated a “dance” that was done while sitting down in a chair, with only the feet step-dancing while the upper body remained completely still. Their explanation for this style of dance was that it developed from people having kitchen parties but worrying that if the priest walked past the window, he might see that they were dancing and disapprove. So if they danced with just the feet, the priest could walk past and not know any different!

      How good we humans are at making up lots of extra rules on how to be good! Maybe “do justly, love mercy, walk humbly with God” is too hard for us.

  5. “Baby Jesus cries a little.” LOL!!

  6. Yep, nothin wrong with a little courtesy.

  7. I’m with you 100% on all this. This sort of thing has been in the news a bit lately and I think you’ve pretty much covered my attitude about the whole thing. I happen to live in the buckle of the Bible belt, so people tend to put a lot of emphasis on Merry CHRIST-mas as well as try and put a Nativity scene on every scrap of public property just to make a point.

  8. Totally agree with your rant, Trudy. And about how our church has slipped off its high moral ground, especially over the gay marriage thing!

    • Yes, Carrol — I realize I didn’t really need to bring that issue into a blog post about Christmas greetings, but to me it is the issue that has made me feel that we are heading down a seriously wrong road, away from our traditional belief in separation of church and state. Of course not everyone agrees with you and me on this!! 😉

  9. Well, for me…respect is an earned right…One of my best friends is a JW and she respects the fact that I will and do say merry Christmas to her (and happy birthday by the way) and I respect the fact that she does not say it to me!!! SO…from my perspective…don’t tell me I CANT say Merry Christmas if I happen to work at Walmart and I won’t tell you that you HAVE to say it!!! Respect MUST be a two way street or it’s just allowing yourself to be a door mat and not respect at all! I could rant some more but with all likely-hood you would mark it up with a red pen and give it back to me to fix the spelling
    errors…so I shall refrain. 🙂 and I do agree Trudy…you are still “the bomb”. 🙂

    • No red pen (I always wonder why so many people assume just because you’re an English teacher you’re a jerk who corrects people in real life — really, I’m not!!!) but I do disagree with you about respect being earned — when we are talking about Christians relating to the rest of the world, the whole idea of mercy and unconditional love is that we give people what they HAVEN’T earned. So if we are truly gonig to “treat others as we would like to be treated” then we have to be the ones to take the moral high ground and be respectful and considerate EVEN IF they haven’t done the same for us.

      The sad truth is that most non-Christians I know are far more respectful and considerate of Christians, than some Christians are of them. Which is kind of my whole problem that prompted this rant, I guess.

      • AH well…I live in small town bible belt…I don’t know any “non-christians”. We ask each other “do I know you from church?” and say things like “I bet we met at church” when we run into a stranger we think we know. When getting to know someone a standard question around here is “Where do you go to church?” So…maybe I just can’t relate.

        For me as a Christian: Love is freely given, forgivness is freely given, joy, peace, kindness, caring, tollerance…all free and given away with abandon…respect…NOT FREE…NOT EVER!!!! But perhaps we argue semantics…

        And don’t be offended by my “red pen” jab…it’s just a flash back from all of those times I suffered it’s wrath as an youngster!!!! 🙂 LOL

      • I think maybe we are disagreeing about semantics, because you say “love is freely given … respect … NOT FREE,” and I can’t imagine any kind of “love” you could give people that wouldn’t also include respect. But then, I also can’t imagine living in a community where everybody goes to church and you never encounter non-Christians — very different from where I live! And just understanding where other people are coming from is the biggest step in respecting them, I think.

  10. Well put Trudy! When I lived in the States I always looked forward to Thanksgiving as a day to sleep in and get some time in my studio. But Americans couldn’t stand the thought of me being alone on Thanksgiving, so I always got invited out to wonderful meals–but ones that meant I had no time for my studio. They were kind and generous, and I learned, when wished “Happy Thanksgiving” to wish it back with enthusiasm, and keep my “secular” plans to myself. I suspect many non-Christians in North America enjoy not celebrating Christmas as much as I enjoyed hanging out in my studio. For a non-Christian, this time of year must be like speeding out of a big city, when traffic is slowed to a halt on the commute in.

  11. Jennifer…
    When I was living in New Jersey, thousands of miles away from any blood relatives, I learned to decline invitations to family holidays as well.
    I HATED dealing with someone else’s traditions. The simple question of “Do you dress up for Thanksgiving?” was always met with “Oh, wear whatever you like.” Really? Maybe you don’t care that I showed up in jeans and a t-shirt that says “Happy Turkey Day, Turkey” while all of your family is wearing some version of church dress with extra sparkles while sitting at a table covered in the heirloom crystal, but I do. The reverse is just as bad. I show up in a dress and heels only to discover that your family eats Thanksgiving dinner off of paper plates while yelling at the football game.
    The worst part though was the depression afterwards. Dinner could be great but I noticed that if I spent Christmas chatting with someone else’s great aunt and uncle then I spent the next two weeks bemoaning to myself that I missed my extended family. Finally, I quit going to other people’s holiday dinners and made my own plans. In a few cases I had to lay it out quite plain to co-workers that I WANTED to just chill out. I remember asking one “Do you hate me? You want to be unhappy for weeks afterwards?” when she could not understand the word “no”.

  12. Last night, as a dear friend was leaving my house, she said to me “Happy Yule” because she knows that’s what I celebrate. I replied “Merry Christmas” because I know that’s what she celebrates. The respect and love she showed me by acknowledging my holiday made me tear up, because I don’t get to hear that very often.

    The reality is that non-Christians live in a world where we are wished “Merry Christmas” based on an assumption that everyone celebrates the Christian holiday of this time of year, or, even worse, an assumption that everyone SHOULD, whether or not they do. I don’t begrudge anyone their celebration at Christmas. If they believe that Christ’s birth was an expression of love from God as they see him, then I am happy that they have found a spiritual path that makes them happier people, as I have in my beliefs.

    But I also have a tradition that is celebrated this time of year, in which I welcome the birth of a new turn of the seasons and the coming of spiritual light that is signified by the lengthening of the days. I believe that divinity has both male and female attributes. I worship the aspects of this world that make it wonderous and magical because I believe I will spend my eternity here. See, not bad, just different.

    So why would it pain someone so much to express a wish that I receive the blessings of that spiritual path, the same way I do for others who I know follow the Christian way? Or even to wish me “Happy Holidays” because they don’t know me well enough to know what I believe? Why would you not want to express to everyone that you want them to have a joyous time, no matter what path they are on?

    Those of us who are not part of the “Christian Majority” are actually quite tolerant of all of the aspects of daily life in which Christianity plays such a huge role (for “secular” societies in which we supposedly live in North America). I tolerate my child being in the school Christmas and Easter Concerts and singing songs about the birth and death of Christ, without any acknowledgement of other possible belief systems. I don’t ask for May 1, October 31, December 21 off work. I bow my head at when someone asks that we pray a definitively Christian prayer, addressed to God and Jesus to bless a meal at a public or government function. In spite of the fact that I have the legal right to protest all of the above and make life a little less comfortable for those who rely on the assumption of Christianity.

    I won’t even get into a discussion here about how many of the allegedly “Christian” traditions have pagan origins.

    So for those of you who are put out by wishing people “Happy Holidays”, I say “Suck it up, Buttercup” like I do most of the time. And Merry Christmas – My wish for you is that Christ’s message of acceptance and tolerance takes root for you this year.

    For those of you who understand the significance of being wished “Happy Holidays” or even “Merry Yule”, thank you for getting it.

    And if you’re not sure what to wish to who when, here’s my gift to you: http://www.interfaithcalendar.org/2012.htm. God (and Goddess!) bless the Internet!

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