The Problem with “Christmas”

by Jesse Galef -

I’ll admit that I felt a sense of deep sadness and disappointment when I read Garrison Keillor‘s intolerant screed in the Chicago Tribune. I’m hoping that it’s satire given how abundantly stupid and offensive it is, but for the moment I’m afraid that it’s genuine.

Unitarians listen to the Inner Voice and so they have no creed that they all stand up and recite in unison, and that’s their perfect right, but it is wrong, wrong, wrong to rewrite “Silent Night.” If you don’t believe Jesus was God, OK, go write your own damn “Silent Night” and leave ours alone. This is spiritual piracy and cultural elitism and we Christians have stood for it long enough. And all those lousy holiday songs by Jewish guys that trash up the malls every year, Rudolph and the chestnuts and the rest of that dreck. Did one of our guys write “Grab your loafers, come along if you wanna, and we’ll blow that shofar for Rosh Hashanah”? No, we didn’t.

Christmas is a Christian holiday — if you’re not in the club, then buzz off. Celebrate Yule instead or dance around in druid robes for the solstice. Go light a big log, go wassailing and falalaing until you fall down, eat figgy pudding until you puke, but don’t mess with the Messiah.

Merry Christmas Solstice Yule
Happy Celebration of the Spirit of Giving!
(Image from Flickr)

A quick sidenote: I looked for this article and found two different versions: the first, published on December 16th, which was slightly less offensive, and the second (quoted above) which seems to have been altered – to INCLUDE the references to Jews! Color me confused by that editing process – was he just trying to make the satire more obvious?  Please?

To get the obvious out of the way: Yes, Christians hijacked various pagan traditions; Yes, some “carols” are stolen from secular songs; Yes, the notion of Christians being so culturally persecuted is absurd. I don’t need to go into this when others like Greta Christina have already done a bang-up job expressing the requisite outrage and amusement over that.

I wanted to address his point, satirically-intended or not. I celebrate a secular, federally-recognized holiday on December 25th involving an evergreen tree, Santa, the spirit of giving, and family. I call that holiday Christmas. This has caused quite a bit of confusion, and I can understand why.

Words gain meaning by a shared convention – a word is useful if it successfully communicates your intended message to others. It’s debatable whether the word ‘Christmas’ is successfully communicating my secular celebration of the spirit of giving. Some people understand the usage, but many others don’t.  I’m not surprised – the name has a single, very different, meaning to them: “Christ’s Mass.” That I must frequently stop and explain myself is a good indication that I’m using the wrong word in the first place.  Of course, it rather undermines Keillor’s argument that “Christmas is a Christian holiday” – he has no more authority to assert his usage as definitive than I do.

I think part of the problem is that this holiday hasn’t been intentionally and fully hijacked. By comparison, at least when Saturnalia was commandeered they had the common sense to use a different name for their suspiciously similar rituals. Christmas has simply drifted – evolved, if you will – into new territory. When that happens, there’s bound to be confusion! I don’t think we’ll ever remove the religious connotations from the word, which causes problems (like the federal observance). I suppose I could start saying I celebrate Yule or the Solstice, but while they lack the strong religious connotations, they also lack public recognition.

I don’t see an easy answer, but I don’t consider it a terribly pressing or urgent question. For the moment, I’ll happily take Keillor up on his offer: I’ll be spending December 24th through 25th with my family, lighting a big fire in the fireplace, eating good food, and giving presents. I call it Christmas, but that’s just a word.  I’m certainly not celebrating the same thing and the same way he is.

And sir: I don’t intend to “mess with” your so-called messiah during that time, as my celebration has nothing to do with him.

About Dr. Denise Cooper-Clarke

I am a graduate of medicine and theology with a Ph.D in medical ethics. I tutor in medical ethics at the University of Melbourne, am an (occasional) adjunct Lecturer in Ethics at Ridley Melbourne, and a voluntary researcher with Ethos. I am also a Fellow of ISCAST and a past chair of the Melbourne Chapter of Christians for Biblical Equality. I have special interests in professional ethics, sexual ethics and the ethics of virtue.

  • Siamang

    Well-said.

    I also celebrate the Christmas you do. The holiday I celebrate has to do with trees, gifts, family and trying to cheese off any Bill O’Reilly fans who think that what I do is any of their fucking beeswax.

    Also, it’s Isaac Newton’s birthday. So he’s on my tree too, right by an angel.

  • Tony

    Ah I love this time of year. I have my biblically prohibited decorated tree, I have stockings hung up in the same manner that Our Lord Jesus hung them on his manger, and like Our Lord the Baby Jesus I will be visited by a red-suited coca-cola shill who will reward me in in proportion with my naughty/nice ratio.

    Christmas is the name of a secular holiday which happens to have the name of a god, just as Easter is a religious holiday that happens to have the name of a goddess unrelated to the religion that celebrates it… it’s a curious thing.

    On a slightly related note I got a card in which was written “Remember: Jesus is the Reason for the Season”. I’m guessing that “Ancient Roman political expediency is the Reason for the Season” didn’t scan as well.

  • chris

    I totally understand the Christians’ problem with “taking the Christ out of Christmas.”

    Christmas should be the celebration of the birth of the baby Jesus (which if it DID happen, was probably in April sometime).

    The holiday I celebrate: the trees, the gift-giving, family togetherness, shopping, Santa, and all that secular goodness…it needs another name.

    Because damn near everyone I know celebrates that way (even the Christians) whether they also do the “church thing” or not. It is quite unfortunate that the two holidays have been smashed together this way.

  • http://www.sacredriver.org Ash Bowie

    I too celebrate the Christmas that you describe. I’m not sure how doing so detracts from how Mr. Keillor celebrates it (assuming his rather unseasonal essay is not satire).

    In fact, I consider his attitude to be rather hypocritical…after all, even for Christians isn’t Christmas supposed to be a season of generosity (it is the day that Jehovah gave his Son to humanity, right?). If so, why are some Christians so greedy about the 25th of December? Their message seems to be, “Christmas belongs to US, keep your hands off!”

  • Todd

    Everyone seems to be saying that this is really bad satire, but what exactly is it that Keillor is satirizing? That’s the point that escapes me.

  • Robin

    I always thought Kellior was a fool. Now I know he’s one.

  • Elizabeth

    Well said!

    Looking at the bylines of the two pieces, one is Keillor (date: 12/16), the other is Albom, Mitch – Tuesdays with Mitch (12/20). I wonder if the one that was published second was never meant to be published and was somehow mixed up? It does seem odd to add in all sorts of offensive diatribe when it’s not ultimately necessary and then add someone else’s byline.

  • Tim Carroll

    Am I the first to notice that the second article has a different byline? Who is Mitch Albom? I kept looking at the page and trying to find the link to Keillor’s article.

  • Tim Carroll

    Also… the date is four days later. The first article, dated 16 December 2009 by Garrison Keillor, was offensive enough. I am a little suspicious about the second article.
    Even still, Keillor has made several offensive anti-gay comments in the past. I was not aware of them until this morning, but they are indeed there. This is most disappointing. I have always enjoyed Garrison Keillor, and I know that from now on I will turn the dial when his show comes on.

  • Joffan

    Jesse:

    I’m certainly not celebrating the same thing and the same way he is.

    Actually you probably are, to at least 90% agreement. No reflection on your sincerity – the deception (self-deception?) is on Keillor’s side. For almost all Christians I’d bet that Christmas is mostly about family and friends (and community) gathering and sharing.

  • Elizabeth

    Who is Mitch Albom?

    He’s the guy who wrote Tuesdays with Morrie.

  • http://feveredintellect.blogspot.com Viggo the Carpathian

    This whole issue is what happens when people hold things as sacred… and why I don’t.
    The only thing I treat as sacred is the human right to self determination, (and I don’t think that failing to do so will cause earthquakes and flooding)after that, nothing. Makes me very easy going.

    Call it what you will. It’s a fun holiday and nice time with friends.

  • http://seangill-insidemyhead.blogspot.com/ SeanG

    Would Keillor listen to me if I told him to back the f off my Saturnalia celebration?

  • Barry

    Excellent post! But while we’re at it, let’s split some more hairs! The holiday is Christ-mas, not Jesus-mas. We could have honestly differing views as to who, exactly, was the Christ (i.e., the Messiah).

  • Luther

    Quite a Christian way to proselytize. Very sad. Garrison Keillor seems to be morphing into a religious version of Andy Rooney. But the curmudgeon act usually works with Rooney, except, for me, when he insulted the French based on his service in WWII.

    Lake Woehascome, where the insults are defamatory, the logic is twisted, and all the education is above studying science.

  • http://blog.crispen.org/ Rev. Bob

    Keillor is a satirist with a long record of no sympathy or nostalgia for his fundie upbringing. I’m going for a misfired satire.

  • Dave Anderson (the one true)

    The part of his piece that really blew me away was this:

    And all his hoo-ha about listening to the voice within and don’t follow the path, make your own path and leave a trail and so forth, encouraged people who might’ve been excellent janitors to become bold and innovative economists who run a wealthy university into the ditch.

    Er — Garrison Keillor is a Lutheran, and that whole ‘listening to the voice within’ bit was pretty much Martin Luther’s message, the core of the philosophy that kicked off the Protestant Reformation. Luther felt that clergy basically acted as middle-men and that you didn’t need them to interpret the Bible for you.

    If it’s satire, it’s piss-poor, because I’ve got a keen nose for it and didn’t detect a trace of it. I HOPE it’s satire, but it doesn’t smell like it.

  • Curtis

    And all those lousy holiday songs by Jewish guys that trash up the malls every year, Rudolph and the chestnuts and the rest of that dreck. Did one of our guys write “Grab your loafers, come along if you wanna, and we’ll blow that shofar for Rosh Hashanah”? No, we didn’t.

    Come on, that is obviously satire.

  • medussa

    Keillor is clearly threatened in his celebration of Christmas.
    Other people redefining what the holiday means to them undermines his ability to celebrate Christmas the same way a redefinition of marriage threatens his personal marriage.
    So make it illegal to define anything differently from his personal perspective, and the man might actually feel safe.

    Seems like he and his kind need a lot of protection.

  • Vas

    Yep, Keillor fancies himself a satirist, the problem is he is astonishingly bad at his job. He is a comedian who has never once in his career been funny. Dry is one thing but Keillor is beyond that. He pukes bile nonstop and tries to convince the cultural elite that it is funny. I find his to be the most irritating voice in the public sphere bar none, hell I would rather listen to the Fox talking heads than Keillor. He a joke no one gets. He is the reason I have not been able to support many public radio stations, want my support of your public radio station, call back after you dump PHC, (I live in a market with more that just 1 public radio station, guess who gets my donations and who doesn’t). maybe more than a few people should write to the public radio station where he produces his show and let them know how they feel, and maybe a line to your local station as well. On a final note he has corporate sponsors, sure they are lame ass one’s like Sleep Number Beds, but a few emails to them may be the order of the day as well.
    Oh and Garrison…newspaper and public radio celebrity? FAIL

  • BlueRidgeLady

    To use a line a read earlier this week..

    “You’re not a Christian. You’re just an asshole”.

    Funny he mentioned people stealing songs, since Christians have “adopted” every single pagan holiday date and change it to something else.

  • muggle

    You do know what Garrison Keillor can do with his little tirade, don’t you?

    Enough with these Scrooges and their war on Christmas! Eff them. And just go ahead and celebrate the holiday of your choice with those you love. If they choose to view it as war, kill them with kindness and refuse to let it put a damper on your holiday spirit. Battle won. War well on its way too, frankly.

    Mine’s Happy Winter actually. Because I feel it’s more about winter. The way we currently celebrate, it’s more about the beauty of the season while contrarily huddling close to the fire and treasuring loved ones who help us through the cold months.

    Yes, I do sometimes explain this to people. Just today, someone who knows I’m Atheist and who, unlike Garrison Keillor, does have an excellent dry sense of humor combined with such a serious face as he asks a purposely loaded question that you fall for it even knowing he makes a habit of it, wished me Merry Christmas than said you do celebrate Christmas, don’t you? (He knows I’m Atheist.) I paid him back in kind and told him actually I celebrate Happy Winter and explained, including how my daughter made an Easter decoration in school once labelled happy sprig and we adopted the habit for all the holidays. Hey, he asked for it.

    Mostly though I do just say Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays.

  • Pastafarian

    Oh, let the Christians have their Christmas, we don’t need it, we have Krismas!

    http://www.krismas.org

    Merry Krismas everyone!

  • Pastafarian

    Just wanted to add, I hope that everyone will write to both NPR and your local NPR station and let them know how awful you found GK’s little tirade to be. I certainly will never listen to APHC again and perhaps if the folks in charge hear how appalled their listeners are they’ll consider yanking him off the air. One can hope, anyway.

  • beautdogs

    I think you guys have it all wrong. Keillor just had a stroke in September. I think he’s had another one. Either that or he took 3 Ambiens with a couple shots of bourbon. This is not him–he is far more eloquent and witty, even when he’s pissed off. Here, he’s just ranting and disconnected. I don’t think it’s satire, but I don’t think it’s a sane person talking either. And I think he’s angry because like many intelligent Christians, he is plagued by doubt…. He needs to put his pen down, gracefully retire from PHC, and kick back on the front porch. Maybe even spend some time thinking about whether it really IS comforting to think that god is watching all the time… or whether eternal life would be a blessing or a curse. I appreciate many of the articles that he as written in the past.

  • anthuswilliams

    I wonder if Garrison Keillor celebrates Halloween. Since he’s got a big problem with druids running around celebrating Christmas, I wonder what he’d do if they told him to stop jockeying with their holiday.

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  • http://atheistcamel.blogspot.com/ Dromedary Hump

    When I read Keillor’s comments in my local papar I almost shit.

    I always perceived the guy as a no talent, insipid, theist jerkwad, but had no idea he was an anti-Semite. I don’t know why I should have been surprised.

  • http://highlandshomeschool.homeschooljournal.net/ Liese4

    I shudder when Christians open their mouths because they usually put their foot in it. Christmas for us is about Jesus, we know he wasn’t born on that day, we know there weren’t 3 wise men, we know it wasn’t snowing; we just need a day to celebrate his birth.

    You’re right, the whole season is about generosity, giving and sacrifice for others.

    I’m sorry for the offensive post from someone who claims to be a Christian, it makes it harder for the rest of us to seem credible.

    Have a very happy Holiday, a Merry Christmas and a spectacular season of remembering all the good things that have happened this year.

  • TheBob

    I will actually defend one thing in that article: I’m against “politically correct” revisionism, so I agree that if the UUs don’t like “Silent Night” as originally written, they should sing something different rather than rewrite “Silent Night” to something they’re comfortable singing. That’s not an atheist or Christian ideal – that’s just showing respect for the original work.

    On the other hand, I’m all about parody songs and creative rearrangements (such as the Twisted Sister “A Twisted Christmas” album I’m listening to right now) – but that’s a different idea altogether. :)

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  • http://atheistcamel.blogspot.com/ Dromedary Hump

    Liese4 said:

    I shudder when Christians open their mouths because they usually put their foot in it. Christmas for us is about Jesus, we know he wasn’t born on that day, we know there weren’t 3 wise men, we know it wasn’t snowing; we just need a day to celebrate his birth.

    You’re right, the whole season is about generosity, giving and sacrifice for others.

    I’m sorry for the offensive post from someone who claims to be a Christian, it makes it harder for the rest of us to seem credible.

    Have a very happy Holiday, a Merry Christmas and a spectacular season of remembering all the good things that have happened this year.

    Damnit!!I hate it when theists are sensible, educated and reasonable… it messes up my whole ability to generalize about them!

    ;)


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