Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ A Little Space for Me and Mine

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Dec 22, 2011

A local writer and editor of the teen section in our newspaper, Isabelle Agnew has gotten herself into hot water in the letters section of the newspaper by penning a column in which she admits she's a pagan and asserts that she finds Christmas greetings offensive.

"My issue," she writes, "is when I'm buying a coffee and they wish me well for Christmas or when it's completely generalized, at school for example, that we all celebrate Christmas."

Or, "that people were calling the Santa Claus Parade by another name that offended me... My problem with this is that it's not a Christmas parade. If it was, all of the floats would have a Jesus, Mary and other Biblical references. But they don't."

The reaction from her readers has from "Get a life" to " I am not the least bit offended when someone wishes me Happy Yule or Happy Hanukkah" to "I am a Christian and will continue to wish people a Merry Christmas."

The bulk of the respondents have, I think, missed the point of her remarks. It is not that she is offended by the sound of someone wishing her "merry Christmas" or the idea that people would celebrate the season in their own way. It's deeper than that.

Let me make the same point by way of a digression (bear with me, it's a bit of a story, but I think it tells well).

In 1977 I was in the second of two years working at the Rideau Carleton Raceway, serving drinks and snacks in the box lounge (yes, I was underage - don't tell anyone). It was near the end of the season, which finished November 30, and by then I had come to know the box lounge regulars quite well.

I had an excellent strategy for working in a raceway - I banked my salary, and wagered my tips on the ponies. Over two years at the racetrack I had an excellent record - I broke even. It made the work a little more interesting and allowed me to have something in common with my customers.

The last day of the year one of the box lounge regulars gave me a tip, and I bet a $20 exactor on the last race and walked away with more than $250. It was my single biggest win in two years, and came at a time when I couldn't just lose it on the next race. So I walked away from the track a rich man, at least by my standards of the day.

It being found money, I decided to spread the wealth. I went for a trip into the city and found really nice presents for my family members - my four brothers, parents and other relatives. Don't ask me what they were; I have no good idea. I remember plastic and bright colours and that's about it. And I remember them costing me the bulk of my $250.

Christmas came and I spread my presents under the Christmas tree, mixed unobtrusively with the others, waiting to surprise my relations with my generosity. But the presents were unwrapped and set aside with the others with scarcely even a remark. Nobody expressed surprise, nobody expressed gratitude, nobody thought anything of it at all.

The year following, and the years thereafter, I was living on my own, still earning a minimum wage, still desperate for hours of employment, living on the bad side of the poverty line, and counting every penny. I remember drafting a monthly budget that totaled less than $150. And so when Christmas 1978 came around there was not a chance in the world I was spending any money on Christmas presents.

The reaction from my brothers was, I guess not surprisingly, "if you're not getting us anything, we're not getting you anything" (my parents could be counted on for $20 or more in my Christmas card every year until well into my 30s). And in the many years following, that has been the attitude of almost everyone I've ever met.

Indeed, the once exception to this is remarkable. In 1988 (or so) I was invited to a Christmas dinner by Moira Brown and Sam Proskin, colleagues form the Graduate Students' Association who wore their faith on their sleeves and whose generosity was overt. Despite my being very clear no presents were expected or would be exchanged, they ensured I had extra presents, including a nice black-and-white sweater (this one) I own to this day.

So, for me, the giving and receiving of presents has never since been a part of the Christmas season. Nor do I exchange gifts for birthdays or other events. It's no longer part of my culture. That's not to say I no longer give gifts; I have on occasion surprised people with my largesse. But I don't give gifts on a schedule; I don't give gifts because it's expected.

So what does this have to do with people wishing me a merry Christmas?

Well - it's not the act of people wishing people a merry Christmas. I have no problem with this, and I'm sure Isabelle Agnew doesn't either. Rather (and I deduce this from the way she has expressed her point) it's the expectation that what would be wished is a 'merry Christmas' (or even a 'happy holiday'), as though this is what everyone celebrates this time of the year.

Like Isabelle Agnew, I don't celebrate Christmas. Unlike most people, I don't celebrate anything this time of the year, not even Yule or Solstice or whatever. I take the days off because I'm required to by my employer (when I was in the food industry I always worked Christmas and New Years) and generally spend the time working on some project or another (this year I'm setting up a local newspaper cooperative ).

I am frequently asked around this time of year whether I've got all my Christmas shopping done. I respond politely that I don't do Christmas shopping, that I never buy presents. "Not even for the children?" I am asked, as though I committing some sin against nature. "Especially not for the children," I say, under my breath. For my indifference I am called a "grinch."

Generosity is simply expected this time of year. The charities work themselves up into high gear. Christmas dinners are boxed and distributed to families across the city. Teddy bears are collected; Toys for Santa "makes sure every child has a present." I never contribute to such efforts, and if I am ever heard to remark that such generosity would be better distributed across the entire year rather than for a few days in December I am thought of as a wet blanket.

What offends me - and I think this is at the heart of Agnew's point - is the expectation that there will be presents given and received at this time of the year.

Now I don't know whether Agnew distributes presents - she celebrates Yule, so she may well - but her objection to the idea of Christmas is the same as mine. It is the expectation that everyone will celebrate Christmas that is offensive. The suggestion that a common community holiday parade might without a change of meaning be referred to as a Christmas parade.

I have no problem with people celebrating Christmas, and I have no problem with them wishing each other 'merry Christmas', nor even do I have a problem with people wishing me a 'merry Christmas' - but I do have a problem with them expecting me to celebrate Christmas, just as I have a problem with them expecting me to give presents at this time of the year.

If I read Isabelle Agnew right (and I'm pretty sure I do), she's saying, "Don't take my religiosity for granted." Just as I would be saying, "Don't take my generosity for granted."

One of the typicalities of the dominant culture is that it does not even realize that it is dominant. This is so much so with the celebration of Christmas that every little challenge is perceived as an "attack on Christmas," as though any challenge to such a widely-entrenched celebration could be even remotely meaningful. Dominant cultures trample on other cultures without even being aware that they exist.

What I do during the holiday season - even if it's nothing - is meaningful. It has a right to exist, not as an aberration that needs explaining, but as an ordinary state of affairs that ought to be countenanced at least as possible by the majority culture. When you act and talk as though no alternative to the mainstream could even be considered, you go beyond the celebration of your heritage, and into the obliteration of mine.

What we who are not a part of the mainstream ask is just a little space in which to be allowed to exist. Saying "have a happy holiday" instead of "merry Christmas" at least allows that I might be of a faith different from yours. Asking for a charitable donation whenever it's convenient rather than "at this special time of the year" allows for the possibility that this time of year might not be special to me.

For my own part, I wish people every happiness and warmth in the embrace of whatever faith or belief they profess. I wish them satisfaction and success in their endeavours, whatever they may be. I ask nothing in return of them, except that they travel peaceably the road of life and leave a little space on it for me and mine, so we may live harmoniously together.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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