“Do not confine your children to your own learning, for they were born in another time.” – Hebrew Proverb
Go to Manhattan if you have the chance, and wander around. Not the tourist or business centers … go to the neighborhoods where New Yorkers visit and live. You’ll see:
Sidewalks, that is, full of humanity, with every social combination you can imagine coexisting enthusiastically without having been homogenized. What’s remarkable is that it’s utterly unremarkable. It’s what is most astonishing about America at its best. Fifty years ago, when an African-American family moved to the suburbs, their presence triggered panic selling among Caucasian property owners. And where less than forty years ago Stanley Kramer scandalized much of America with Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, multi-ethnic screen kisses are now routine.
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Not very many years ago, someone invited me to an Easter service in a church noted for its sense of community. From the pulpit I heard a lay preacher explain that the Last Supper was the last legitimate Passover. Just three years ago I heard the leader of another Christian flock decry the “inferior morality” of other faiths, using Buddhism as his exemplar.
And this year we’ve been treated to Mallard Filmore, to choose one from a host of eminent celebrities, politicians and theologians, taking offense at a practice most of us have adopted: calling this time of year the “holiday season.” Despite the absurdity of engaging in debate with a cartoon duck, it’s impossible to remain silent in the face of such offensiveness.
There’s the minor matter of property rights. When a person or business erects a fake conifer and decorates it, it’s their tree. If they want to call them “holiday trees,” or for that matter “Christmas trees,” “Hanukkah bushes,” “Kwanza conifers,” or “Doohickeys,” that’s their right as property owners.
More important: Taking offense because someone chooses to avoid causing offense means the only way to satisfy Bruce Tinsley, who draws Mallard Filmore, and his ilk is for retailers to deliberately offend or exclude the Hindus, Jews, Moslems, Wiccans, agnostics and atheists who also shop their aisles during a time of year that includes Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanza, the Winter Solstice and the New Year holiday.
And finally, encouraging Christians to become angry during the Christmas season because people and businesses show tolerance and inclusion is simply deplorable.
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In earlier days of Christianity, its adherents encouraged those they proselytized to bring traditions into the church. Doing so provided continuity and connection, helping the converted accept their new religion while enriching Christianity in the bargain. It’s why Christians have “Christmas trees” in the first place, and why Christmas is roughly concurrent with the winter solstice. The citizens of Judea did not decorate coniferous trees 2000 years ago after all, nor is there any reason to believe Christ was born in December. Christianity adopted many of the trappings of Christmas from the Germanic tribes it converted.
Throughout history, those civilizations that practiced inclusion — that embraced ideas, technologies and traditions from all sources so long as those sources didn’t remain hostile — dominated societies that practiced intolerance and exclusion. This was true of at least Rome, pre-Mullah Arabia, the Mongols, the British empire, and the United States. The Nazis, in contrast, required purity, rejecting relativity as a “Jewish theory.” Had they practiced inclusion — had they not provided their Jewish scientists to the Allies — there’s little doubt they would have developed a fission bomb before we did.
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Albert Einstein, never comfortable with the probabilistic nature of quantum physics, famously said, “God does not play dice with the universe.” Niels Bohr’s response is less well-known: “Albert, don’t tell God how to run his universe.”
It’s good advice. And when you consider that in a very real way, each of us lives in our own private universe, it seems even better.
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Enjoy this holiday season. If you’re a Christian, have a very merry Christmas. If you’re Jewish, enjoy eight happy days of Hanukkah. If your traditions include Kwanza, make the most of that; and if you’re one of the relatively few who still worship Odin, the midwinter solstice is well worth celebrating, if for no other reason than that the days start to lengthen immediately afterward.
If your personal belief system doesn’t include spiritual traditions that land in the month of December, enjoy the holiday season anyway. It’s still an excellent time to relax a bit, reflect, and enjoy the company of friends and family.
And have a happy New Year as well. I’ll see you in 2006.