Holiday season offers plenty to celebrate

By Jeremy Fejfar, December 21, 2014

Published in the La Crosse Tribune.

Holiday season offers plenty to celebrate

I’ll admit it, I enjoy Christmastime. Like everyone, I enjoy taking time to be with my family, great food, giving gifts, seeing the anticipation in my children as the big day approaches and watching their faces light up when they open that special gift. I’ve even been known to belt out Christmas songs, much to the misfortune of family members who find themselves within earshot.

Almost every person celebrates something this time of year. In addition to Christmas and Hanukkah celebrated by Christians and Jews, Muslims celebrate Id al-Adha during the 12th lunar month of the Islamic year, and many different pagan and Native American religious practices recognize and have traditions surrounding the winter solstice.

The winter solstice is truly the “reason for the season,” as this is the day each year with the fewest number of daylight hours, Dec. 22. It marks the point at which days begin to get longer, “the return of the sun.” This event was very significant to ancient people for obvious reasons, and many rituals and traditions were organized around this astronomical phenomenon.

Growing up as a Christian, my memories are full of Christmas traditions — traditions I wanted to share with my own children. However, I did not care to incorporate any of the religious trappings. So we simply enjoyed all of the things most people do this time of year — stories about Santa and reindeer, decorating an evergreen in our living room, giving gifts, singing songs, building snowmen and gingerbread houses, and all of the other wonderful activities that have nothing to with mangers and wise men.

It’s also a great way to keep the peace in a house where the husband and wife may not see eye-to-eye on the subject of religion, as is the case in my own home.

Apparently there are many others out there who enjoy the holiday in this secular way, and some have even taken to dubbing this celebration “Krismas,” quite literally “taking the Christ out of Christmas.” Personally, I feel no more need to remove the name Christ from Christmas than I do to remove the name Thor from Thursday. In fact, most of the days of our week and many of our months received their names from earlier pagan, Greek or Roman gods. Like most people today, I don’t believe in these gods either, yet the names of our weekdays do not bother me in the slightest.

The practice of borrowing traditions from different religions is nothing new. In fact, many elements of the Christmas tradition were borrowed from earlier pagan solstice celebrations. Decorating an evergreen tree, the Yule log and mistletoe are among many borrowed practices.

It seems more people are favoring a secularized Christmas. A 2013 poll from the Public Religion Research Institute found that 1 in 4 Americans viewed Dec. 25 as a cultural holiday, not a religious holy day, and 51 percent of those who celebrated the day did not believe that many elements in the traditional narrative — the virgin birth, that shepherds seeing a star over Bethlehem and that three wise men visiting a baby Jesus in a manger — were historically accurate.

This poll also found that half of those polled preferred a generic greeting such as “happy holidays” out of respect for people of all faiths.

This kind of secularized holiday greeting certainly does bother one self-appointed defender of Christmas, the American Family Association. Each year about this time, this organization publishes its “Naughty and Nice” list. The group encourage its members to call, email and boycott the stores who make its naughty list, composed of retailers who don’t use the word “Christmas” enough in their advertising. Nationwide, retailers in home improvement to pet food have to deal with this group’s ire annually for choosing to keep their advertisements free of references to other people’s religious observances.

Of course, the AFA is only interested in making sure Christian holidays get top billing in businesses’ flyers and displays, with no regard to the religion of the business owner. I can only imagine the response from the AFA if a Muslim group demanded that Christian business owners recognize the observance of Ramadan in their advertising.

Despite the claims of the “War on Christmas” promoted by groups such as the AFA and some in the media, I have no personal experience with anyone trying to restrict the ability of Christians to practice their religious holiday however they see fit, as long as they are not imposing it on others around them.

As for myself, I will enjoy the tradition of Christmas this year, though not the religion of Christmas. I wish everyone a joyous holiday season and a healthy and happy new year.

Jeremy Fejfar is a member of the La Crosse Area Freethought Society.

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