Friday, December 17, 2010

Merry Christmas! -- Wanna make somethin' of it?

On the syllabus of my first year class this year, December 6th is noted thus: "Papers handed back; receive Christmas cookie."

Yeah, that's right. A Christmas cookie. And I wished them all a Merry Christmas on the way out--and told them to relax over the break from studies and the enjoyment of whatever holiday they celebrate. Me, I celebrate Christmas, and wanted to share good wishes from that angle. I bake Christmas cookies, and host a Christmas party, and send out Christmas cards, and hang Christmas lights, and I even have more than one Christmas screen saver.

I was raised Catholic, so I come by this honestly. I'm not Catholic anymore, and my Christmas is more about the secularized rituals of decoration and eggnog and Santa and such. But still. It's Christmas. It's not "the season" nor is it "the holidays," particularly not as such locutions are generally meant, in the most hysterical of politically correct hypercorrection, to not offend someone who might not celebrate Christmas. You don't have to celebrate Christmas; that's fine. I'm by no means intending to proselytize. However, I don't get what's offensive about me sharing good wishes with you on the basis of a holiday I jump into with both feet every single year: part of my Christmas is smiling at people and wishing them Merry Christmas.

We are arrived at a sorry state when cheerful greetings and a desire to share buttery baked goods chokes up in our throats because we don't want to offend anyone. Because we're scared. How on Earth can I offend anyone by smiling and wishing them well, wishing them shortbread dusted in icing sugar and coloured sprinkles?

Surely, we are not so delicate as to be offended by kindness? I am a vegetarian. Sometimes, I go places where people don't know that, and prepare food with meat, and offer it to me with kindness. You know what? I eat it. I eat it because it was prepared with good will and generosity, as a gesture of human contact. Also, usually, I'm pretty hungry.

So. I think it's terrible, this slicing and dicing of acceptable phrases of mush that are deliberately context- and culture-free. It's a vague, bland, nothing kind of self-expression of the sort that if it showed up in an essay I'd draw a field of Rudolph noses all over it. What do you mean? Be precise! Weasel words!

In this vein, I'm actually a lot more sympathetic to those who lobby to "keep the Christ in Christmas" than I am with the purveyors of "season's greetings" and "holiday sale." They are trying, at least, to keep some specificity and rootedness in their celebration. Still, I'm a sucker for red and white decorations and for the (religious) traditions of my own childhood.  So yeah, I'm secularizing and generalizing Christmas. But I draw the line at changing the name. And I draw the line at the idea that calling Christmas what it is is somehow offensive. One of my friends and I were out for supper the other night, and heard a really loud someone at another table speaking loudly of "ghetto blasters" and we looked at one another, askance: we call them boom boxes now, because 'ghetto blaster' is a derogatory term. Christmas, I suggest to you, is not a derogatory term, and needs to emendation.

So then. From my keyboard to yours: Merry Christmas, goddamnit.

Have a cookie. I made 'em myself.

18 comments:

  1. Wow, Aimee, that was grouchy, defensive and fairly mean spirited. It is "The Holidays" and people have been saying "Happy Holidays" since before this was a 'thing' (unless Bing Crosby was a secret agent in the War on Christmas?) because it's much more efficient than "Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year". Also, as a fellow vegetarian, I would be absolutely offended if someone expected me to eat meat just because they prepared it. What part of 'vegetarian' means 'eats meat when it's around'?

    Incidentally, I'm not offended by professors offering their students Christmas cookies or wishing them a Merry Christmas. What I am offended by is this defensiveness and ranting, this 'indignation of the persecuted hegemon', to borrow from Fred Clark. Give the rage a rest and just enjoy yourself, will you?

    Oh, and Happy Holidays.

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  2. Well. I was aiming for a startling juxtaposition of good cheer and crankiness. Kind of a Boris Karloff Grinch thing, but advocating friendliness. But I'm sorry you found the post mean-spirited.

    I'm glad you don't mind when people wish you Merry Christmas. That's all I was advocating in the post.

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  3. I don't celebrate Christmas and usually say "Happy Holidays" but I like your post, I get what you're saying.

    Merry X-Mas!

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  4. "You'll have to excuse me if that didn't come across as a "juxtaposition of good cheer and crankiness", and seemed to me to merely be a big, cranky swat at everyone who dares to be prefer being polite over than forcing everyone to partake in OMG!CHRISTMAS.

    Really, how hard is it for you to just say "Happy holidays!" instead of "Merry Christmas!" to people you don't know/those you know
    aren't Christian? It's not like it's actually ruining your holiday to, you know, be polite or, god forbid, considerate

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  5. When I was in elementary school, 90% of my classmates were Jewish and I always begged my mother to let me stay home from school on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur since the teachers weren't going to teach much to the 2-3 kids who showed up. She said I could either go to school, or she would drop me off at a synagogue and actually observe the holiday - no taking advantage of the upsides (day off) if you weren't actually practicing the religion. I kind of feel like that about Christmas - I don't want to do Secret Santa at work, put tinsel on my office door, or eat 20lbs of chocolate without going to church (and I'm Hindu so I probably won't). I don't mind people saying "Merry Christmas," but I don't *really* want to say it back.

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  6. I tend to agree. "Merry Christmas" isn't offensive. Exclusive, maybe, but not offensive.

    For me, personally, "Christmas" is a part of my cultural heritage, my tradition, and my upbringing, and I am always saddened, and yes, probably even a little frustrated and hurt, when asked to repress myself. So I say "Merry Christmas" because it's part of my culture and how I celebrate the holidays.

    That said, however, I have no problem with being wished a "Happy Hanukkah" by people who celebrate that holiday, or a general "Season's Greetings" by those who prefer that term. I don't want anyone else to repress their cultural heritage (or beliefs) either.

    Generally, I think it's probably best for large institutions (unless they come from a particular tradition), to stick to "Happy Holidays" so as to represent no one particular point of view. But when it comes to individuals, we should feel free to express our traditions and beliefs. I'm not silencing myself, and I hope no one else is either.

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  7. And Most Provocative Post of the Year goes to ----

    For me this issue falls into a bit of a grey area, along with questions like: Is it appropriate to host lunch meetings during Ramadan? Should students be allowed to opt out of class for any stated religious/cultural reason? and Can I wish people happy new year on Rosh Hashanah or March 21st even though I'm neither Jewish nor Persian but find both September and March more realistic new beginnings than January 1st?

    At the end of the day - perhaps because I'm a refugee from the Baptist Church - I find the vigorous cultural assertion of "Christmas" a bit triumphalist, so I tend to wish people "happy holidays" or, more often, "a good semester break."

    But here's the main spectre you raise in this post, Aimee: how on earth do you have time to *bake* at this time of year?!

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  8. I don't find it in the least offensive when people offer me greetings and good wishes arising from their traditions and holy days, whatever they are. In fact, I like it. A lot. So, Merry Christmas, Aimee!

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  9. I also have never been offended by being wished a happy anything, though I believe that a professor, being to some degree a representative of institutional power, must be conscientious of the ways in which wishing students a Merry Christmas may make certain members of the class feel excluded if they don't identify with this particular holiday.

    But my real beef here (pun totally intended) is with the implication that being a vegetarian who eats meat when other people make it is somehow more polite and kind-spirited than sticking to your ethical dietary choices. I think that's a topic worthy of further discussion, because I for one *strongly* disagree that I should be made to feel rude for saying no to meat, no matter how full of love it is--or how hungry I may be. This actually becomes particularly tricky around the holidays, when extended family makes me feel like the grinch-who-stole-everyone's-fun because I'm not partaking of the roast beast, never mind that I put my own discomfort at sitting at a table decorated with a big bird corpse aside for the sake of the season.

    All of this is to say, I do appreciate your sentiment--when you wish people a Merry Christmas with kindness in your heart and cookies in your hand, it should be taken as such--I'm unsettled by some of the conclusions this thesis seems to have led to.

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  10. Merry Christmas, A., to you and yours.

    And kudos for the baking. I usually resort to tins of Danish butter cookies.

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  11. I don't see a problem with saying "Merry Christmas" as long as you don't expect others to say it back (which it seems, Aimeé doesn't).

    I'm American, and on Thursday, November 25th, 2010, I brought "Thanksgiving treats" to my class. The students were thrilled, and obviously it was a holiday to me and not most of them (not any of them, come to think of it). I was sharing my holiday with them, but of course I didn't presume that it was Thanksgiving for them, nor was I unaware of when their Thanksgiving actually occurred. This, I think, is a much more apt analogy to what Aimeé seems to be doing than the vegetarian analogy (that includes asking someone to do something they don't wish to do... but, for example, as someone who is not Jewish, I wouldn't find myself in a position to do something I'm against for whatever reason if a Jewish person were to offer me greetings, treats, or a gift in celebration of Hanukkah).

    For me, it's in the *expectation* that everyone shares your religion, cultural background, whatever, that there is a problem. But, Aimeé clearly does not have this expectation, and noted that she not only shared Christmas cookies with them, but wished them a relaxing break and an enjoyment of whatever holidays they celebrate (an explicit acknowledgment that she's aware that not everyone celebrates Christmas).

    Most important, though... When are cookies ever a bad idea? :)

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  12. I've been reading this blog since its inception. I liked it, and I've always intended to comment. It's unfortunate that my first comment is going to be in response to this post, because usually my responses are positive, and today they are not.

    Because what this post is about is privilege. It's about the rampant reinforcement of hegemonic, dominant norms. We live in a Christian hegemonic society. Everyone who doesn't celebrate Christmas has no choice but to be bombarded by it every day for two months. Two months. The only way to avoid it is to lock yourself in your house for that entire time and never turn on the radio or TV. It never ceases to amaze me how otherwise progressive people, when it comes to Christmas, suddenly seem to find themselves the exception to their progressive values. Think about it. For what other imposition of hegemonic norms would any progressive person accept "it's how I was raised and I mean well" as an excuse. Those people who keep trying to set their queer friends up with eligible members of the opposite sex? They were brought up that way, and they mean well. Do we accept it? No. It doesn't matter how happy you are to be included in anyone else's holiday. No one else's holiday is the hegemonic norm. You can avoid them very effectively if you so choose. But people from non-Christian cultures? We can't escape Christmas. It's shoved down our throats at every turn. When you willfully wish someone Merry Christmas knowing that it's not her holiday, what you are actually saying is "suck my privilege, biatch!" And I assure you that it is most unpleasant for the person expected to suck your privilege.

    Wishing people Merry Christmas indiscriminately (because it makes you feel oh so warm and fuzzy!) is really less A Christmas Carol and more Djuna Barnes' "How It Feels to Be Forcibly Fed." Just take out the voluntary participant observation for the sake of an article and add more "there's nothing I can do about this, and I hate it oh so very much."

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  13. Even though you may not have intended it, the sentiment expressed in this post is: "well, Christmas used to be so fun, until those pesky minority cultures came and ruined it all for us." If you exchange "Christmas" with other things - say, immigration, gay marriage - I think you can see how problematic such sentiments and nostalgia are. I'm also sorry that my first comment to this blog are so negative - because I've really enjoyed reading this blog so far and will continue to read. But this post just puzzled and offended me.

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  14. Thanks for such a provacative post, Aimee! It's nice to know that a group of feminist intellectuals can sometimes be inspired to something more than polite disagreement. ;)

    Personally, I try to stick to Happy Holidays (or Merry Xmas). Even though both of these terms still have their roots in christian culture (happy holy-days!), they have become more secularized than Christmas. I use them because I develop a persona of empathy in my classrooms and among my colleagues, and I don't want to accidentally blow my cover by mistaking someone else's beliefs. It's entirely calculated - if someone says "Merry Christmas" to me, I'll say it right back because it matters little to me, but I want to keep open to the possibility that others around me have different practices, and the more generic phrases allow my to modify more easily into culturally specific greetings as needed.

    Of course, my flexibility might also relate to me being unitarian. :)

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  15. On "political correctness", I have to say I know of no other term both used and invented solely to silence marginalized voices, and for a feminist to use it is beyond offensive, beyond inappropriate and beyond my comprehension. What a shame.

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  16. I'm coming late to this discussion, I realize, but for what it's worth:

    Picture me (say, 20 years younger) as an undergraduate student in your class. As someone who doesn't celebrate Christmas but has spent large chunks of my lifetime surrounded by people who do, I'm not sure how I would take your syllabus. "Receive Christmas cookie" isn't an offer; it's a command, however well-intentioned or jokingly indicated. A command to take part in a religion I may not take part in. And it's a command from my professor, at a public, ostensibly nondenominational institution, who is in charge of my grade. (And, it is worth mentioning that Canada has a problematic history with publicly funded schools forcing certain religions on certain minorities.)

    So, what kind of position does that put me in? Am I going to speak up if I find that command problematic? Probably not, but I will note that my instructor seems to assume that most people celebrate Christmas, and probably would perceive me as "other" if I mentioned anything.

    But then, say, I decided to give you, as my instructor, the benefit of the doubt. And so I Google you online to convince myself that your command was really an offer, and kindly meant. And I stumble across this blog post, in a public forum, with your name attached to it. And I find it that you are actually rather angry at me for my views. What am I supposed to do then? Complain to you, and risk my grade? Complain about what, exactly – just a general feeling of displacement in an institution, the university, that is supposed to allow for and encourage – even assume – diversity but which, clearly, does not: witness the Santa-themed "holiday" parties (Santa, by the way, is not a "secular" symbol of anything, unless you actually celebrate Christmas), the institutional closure for two weeks so that everyone can go home "for the holidays?"

    In short, at the very least I would change your syllabus to read something like "Christmas cookies on offer – have a wonderful break, from my tradition to all of yours." But I would also ask you to think more carefully about your position of power in the classroom and what it might be like to live as a religious or other minority in a world that assumes everyone is exactly like you.

    For the record, I have no problem with people wishing me a Merry Christmas, within a window of, say, three or four days before and after THE ACTUAL HOLIDAY. I find it a tiny bit presumptuous, the way I find it presumptuous when well-meaning folk ask me – a queer woman – what my husband does, but I give them the benefit of the doubt. And, because my partner and some of our very dearest friends celebrate or have celebrated Christmas, I do enjoy parts of the holiday, and so, what the hell? I do, however, find it problematic, and somewhat tiring, that one holiday in particular has infiltrated an entire culture and shaped its public and institutional policy. Today, as the parent of two young children who are part of a tiny religious minority in our current city, I have to work hard from about mid October to mid-January to counter my children's impressions – duly fed by their public schools, their music lessons, their gymnastics lessons, cashiers in grocery stores, their dental hygienist, random people they encounter in elevators, the public library, not to mention television and radio (one more reason we don't have cable) — that Christmas is "normal" and that they, therefore, are not.

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  17. I do want to make something of it, in fact. Like others, I celebrate Christmas in a secular way. I don't think the point is at all that Christmas is Bad, but that there are indeed many people in our circles who simply do not celebrate Christmas. Even "Happy Holidays"--furlough days here we come--does not fully acknowledge that we are on holiday because it is...Christmas. It ignores the fact that many people do not have the privilege or circumstance to enjoy their holidays; it ignores the fact that those of us on holiday overspend, overeat and find it one of the most stressful times of the year (in which case it can be a reminder to chill out, indeed).

    This is not about intent, as most of us know. And in the cycles of debates about "political correctness," it may appear as if the debate about poor Christmas has gone "too far." But these were and are precisely the arguments and kindly intentions that were used to preserve manly language (the vigorous debate still rages in Calgary, believe it or not, about whether city councillors should be still called "Aldermen", and "tradition," "I want to," I was raised this way," "who does it harm?" and "this has gone to far" have all been raised.

    For me, thinking about my "holiday" salutation, well, makes me think. During my own holiday circumstances, due to illness, I could not eat the cookies and chocolates and candy and stuffings that even my vegetarian self indulges in at Christmastime [sic]. It wasn't merry for me; it was ill, and thus the salutation was ironic and made me feel mean, let alone that my Baha'i partner has true and valid qualms about the season. This is not everyone's responsibility, but awareness is. And these responses really can hurt, I know.

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