Tis the Reason for the Season

(Originally posted in the Stratford Star and Fairfield Sun newspapers on December 22, 2011, in my  “Walsh’s Wonderings” column.)

Christmas, with its message of “Peace on earth and goodwill toward man,” has always been my favorite holiday. Unfortunately, it can sometimes bring out the worst in people who forget the reason the holiday exists in the first place.

This ugliness often arises out of minor things like the lighting of Christmas trees or the placement of nativity scenes and menorahs on town property. You’ll read about it in the choice of songs for the middle school chorale concert. You’ll see it in the billboard wars about the authenticity of religion itself between atheist groups and religious organizations. You’ll hear it in the whispered conversations at the water cooler: “I hate when people say, ‘Happy holidays,’ just because they’re too afraid to wish me a Merry Christmas.”

This last one represents a popular refrain from many conservative Christian groups who claim that “they” (whoever “they” are) are “trying to take Christ out of Christmas.” This is a flawed argument at best, mainly because it represents the same ideals of Manifest Destiny that history has come to look upon as both ignorant and arrogant.

To begin with, the Church did not decree the official date of Christmas until the middle of the fourth century, adding another holiday to an already-crowded slate. If anyone should feel their holiday was co-opted, it would be the adherents of Brumalia, an ancient Roman solstice festival honoring the god Bacchus generally held for a month and ending December 25. Gheimhridh was celebrated by Druids and Proto-Celtic tribes at Newgrange as early as 3,200 BCE. Babylonians held an annual renewal celebration, the Zagmuk Festival, that lasted 10 days to observe the sun god Marduk’s battle over darkness. Saturnalia, a Roman feast commemorating the dedication of the temple of Saturn, lasted from December 17 – 23. The Buddhist celebration of Sanghamitta, honoring the Buddhist nun who brought a branch of the Bodhi tree to Sri Lanka, has been held around the winter solstice for over 2,000 years. Polytheistic European tribes celebrated Midvinterblot, a mid-winter-sacrifice, while the Zuni and the Hopitu Indians celebrated Soyal, the winter solstice ceremony held on December 21, the shortest day of the year.

Put simply, Christianity was late to the party. In fact, many customs from pagan Scandinavian and Germanic celebrations of “Yule” in northern Europe (which started on December 25) are present in Christmas traditions. Items like the Christmas tree, the Christmas wreath, holly, mistletoe, and the Yule log were taken right from Yule customs. It’s interesting to note that the Puritans, the very people who colonized America, banned the celebration of Christmas in England before coming here. The crime of observing Christmas was punishable by a fine in the thirteen colonies, and was still not widely celebrated by the time of the Declaration of Independence.

What’s so disappointing is that in almost every culture, this was meant as a time for renewal and hope, a way to connect the community to that which was most important to them. That was the hope of Maulana Karenga, a key figure in the Black Power movement of the 1960’s and 1970’s, when he created the Kwanzaa festival in 1966 as a week-long celebration of African-American heritage and culture. Each night is dedicated to one of the seven principles of African heritage: Unity (Umoja), Self-Determination (Kujichagulia), Collective Work and Responsibility (Ujima), Cooperative Economics (Ujamaa), Purpose (Nia), Creativity (Kuumba), and Faith (Imani).

Twenty-two centuries earlier, Yehuda HaMakabi (“Judah the Hammer”) led a successful revolt against the Seleucid king Antiochus IV. During the re-dedication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, Judah ordered the Temple cleansed, the altar rebuilt, and the lighting of a menorah—a gold candelabrum whose seven branches (representing knowledge and creation) were to be kept burning each night. Because the Greeks had defiled all the oils, they were left with only enough to burn for a day. Somehow it burned for eight days, long enough to prepare a fresh supply. The Sages of that generation decreed that the 25th of Kislev would begin eight days rejoicing in commemoration of this event, and that the lights be lit in the entrance to their homes to publicize the miracle.

According to the Bible, Jesus’ birth itself was the ultimate expression of God’s love, a testament to His capacity for forgiveness.  How ironic, then, that the celebration of this birth is often accompanied by such rancor. Trivializing the true meaning behind these holidays is bad enough; we’ve managed to do a great job of obscuring the poignancy of the celebrations through crass commercialization and willful ignorance.  Even worse, however, is that we use this distorted lens to create even more divisions between “the others” and ourselves. When we allow ourselves to be blinded by the twinkling lights atop the candles or the trees, we fail to connect with the purpose of any of these holidays.

A full expression of one’s religious beliefs need not include the condemnation of other schools of thought. Instead, this energy should be poured into fully celebrating that which we hold dear. When we reach out to help others in need during this holiday season, the symbols we wear around our necks don’t matter half as much as the generosity with which we open our hearts. The differences between the methods of expressing our faith mean little compared to importance of the expression itself.

Therefore, it is with the utmost respect and sincerity that I offer you this Irish holiday blessing: “May peace and plenty be the first to lift the latch on your door, and happiness be guided to your home by the candle of Christmas.” I wish you all a happy and healthy holiday season… that is, with the exception of those who are easily offended—they probably won’t have a particularly happy holiday, anyway.

Jesus vs. Santa (A Young Catholic’s Struggle)

(Originally posted in the Stratford Star and Fairfield Sun newspapers on December 15, 2011, in my  “Walsh’s Wonderings” column.)

As the Salvation Army Santa rang his bell for donations in front of the Stop ‘n’ Shop last week, I couldn’t help but think that this really improves his image. Like many kids, I had thought of Santa as my “go-to guy” for years, writing more letters to him than to all my relatives combined. Unfortunately, he’s only human. Or mostly human. Either way, he can only be trusted up to a point.

My Sunday School teachers always tried to put the holiday season in perspective: “Christmas is more about the birth of Jesus than the appearance of Santa Claus,” they’d say. That was always a tough sell. The end of the calendar year was like a holiday clearinghouse: Halloween, All Saints Day, Thanksgiving, the Immaculate Conception, Christmas, and the Feast of the Solemnity of Mary (New Year’s Day) all fell within two months of each other. In this crucible of holiday craziness, young Catholics like me were told we should turn to Jesus, not Santa Claus, for all we needed. However, material concerns often outweigh their spiritual counterparts when you’re eight and you’d trade your immortal soul for a new GI Joe with the Kung-Fu grip.

It was a delicate dance. How could we manage to keep both of them happy so as to maximize our Christmas haul while still keeping a door open for future salvation? After all, this wasn’t Jesus vs. the Easter Bunny. All the Easter Bunny did was hop around and hide eggs—he didn’t even have an opposable thumb. Santa, on the other hand, was famous for making a list and checking it twice. Whereas Jesus did not appear to retain a written record of my past transgressions, Santa seemed to hold a grudge.

Santa also provided children with a clear list of what not to do, and everyone knows it’s easier to be told what not to do than to be told what you should do. Don’t pout… check. Don’t cry… check. Jesus, on the other hand, was fond of saying things like, “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” I mean, how do you know when you’re doing that right? It was easier to follow the things like the Ten Commandments, which seemed to have been written by Santa. He also made it clear that there would be immediate consequences if we didn’t do what he told us to do. He saw me when I was sleeping, and he saw me when I was awake. If I screwed up, he’d keep my presents and put a lump of coal in my stocking. Coal. I might as well have woken up to the bloody, severed head of a horse in the bed next to me. Santa dealt in black and white. With Jesus, I figured I’d always get a second chance.

Santa had immediacy: we could sit on his lap in the shopping mall and put the screws to him about that new bicycle we wanted. One time when I was eight years old, I jumped on his lap and begged for a new Lionel engine train.  Santa leaned into my ear where my mom couldn’t see and whispered, “You’ll have your train.” I was elated. I had backed a winner! I was still very fond of Jesus, but he had never looked me in the eye and promised to deliver like Santa. Jesus was fond of cryptic messages and fuzzy promises of rewards later on, but Santa was as subtle as an oncoming bullet. “You’ll have your train.”

On Christmas Eve, I went to midnight Mass with my family and tried to smooth things over with Jesus. I wished Him a happy birthday and hoped He understood. The next morning I ran downstairs to clear a spot in the basement for the train tracks. Santa was known to have somewhat questionable taste at times, and my impatience grew with every unwrapped pair of socks or knitted sweater. It wasn’t until the last present was opened that I began to doubt Santa. Surely he was on his way back, I thought, secretly putting out the fire in the fireplace so he wouldn’t hurt himself. The train set must have gotten stuck in his bag.

And that’s the rub with Santa. I learned that sometimes he couldn’t help himself, making promises he couldn’t keep. After all, if he’d had any restraint, he probably wouldn’t be so morbidly obese. We forget that he moved off the grid, setting up shop in the middle of nowhere like the Unabomber or Abe Vigoda. How could I expect him to remember the important things like my train set when he didn’t even have the foresight to install fog lights on his sleigh?

So ended my crisis of faith. It was fine to believe in Santa up to a point—as my mom would say, he was only doing the best he could. However, much like the Easter Bunny, I couldn’t put all my eggs in that basket.

Bathed in Controversy

(Originally posted in the Stratford Star newspaper on December 1, 2011, and in the Fairfield Sun on December 8, 2011, both in my  “Walsh’s Wonderings” column.)

Some say bath towels, like milk, have an expiration date. Regardless of race, creed, or nationality, there are really only two kinds of people in this world: Those who change bath towels after every shower, and those who don’t.

Towels matter. Because we use them while we are most exposed, this decision speaks to who we really are. If you don’t believe me, ask around. I had a friend in high school that recoiled in horror when I shared that my family only switched towels once a week. “That’s disgusting—how can you dry yourself with a dirty towel?” In his eyes, it was as if I was drying myself with a used diaper, but my mother was washing laundry for nine people each week. Unless a root system was actively growing on the towel, we used it.

The Turks, who first popularized today’s bath towel in the 18th century, never had to deal with this: They bathed weekly at best.  I was once a Turk myself, spending most of my pre-teenage years trying to convince my mom of the wisdom of minimal bathing. Alas, she clung stubbornly to the Western tradition of bathing several times a week. Each of her kids was assigned a worn bath towel, large enough to do the job but small enough to be useless as a cape. We would toss them in the hamper each weekend and grab another, usually while soaking wet.

There were inherent flaws in this system, of course. As anyone with brothers can attest, teenage boys are required to wipe any number of unspeakable things on their younger brother’s bath towel. Whether you need to stem the blood from a shaving cut, cover a sneeze, or wipe the excess oil off your bike chain, a little brother’s towel does it all. It only gets worse at summer camp or college—without a blood bond, things are wiped on towels that would curl the toes of even the most experienced portable toilet cleaner. Small wonder that some won’t trust a towel that doesn’t come right out of the wash. Believers in the “All Need Antiseptic Linen” school of thought (I wish I could think of a good acronym for this) therefore insist that towels are automatically “unclean” after one use.

However, the “Did I Replace Towels Yesterday?” school of thought (I know—I need an acronym, but what?) seems to be gaining momentum. Even hotels, once a playground stocked with innumerable clean towels, are beginning to embrace my mom’s philosophy. Bathroom cards read, “Save our planet: Every day, countless gallons of water are used to wash towels that have only been used once. A towel on the rack means, ‘I will use again.’ A towel on the floor means, ‘Please replace.’ Thank your for helping us conserve the Earth’s vital resources.” While trying to guilt us into helping them save on their laundry bill (and who knew Tide was a vital resource), they manage to paint the “All Need Antiseptic Linen” folks as wasteful rather than “clean.” Hoisted by their own petard!

A simpler way to end the controversy is to ask the obvious question to those still clinging to the “All Need Antiseptic Linen” group (I know, I know—they need a shorter name). In short, what the heck are you doing to that poor towel? It’s meant to dry the water off freshly showered skin; if we’re not clean after a shower, when are we? True, there are areas of the body that might require stringent sanitary attention—places my mom, a former nurse, used to put thermometers to see if her kids were really sick. But this problem is remedied in the shower, not with a towel. Each of us made a fateful choice the first time we bathed alone: When we came to that fork in the road, we became either top-to-bottom towelers, or bottom-to-top towelers, and that has made all the difference.

A unique logic is employed in this crucial decision. I won’t use the towel after I finish drying my feet, for example. However, I’ll put it on the shower rack and use it the next day as if the Towel Fairies had been hard at work all night, dry cleaning. When I take two showers in a day, I won’t dry myself with the towel if it’s still damp; that’s what my wife’s towel is for. Only if hers is damp will I make that long walk to the linen closet for another towel. It’s almost as if I can hear my mom saying, “Starving kids in China would kill for a moist towel, and here you are asking for a new one!” as I reach around the guest towels for a spare. Guest towels are always off-limits, like foldable fine china. Our guest towels can spend entire presidential administrations in the closet until a guest appears, but we’ll dry ourselves with the bath mat or hand towels before we touch them.

Like most of the truly important questions in the universe, there is no simple answer as to how often to change a bath towel. If you change every day, you’ll either destroy the planet or run out and have to use the hand towel. If you keep your towel a few days, expect someone else’s toothpaste in your hair. On the other hand, if we’re honest, we can come to an agreement on one thing: there really isn’t a choice at that “fork in the road.” To be anything other than a top-to-bottom toweler is barbaric and wrong, and if you come to any other conclusion, you’re all wet.