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.