The real war on Christmas

Always eager to draw attention to himself, our president elect has embraced the meme that there is a War on Christmas. Specifically, he hates “Seasons Greetings” and “Happy Holidays”. To fight back he is going with “Merry Christmas” and let the non-Christians and their stupid feelings be damned.

Non-Christians like, well, Donald Trump? This is a man who pretty much never goes to church. It’s clear he actually worships at the Church of Mammon. He’s got plenty of company there, including most Republicans. But maybe he has a point. What do we really mean when we say “Merry Christmas”? It suggests to me that we want people to be happy because it’s the Christmas season. That works pretty well. Most of us are merry when we are getting free stuff. That’s what Christmas is really about these days: a chance to maybe feel happy with a sudden influx of stuff, usually on Christmas Day. Sometimes it’s actually stuff we want! And if there is anything Donald Trump likes, it’s the accumulation of more stuff: money, property or the real thing he values most: attention and adulation.

Trump though can’t wait until Christmas for attention. He demands it all year round. If he feels he’s not getting enough of it he’ll post something outrageous on Twitter to make sure people are talking about him. What a blessing then to be POTUS come January 20, because people are always interested in what the president says. They have no choice. The attention cycle will be nonstop!

Of course a lot of it will be negative attention, something Trump will discover soon after getting into office. Like it or not the president is perceived responsible for everything. A good carnival barker like Donald Trump though will keep the public distracted by sideshows, which is a pretty good strategy as long as it works. At some point though too much real life will interfere and at that point being POTUS will cease to be fun.

Meanwhile, he’ll use memes like the War on Christmas to lead us around like circus animals under the big tent. It succeeds in not only drawing attention to himself, but also in getting his supporters enthused. This is important because he will soon be picking their pockets. With enough War on Christmas-like gimmicks they may not notice when their Obamacare or food stamp benefits go away. It’s clearly an effective strategy for now as it pushes just the right buttons that Republicans like to have pressed. Because you see they are so oppressed being Christians in their own country! And they’ve had being politically correct up to here.

In truth most Christians are not Christians. They are certainly not the sort of Christians that Jesus envisioned, you know the kind that live without possessions and give the shirt off their backs to strangers. The accepted alternative for first world Christians is to do token acts of charity around the holiday season. Mostly this involves writing checks to their churches or politically compatible charities. But sometimes it involves some actual in-person demonstrations of what Jesus might have done, such as serving meals in a soup kitchen to the homeless. It’s a faint echo of what Jesus had in mind for his church, but at least it’s an echo. Don’t expect to see Donald Trump in a soup kitchen. It’s not clear he knows how to use a ladle or clean a pot. No one ever taught him how these things are done.

Saying “Happy holidays!” is certainly not anti-Christian, as there are plenty of holidays this time of year. Only two are Christian: Christmas itself and the Epiphany, which literally is Christmas if you are Eastern Orthodox. There is also Thanksgiving and New Years, which are secular holidays and in Great Britain there is also Boxing Day. And, oh yes, there are those other you know second-class religious holidays that also happen this time of year, helpfully captured on Huffington Post. Hanukkah happens to fall Christmas week this year, which may be a reason for Trump to draw attention to it. (It doesn’t hurt to have a Jewish son-in-law.) But we also have Bodhi Day on December 8 (Buddhists), Mawlid an Nabi on December 18 (Muslims) and Winter Solstice on December 22 (Pagans).

If you say “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays” what you are really saying is that Christian holidays matter and those others don’t. And the reason they don’t matter is because the Merry Christmas crowd doesn’t give a crap about the non-Christians among us. The president is (or should be) expected to speak for all Americans, not just the Christians among us. Also the president should not favor one religion over another, as our government is secular by design. What Trump supporters hear when Trump says, “Merry Christmas” is “White-Christian America matters, and those others don’t.”

So no wonder they are enthusiastic about promoting a War on Christmas. What they don’t see is that when elected officials keep the holiday generic is not a bad thing; it’s there by design. It’s a statement that government operates in a religiously neutral environment. And that’s what really gets their goat. They don’t want it to be that way. They want a government for White Christians only. And by refusing to be politically correct, this is what Trump is tacitly telling them he’s going to deliver.

Unsurprisingly, they love him for his clannish behavior. As for Jesus’ call to love all, including the non-Christians (see the Good Samaritan parable), well, clearly not so much.

Happy holidays, everyone.

Decking the secular halls

So an atheist, a Buddhist, a Unitarian Universalist (me), his un-churched sister, her sarcastic college age son and the cynical brother who says he only worships Baal get together for dinner. The occasion: Christmas, of course.

That’s right, our Christmas tree is festooned with lights and bulbs. An angel adorns its top proclaiming the good news of Jesus’s birth. Our halls (such as they are) are decked out. There are cookie tins stuffed with ginger snaps and butter cookies.  Charlotte Church’s coloratura voice is coming out of speakers singing, of course, Christmas carols. Our porch and garage door are lined with blue lights that I put up weeks ago to celebrate the Christmas season. We have all the signs of Christmas except for the Christ part. We’re having ourselves a fully secular Christmas.

If you had to pick a Christian among us, I would come the closest. The roots of Unitarian Universalism are in Christianity. There are in fact many practicing Christian UUs, although I can’t find them in my “church” which seems to be at least half atheists. Still, UUs generally admire Jesus, such as he is imperfectly revealed to us in the gospels. I don’t think he was divine, as is true of most of us UUs. Also I don’t put much faith in prayer or miracles, but I do think Jesus probably existed and obviously inspired enough people so that his ideas carried forward after his death in a viral manner. There is no historical record of his existence outside of the Gospels, but that’s good enough for me; it passes my Occam’s Razor test.

Of course there is no evidence that Jesus was born on December 25th anyhow, but it is convenient to the winter solstice, which was likely why it is celebrated on this date. There used to be a lot of heathens around and if you are going to convert them you have to work with their natural worship dates.  So most likely we are celebrating the birth of a man who might well be fictional, that most rational people cannot consider divine, whose birthday we don’t know and whose legend is known only because oral tradition was eventually written down and then rewritten, often with errors and omissions, over the centuries. Along the way we picked up saints, including a Greek bishop called St. Nicholas, and morphed this single aesthete into an obese citizen of the North Pole who dwelled in his own small kingdom full of elves and flying reindeer, and that fly despite the absence of wings. St. Nick magically supplies toys just one night a year to all the good Christian children in the world and keeps up an impressive schedule making appearances at local shopping malls. As adults we of course laugh at this childish nonsense, even while seventy three percent of us Americans also profess to believe that Jesus was born to a virgin.

Myth has morphed into rarely challenged creed. A compelling new book suggests Judaism was simply made up by a bunch of elders in an attempt to unite the Judeans and the Galileans so they could fight common encroachers. If correct there was likely no Abraham, no Moses, no enslavement of the Jews in Egypt (for which there is no independent record), no burning bush, and no forty years of wandering in the desert of the Sinai which, lacking an oasis, would probably kill a large group of Jews dead within a few weeks anyhow.

And yet still we celebrate Christmas, and this includes the hopelessly secular among us like most of my family who, sadly, were raised as devout Catholics. My adult daughter, a professed atheist and now back in her bedroom after graduation, is fully into the Christmas season. She was pushing us early to put up Christmas lights and the Christmas tree. She was ready to deck our halls and could be heard singing Christmas carols in her bedroom. She was aghast that I forgot to buy some kielbasa for Christmas breakfast, a tradition that dates back to my deceased mother and which we carry on, if I don’t forget about it, on Christmas mornings. So it was off to the Food Lion before they closed Christmas Eve for some of the sacred sausage, served with scrambled eggs somewhat hurriedly before unwrapping presents under our Christmas tree.

No White Christmas this year, which is actually par for the course here in Northern Virginia. You can expect one every fifteen years or so. However, it was cold enough to qualify for Christmas, with temperatures that never made it officially above freezing despite clear skies. Walking this afternoon for exercise and bundled in my warmest parka, I felt gratitude, not just for Jesus but also for warm houses. Living outside in this weather like our distant ancestors did must have sucked. The only people these days who have an inkling of what it is like are our homeless, the exact sort of people Jesus would have cared the most about. As we raise our eggnog and sing our carols, we try not to think about them. Let them sleep in the woods in a tent and get dinner out of a dumpster. Sadly, some of our leaders clearly want to increase their ranks, and in the recently passed budget agreement succeeded by reducing food stamp allowances and heating assistance and ending long-term unemployment benefits. This is based on the curious and erroneous belief that this will make them get off their duffs and earn a living, but really was done because they are sadists absent compassion for anyone not like them. For many of these poor, 2014 will be bleaker than 2013.

For those of us lucky enough to have some wealth and privilege, we can wrap ourselves up inside our houses, sing carols in front of a hearth (probably with a gas log), tell and retell dated family stories, eat too much food and mostly forget about Jesus. If he were alive he’d probably be suggesting that we bring some food and eggnog outside to our neighbors in the woods, or maybe invite them inside our house for some home cooking, a shower, use of our washing machines and a night in a clean bed. Most of us are not that brave, convinced that the homeless are mentally ill, thus likely to strangle us in our sleep. We like the idea of being kind to those less fortunate to us more than the soiling our hands through the actual doing of deeds. Some of us will work in a soup kitchen for a day or two. Some may even give out blankets to prevent hypothermia for the homeless. To the extent that I put my values into action this year, it was to talk for five minutes with the guy from Goodwill who empties my trash in the office on Christmas Eve, learn about his son and daughter and wish him a happy holiday. I also bought $75 in gift cards for a local 16-year-old teenage girl through the Secret Santa program at our church. I also give money to charities, but this is an implicit admission that I want others to do the work that I can’t seem to do personally. I too am hypocritical, although perhaps less than most.

Yet still we huddle around our tree on Christmas Eve, unwrap our presents on Christmas Day and listen to holiday tunes on the player, many of which proclaim a savior was born today. Looking at our actions toward each other, there’s not much evidence that Jesus succeeded. And while none of us believe in Jesus’s divinity, we do sort of wish, like Santa Claus, that he actually did all those wonderful things. We just haven’t drunk enough spiked eggnog to short-circuit the logical parts of our brains.

If we could actually minister like Jesus, well then perhaps Christmas would be worthy of our celebration.

Let’s throw those bums a bone

Merry Christmas to you, particularly if you happen to be Christian. Presumably, the birth of Jesus means more to you than it does to me. Because I do not believe in Jesus’s  divinity, I cannot claim to be a Christian, except perhaps in spirit. Like most Americans, I participate in many aspects of Christmas anyhow. I am not beyond festooning my house with Christmas lights, putting up a Christmas tree and even putting an angel on its top. Aside from the usual presents under our tree for loved ones who rarely need nor want what I buy them, I was a real Santa Claus this year. It did not involved donning a red suit, but it did involve spending about $100 on presents for a 3 year old girl named Jaylee, for whom I am a Secret Santa. I won’t meet her but she will get things she really wants but which her family cannot afford, including a Dora the Explorer doll and a three wheel scooter. We also spent a few hundred dollars on food for the homeless that we donated to a nearly empty community food bank.

Nuclear moneyed families will use the occasion of the season to tune into various holiday TV specials, some of which are actually religious. Most of these turns out to be feel-good shows, like the latest Hallmark holiday special starring my heartthrob Jewel Staite. In it, apparently two people and a motherless boy find love, not in Jesus, but in each other. Many of these specials are animated, and many are frankly dreadful to watch, even for children. Many contain more saccharine than saccharine itself. Most people would say that A Charlie Brown Christmas is the holiday special that most closely evokes the religious aspects of Christmas. For me, How the Grinch stole Christmas is most appropriate for our modern times. It is clear that Jesus was no fan of the rich. The Grinch epitomizes the soulless, possession-obsessed, anti-poor overlords about to overrun our House of Representatives, people so soulless they cannot wait to cut unemployment benefits and food stamps, even for their own constituents.

If ever there were a time when we needed more of the true Christmas spirit, 2010 would be it. Food banks are bare. Homeless shelters are overflowing. The only way to get Congress to extend unemployment benefits is to continue to borrow obscene amounts of money to give tax cuts to millionaires who don’t need the money and have been living on government largess for much of the last decade. 99’ers (those unemployed for 99 weeks or more) are now out of luck and will get not even coal in their stockings, which at least would provide a little heat. Instead, they will likely soon be found standing in a cold queue for a cot in their local homeless shelter. Letting them eat cake is clearly too rich for them, but apparently cheaper than buying them fruits and vegetables. With their food stamps benefits exhausted and their food pantries empty, their next dinner may come courtesy of the dumpster behind the local Wendy’s restaurant. To add to their misery, Lord, it’s cold out there, at least here in northern Virginia. We’ve gone weeks without seeing forty degrees and today we are getting gusts of wind up to forty miles an hour. It has only occasionally crept above the freezing point.

Not that we, especially us purported Christians, really will care all that much. We will comfort ourselves with the fantasy that through ensuring that our citizens are miserable, we are providing the virtue of self-reliance, all at no cost to our wallets. We are teaching them to fish, so to speak, although many of them are reeled in like fish. Our legislators whine that we cannot afford to put them on Medicaid or give them emergency housing. The social safety net is so yesterday. The homeless can spend their days shuttling between the dumpsters at Wendy’s, the line at the homeless shelter and the emergency room for their pneumonia, which is fine with us because none of these are on our commutes. Out of sight, out of mind.

Surely, all this recession-fed self-reliance and austerity will eventually bear fruit, although so far in Ireland, Greece, England and elsewhere the evidence that austerity has any advantages beyond making the less moneyed more vulnerable and scared cannot be found. All this is necessary because we have been living beyond our modest means, but also because while the rich like being rich a lot, they like being richer even more, and have no qualms if it is done by making the middle class impoverished. It’s good to be a creditor and if you threaten to stop loaning money, even first world countries get scared and start cutting spending.

It would be great if the so called Christians and humanitarians among us would practice what we profess. In two days, we celebrate the birth of Jesus who implored those of us with possessions to give them to the poor. There is little sign that the rich will do so, unless they can be bribed to write it off on their taxes. With the top one percent of the country owning over 42 percent of the national wealth (as of 2007), the rich can afford to pay much more to feed, house and cloth our abundant poor. Much of our national misery is self-inflicted because wealth redistribution is now anathema. It has to be voluntary, but the rich at least cannot seem to summon the will to pony up some small measure of their vast treasure at this miserable time. In short, the vast majority of them are apparently as Christian as Attila the Hun.

So Merry Christmas to all of you who are food, sleep and/or shelter deprived. With luck, the winter won’t leave your old coat too threadbare. As for the rest of us, while raising that glass of eggnog, let’s acknowledge our true feelings about the poor and the homeless, as found in this Bob Rivers’s parody of the of tune “Home for the Holidays”:

Oh there’s food for the homeless on the holidays
‘Cause no matter how filthy and uncombed
If your down on your luck, you can really graze
For the holidays we throw those bums a bone

I met a man who drank and smelled of pee
He was headin’ for the local mission for some homemade pumpkin pie
Pan-handlin’ folks are always hangin’ round by the discount liquor store
And they’re not too brand specific
Gee a buck would be terrific

But there’s food for the homeless on the holidays
There’s a turkey just like Mama made at home
If they pine for redemption from their heathen ways
Come the holidays we’ll throw those bums a bone

Take a piss in your pants til you smell like you’re from France
Put some vino in a crumpled paper sack
Though you’re smellin’ like a beast you’ll treated to a feast
want second? Come right back!

There’s lots of food for the homeless on the holidays
Have some pumpkin pie and ham with provolone
We don’t care if they eat dog food on the other days
When you call a cardboard box your home sweet home
For the holidays we’ll toss those bums a bone

Have yourself a Bob Rivers Christmas

Let’s face it. For most of us, Christ was taken out of Christmas a long time ago. This includes even many devoted Christians. It is only when watching A Charlie Brown Christmas that most of us give any thought at all to the true meaning of Christmas. Across the globe the Christmas contagion is spreading. This includes many non-Christian countries where Christmas has nothing to do with Jesus. Instead, Christmas is personified by the harmless and benevolent presence of Santa Claus, in all his myriad cultural manifestations. In Tokyo or Beijing, you would have to look hard for a Christian church but Santas, Christmas trees and rampant holiday shopping abounds. Rather than celebrating Jesus’ birth, today Christmas is tangentially about a generic feeling of spreading good cheer. Mostly it is about buying and getting stuff. The world would sink into a depression were there were no Christmas economy.

Like most of you, I saw unwelcome signs of Christmas way back in September, when an aisle stocked with popular Christmas toys and artificial Christmas trees first appeared in our local BJs. Most retailers will refrain from playing Christmas music until Black Friday, but many are sneaking in Christmas songs starting in early November. It is obvious to me that capitalism is our state religion and mammon is our state god. The devout among us may hustle to church once a week or more, but given our super-sized houses and the SUVs lined up in our driveways, is there really any doubt about where are real values lie? Give all your possession to the poor and follow Jesus? That stuff is so dated. Today it is laughable and suitable only for Salvation Army volunteers and cloistered monks and nuns.

Given the hollowness that seems to be at the root of our modern Christmas, it is no wonder so many people like my wife would be happy to skip Christmas altogether. Yet like all of us, each year she is caught in its vortex. Denial does not work for long and only adds to the pain. This year she also threw a vertebra. She is still popping the pain pills and running to chiropractors. This meant that I have carried an extra amount of the Christmas madness this year. Increasingly I, like her, ask myself why I am doing this.

I am doing it in part because we always do it, and my neighbors do it, everyone except the Jews and the Muslims seem to do it (and many of the Jews do it just for the fun or to blend in) and because it is expected. In addition, there is this tradition in our house called The Christmas Dinner. My relatives from the immediate area descend on our house. There they revel in our Christmas tree, eat our highly caloric and fattening food and after a few hours shuffle back to their houses and their clean kitchens. Meanwhile, my feeling of good cheer is manifest in my dishpan hands.

Aside from writing checks to charities, which I do routinely near the end of the year, I did accomplish one small little act in spirit of a Dickensian Christmas. A couple weeks back I read how neighborhood food banks were running dry. People were going hungry at a time when food banks are normally overrun with food. The likely culprit is the higher cost of food, fed by our ravenous desire for energy. Instead of filling USDA warehouses, much of our grain crop is instead going into producing ethanol and bio-diesel fuels. I took the news article as my belated personal call to action. I went to the BJs and loaded the back of my car with nearly $200 in food. Only, I could find no place to readily donate the food. I did not particularly want to drive into Washington DC to donate it. I ended up waiting a few days and donating it to Reston Interfaith. The news reports were sadly accurate. I was hoping that more like me would feel called to buy food for the poor. Yet I arrived to find that their pantry nearly bare. My donations went right into food baskets for the hungry.

So what is Christmas really about these days? We need to face the truth. Christmas has become a reason to buy stuff for people we know, much of which they neither particularly need nor want. This giving is often done at the expense of the poor who need things like food to avoid hunger or money to live in some place bigger than a cardboard box. Perhaps due to this incongruity, as my daughter and I assembled our Christmas tree this year, instead of putting Bing Crosby on the stereo system, we put on Bob Rivers‘ CD of Chipmunks Roasting on an Open Fire instead.

Bob Rivers is a radio personality on KZOK in Seattle, Washington. This present, thoughtfully given to us some years back by my irreverent and atheist brother Tom, is the perfect rejoinder to our overly commercialized Christmas season. It is actually one of a number of Bob Rivers’ irreverent Christmas CDs. You can order these CDs from his web site. Finally, you can laugh along to new lyrics to those Christmas carols so burned into your brain you wish you could purge them but cannot.

Given the recently released Chipmunks movie, Chipmunks Roasting on an Open Fire is especially relevant this year. I do not know about you, but I hate those damned animated chipmunks. I hated them even when I was a small child. They were even more annoying than that prancing and singing purple dinosaur I had to endure when my daughter was growing up and whose name I loathe to repeat. Few images conjure up more delight in me than having those three chipmunks dripping in barbeque sauce over a hot hibachi. Yet, as delightful as this song is, the most apropos for the season was actually Christmas Money (sung to the tune of Money, That’s What I Want), which hilariously summarizes the mindless greed of the holidays. On the Bob Rivers’ web site, you can listen to samples from this CD.

Chipmunks Roasting on an Open Fire is bawdy, hilarious, irreverent and helps put our whole strange modern manifestation of Christmas season into its proper place. Bob Rivers must have good connections in the Seattle area because he gets some amazing imitators for famous singers. For example, he highlights a singer who imitates Karen Carpenter so well that it is as if she is still alive. Other songs ring surprisingly true. Homeless for the Holidays, for example, captures quite well the true feelings many of us have toward the homeless, given how we tend to ignore them except for during the holiday season. Decorations, sung to a Beach Boys’ Good Vibrations song, parodies our excessiveness with Christmas lights. Pokemon (sung to the tune of Tidings of Comfort and Joy) hilariously makes fun at the craziness of getting your kid that impossible to find toy for Christmas.

Every song is hilarious. Of course, you cannot get these songs for free, at least not legally. However, if you shell out $13.98 on Bob River’s web site you can get it as well as purchase many of his other likely hilarious musical parodies.

It is wrong to be evil during the Christmas season, but in my mind, it is okay to be a bit naughty. Next year, let loose the phoniness and sanctimoniousness of the season. Fill yourself with irreverent holiday mirth instead by listening to Chipmunks Roasting on an Open Fire.

Bah! Humbug!

I hope none of my relatives is reading this.

Well, okay, I do not mind if my immediate family is reading this. I make this assumption with every blog entry, even though I suspect only one or two of them bother to check out this blog on even a semi regular basis. I do not diss my siblings and father. I love them in all their uniqueness, brilliance and quirkiness. No, I mean I hope that all those other relatives out there are not reading this. You know, the ones who are tangentially family but you hardly ever go out of your way to meet. In other words, the kind to whom you feel obligated to send Christmas cards.

Our stack of sixty or so Christmas cards went out in today’s mail. In most of them was our obligatory Christmas newsletter. In years past, we attempted to write little notes in each of them. Those days are gone. The list has gotten too large. So to those friends from yesterday that we rarely visit along with the numerous aunts, uncles, nephews, nieces and in laws out there, I don’t mean to be disrespectful but we really do not care about you or your life. However, we feel just enough attached to you through a blood, a legal relationship or a distant past association to send you our Christmas newsletter anyhow. It assuages the feeling of guilt that we have essentially abandoned you from our lives.

We do not write you. Moreover, you do not write us either. We both seem to like it that way. There was a time when email was new, we garnered your email address, and you got ours. We traded a couple emails. Then we both discovered that we really had nothing to say to each other. Maybe it was not quite that. We had things to say, we just could not be bothered to take the time to actually write them down to you personally. Since that time, you have disappeared from our email address list. We still have, however, your snail mail address. As long as we get a card from you, we feel obligated to send one back. We are strange that way.

This means that you will get our holiday newsletter. We will nest it inside our funny but by now expected and somewhat irreverent holiday card. (Of course, we think a card with a cartoon on the card of Santa’s butt crack on it is funny, and so should you.) If we are really organized, which we have not been for about a decade now, we will have had a family picture taken in November and enclose a recent snapshot too. Those days are gone. They are not going to happen again.

However, I do have this blog. Most likely in some previous newsletter along with putting our email address in it, I put the URL to my blog. Perhaps one or two of my relatives took the time to read it. Nevertheless, I bet they did not bookmark it. Leave me a comment if you did. Just as I really do not want to know the intimate little details of your life by reading your blog (which you probably do not have) you do not want to know mine. Not that Occam’s Razor is really a personal blog. It has delusions of grandeur. Regardless, I do not really matter to you so my blog does not matter to you. Unless you are a lot like me, it will not tickle your fancy.

There was a time when our expectations around Christmas were much higher. There were years when we sent presents to our many nieces and nephews. (My siblings were smart enough to know I would not bother to give them anything, since they do not send me anything.) Gradually the nieces and nephews grew old enough where we stopped buying them presents too. We had no idea what they needed and only got clues from pestering their parents. Thank goodness, that phase is behind us.

Yet certain holiday traditions remain sacrosanct. I do not know why we still feel this burden of sending out holiday cards. Our newsletters are dumbed down and happied up too, just like the ones we get. I do not want to hear about their prostate exams so I will not tell them about mine. They do not want to know how much we spend on therapists the last year either. So it is “distill a year into 400 words or less” and keep it rather generic and upbeat. This year was an exception. With an event like my mother’s death there was no way I could not mention it. Next year it will be back to all happy talk.

Of course, if we cared about our distant relations we would probably visit them. Most of them are in Arizona, which is where my wife’s side of the family is located. We were there in 2000 and only went out because my mother in law had come to visit us the year before. We felt guilty about not visiting more often. Since 2000, we have not received any guilt rays from Arizona, perhaps because our presence meant so little the last time. Therefore, we remain happily nested on the east coast, more than a little grateful there are 2500 miles between us.

They are fading away into increasingly distant memories. They are also aging. Little nieces and nephews that were at one time bouncing on our laps or playing with Transformers on the bedroom floors are graduating college. Aunts and in-laws are suffering from the affects of being sixty or seventy something. I find it hard to keep the cast of characters straight in my own mind. Just who is my brother in law married to now? Should I care?

In fact, I do not. These distant relations are consequences of marriage. They are important only in the sense that my wife feels some love or obligation to them. My relationships with them have been largely superficial. If I heard tomorrow that they were run over by a bus, I would not even shed a tear.

Yet somehow, they warrant a holiday card. Others that I spend a whole lot more time with will probably get nothing. I will likely forget to send holiday greetings to the people I work with. My many numerous electronic friends might get an electronic card (very appropriate) if I remember. I probably will not send them any because there are many other holiday activities on my checklist. This year, like every year, they will fall into the second tier that I will not get around to accomplishing. I still have major holiday tasks like buying presents for my own family. Although the holiday lights now adorn parts of our exterior, other time consuming tasks like setting up and decorating the Christmas tree remain to be done. They come with deadlines and firm sanctions for missing them.

I tell myself when it comes to the holidays that I am something of a traditionalist. I do take some pleasure in these holiday traditions. However, I am also a bit put out by them. It is nice to have the house decorated, presents under the tree and freshly baking cookies in the oven. Yet it remains a lot of work. Perhaps I do them out of habit, or of guilt.

I can tell that once our daughter is an adult I will get the pressure from my wife to just skip Christmas altogether. For whatever reason, she does not associate Christmas with pleasurable feelings. Perhaps she has repressed childhood memories of her father saying hurtful things to her. On the other hand, perhaps she remembers many years of meager presents under the tree. For me, the holidays are beginning to feel like a record played one too many times. They are losing their luster.

Perhaps someday, I will celebrate the holidays the way that they are supposed to be celebrated in theory, but so rarely are. Perhaps I will spend them feeding the homeless, helping run a soup kitchen, or visiting old folks in nursing homes. Then perhaps like Charlie Brown I will feel the true spirit of the holidays again.

For now, the psychological pressure to conform to these de facto holiday traditions is too large. However because I care, but also for pragmatic tax reasons, I will make sure some of my favorite charities get sizeable donations before January 1st. It is easier than volunteering.


It is Christmas Eve: my favorite day of the year. Christmas is always something of a let down. As a child nothing received on Christmas could meet my wild expectations on Christmas Eve. So Christmas Eve is for me a day full of boundless expectation, wonder and hope. It doesn’t hurt that the whole Christmas season reaches its wild crescendo today. The days are very short, the nights are very long and the houses spend their long nights ablaze with colorful electric lights. The Christmas tree (artificial in our case) is up and perfectly decorated. Presents are heaped up beneath and around the tree. Except for my daughter’s room the house is clean.

All this ritual and ceremony and yet I can’t actually claim to be a Christian. It seems there is little of Christ left in Christmas in 2004. After all it doesn’t take much research to discover that Yule celebrations are about as old as mankind itself. Christmas was set up by the Christians to counter the Feast of Saturn, or Saternalia by the Romans. Before the Romans got around to inventing their gods it had many other names. Pagans, Wiccans, Druids and many others celebrated the Winter Solstice. Christianity is but one of the latest traditions to latch on to this special time of year, Kwanzaa being the latest.

There is no present I can receive anymore that is likely to delight me. I have everything I want and amazingly I am satisfied with life. It helps I suppose that my dreams are rather modest. I do not feel the need for a midlife sports car, nor an estate, nor do I secretly crave for to be an executive. I have so much to be grateful for that it is hard for me to think up anything that I truly want. Those things I want are things I cannot really have and which seem corny. For me terrific Christmas presents would include world peace, the end of hunger and respect for our environment. No, I am not kidding. Alas money can’t buy these sorts of presents. Money could not even put John Kerry in the White House. I suppose I could wish for immortality. If not immortality then I could perhaps wish for eternal youth. But I’m not sure I’d want these either. I’m not sure I’d want to inhabit this same body 1000 years from now. The earth as it will be then will be so changed from the one I know now that I suspect living in it would be unbearably sad. Nor do I want to necessarily look like I did at 20 when I am pushing 50, because I don’t want to be thought of as someone quite as naive, headstrong and impoverished as I was then. Nor does the idea of attracting women that young appeal to me because for the most part they shared my naivety and immaturity too. Been there, done that.

Instead I find myself reflecting on how fortunate I am. In many households the loss of one income would be devastating. My wife lost her job at the end of October and it’s nice to know we don’t absolutely need her income. We can survive nicely on my income. I have perhaps the most precious gift of all: good health. Yesterday as a huge rainstorm moved through the area I counted my blessings that we have a roof. As the storm passed and cold wind followed in behind it I counted my blessing that I had indoor heat. Many in this world are not so fortunate. In Iraq families wait in line overnight to fill up their automobiles or for gas to heat their home. Our major “crisis” yesterday was having our Internet service go down for a couple hours. Poor us: we watched a DVD instead.

2004 was still full of personal struggles. Perhaps the most challenging was my parent’s relocation from Michigan to a retirement community in Maryland, all this while my mother’s health declined precipitously. Numerous hospitalizations and weeks spent in nursing homes eventually resulted in something resembling a real recovery. My Mom has been home in her apartment for a couple months now with no subsequent hospitalizations. Her mobility has improved, and with the aid of antidepressants, physical and mental therapy she is a much improved 84 year old lady. When she arrived from Michigan she exclaimed, “I made it! I actually made it!” She expected to die before she left Michigan. Now she gets around slowly, her congestive heart failure is being well treated and she can occasionally make visits. She will be at our house eating Christmas Eve dinner with us tonight. Most importantly some of her old spirit is back. No money can buy such a wonderful present. I had grieved it was gone for good.

I am grateful for my friends. While not large in number they are all dear to me. And I am grateful for my siblings. Though we are geographically separated we are all still very much one family. And I have had opportunities to see all of them over the last year, along with many of my nieces and nephews. I am grateful to have a wife who loves me, and a daughter who is very creative. I am especially grateful for my 18-year-old boy cat Sprite, my best companion in every sense of the word who wants nothing more than the pleasure of my lap and to look into my eyes while I stroke under his chin.

I am grateful for my job. While I could ask for a larger team, I could not ask for a better team, even if half of us are geographically separated. How unusual is it for any manager to have just one employee who gives 150% or more? I have a whole team of people who continuously go the extra mile and dig into the thorniest problems, during and after hours, with nary a complaint. And I am grateful for Susan, my wonderful boss, the best boss I ever had, who somehow manages to make her stressful position fun. But I am also grateful that my job, though often stressful, still gives me sufficient time off to do the things that are meaningful to me. I am grateful that it gives me time to take up my new hobby of bicycling. I am grateful for my many travels up and down the W&OD trail this year. I am grateful to have a job three miles away instead of thirty. I am thus grateful I have at least 90 minutes more on a workday to do with what I want, instead of commute to and from work.

I am grateful that for whatever reason I have left my midlife crisis behind at last. I am grateful that while there are major stresses in my life and there will doubtless be more that I can usually ride above them. I know that every year will have its ups and downs. But I am especially grateful that here, today, I am in a place of peace and contentment.

I hope your Yule time celebrations, in whatever forms they take, bring happiness and comfort to you and to all you love.