Friday, December 25, 2009

Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays?

     Over the last month or so I have seen several of my Facebook friends become fans of a group called I Say Merry Christmas, Not Happy Holidays. I did a search on Facebook for the group, and found there are several of them with similar titles.  I have been aware of the argument for many years, probably as long as I can remember. What is right? Does it matter?

     In considering my decision on how to feel about the Merry Christmas v. Happy Holiday argument, I thought about what the season really means.  Not the history of it, or the religious aspects, but how our culture, today, regards the holiday. Doing so, I have concluded that for most of us, even those who are moderately religious, Christmas has become a very secular event.
     I participated in a program this year called Shop With a Cop. I took an underprivileged child shopping for Christmas presents. He had a $120 gift card to spend at Walmart; the money was raised by donations, including a large donation from Walmart. The child I took was the child of a couple from Palestine. They were Muslim. However, this little boy and his brother and sister knew everything about Christmas. They wanted their picture taken with Santa, they wanted a Christmas tree, and they were exchanging presents with friends. They were very thankful for the opportunity to participate in the Shop with a Cop program, and they celebrated Christmas without Christ.
     Although the concept of Christmas began as a celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, that is merely paid lip service in most households. Most of the Christmas traditions that we value are not entirely of Christian origin anyway.  People living in the pre-Christian Roman Empire brought evergreen branches and other green decorations in the house during the winter season.  The Christmas Tree is believed to be a combination of a pagan celebration of the Winter Solstice and tree worship.  The myth of Santa Claus comes from a fourth century bishop in Turkey named Nicholas, who cared for children and brought them gifts.  Originally, gifts were exchanged on the Feast of St. Nicholas, but during the Reformation the Protestants changed the date to December 25th and said the gifts were from Jesus; the myth of Santa Claus moved to December 25th, too. 
     As for December 25th, there is really no evidence this was the birthday of Jesus. It has been celebrated on many different days over the course of Christian history, including December 7th and January 7th. Part of the explanation of the December 25th origin is the previously mentioned celebration of the Winter Solstice. Others speculate that was about the time of Christ's birth because it is about nine months after the believed Immaculate Conception of Jesus.
     Many countries in the world celebrate Christmas, including many that do not have a majority Christian population. And in that celebration, many of the traditions are the same.  There are different reasons it is celebrated in different parts of the world, including a left-over from Christian colonial rule and foreign cultural influence.
     Christmas as we know it has hardly any Christian roots anymore. Instead, it is a combination of the Christianization of some old secular and pagan traditions, a holdover from Christian colonialism, and of course the commercialization of the holiday.  In addition, there are other religious holidays that fall during the same time of year. And, Christmas is followed closely by New Year's Day, which is a holiday in the United States and other parts of the world. 
     What, if anything, does that mean to the debate between Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays?  To start with, I believe Christians and non-Christians alike use the holiday season as an opportunity to spend time with family, extend well wishes to those in their community, donate to those less fortunate, exchange gifts with family and friends, and reach out to those they haven't seen often over the year. It has become a time of peace, love, acceptance, and forgiveness for all.  It has become a holiday that our economy depends on. Christians, Jews, Muslims, people of other religions, and non-believers all benefit from these thoughts and traditions.  Happy Holidays seems to be a more appropriate and inclusive greeting.  It includes Christmas, so Christians have no reason to feel offended or left out if they are greeted that way, and it won't offend any non-Christians. Given the spirit of the season, why would one want to risk offending another when extending a warm holiday greeting?

     On the other hand, since I believe that Christmas is no longer appropriately considered a Christian holiday, those non-Christians who are wished a Merry Christmas should not really be offended. They are, or should be, enjoying the same benefits and traditions of the holiday, even if in a purely secular fashion. 
     I will continue to error on the side of caution, be less offensive, and wish Happy Holidays when in doubt. Frankly, I think those who insist on Merry Christmas to show they are proud, in-your-face Christians, at the expense of being offensive, have an arrogant, self-righteous, and isolationist attitude about the holiday and their faith.  Even from a wholly religious Christian perspective, is that what Christmas is about?



Saturday, December 19, 2009

NEW BOOK by Michael Koryta!!

One of my favorite young authors, Michael Koryta, whom I was fortunate enough to become friends with, has a new book scheduled to be released June 9, 2010, called So Cold the River. It is exciting not only because it is his first book with publisher Little, Brown, or because it is a break from his Lincoln Perry series, but because it is a different style book for him. Author Dennis Lehane compares it to work by Stephen King, and Michael Connelly said it will "leave cold fingers down your spine." I look forward to reading this book, and hope you do to. You can pre-order it from Amazon at the link above!

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

An Adventure in the Woods

     After great thought and consideration, I went hunting on Monday.  It was not the first time, in fact, it was the fourth.  The first time was six years ago and I unsuccessfully hunted squirrel.  I thought it would be easier, but squirrel in the woods--where they are seldom bothered by humans, and when they are, it is likely because the human is trying to kill them--are much harder to find than squirrel in the city.  The second time I hunted was the fall of 2006, and my prey was deer. I went again in 2007, and then again this past Monday.  
     I continue to give a lot of thought to hunting, maybe too much, but it is, after all, going out into the woods to kill a living thing.  My thoughts on the topic are evolving, and I will try to explain some of them.  I have always been entranced by the woods; the calm can be both soothing and eerie.  Hunting provides a lot of time to think, and since the mission is one of death, thoughts often lead there. Not necessarily morbid thoughts, but about the cycle of life, the food chain, how unforgiving nature can be, and the smallness of life in the big picture.
     I went hunting on the land of a friend of a friend.  He owns several hundred acres in central eastern Ohio, about fifty or sixty miles east of Columbus.  It is very rural there, my leading indicator being that there is no cellular phone service!  The land is hilly and woods are big enough that I could easily get lost in them without the help of my friend, who has hunted there for over twenty-five years.  And even he, in the dark, would likely be lost.  They are not so big that I couldn't hear civilization nearby.  Usually it was an airplane, likely taking off or landing in Columbus.  Sometimes it was a car or truck engine on a road a mile or two away.  
     These woods are, at first glance, untouched by man.  But once being there awhile, especially with my friend, evidence of civilization became obvious.  When pointed out, ruts on the ground of the woods could be seen, forming a row of trees that seemed a little smaller than the rest.  Those, I was told, were former dirt roads used by loggers.  Another sign of mankind was the small red/orange hose that rand down the hill, mostly buried by the leaves and debris.  The hose was attached to an old gas well at the top of the hill, long since turned off, but still serviced by the gas company. 

     I should say that calling what I did hunting seems a little misleading.  What I did, and what most deer hunters I know do, is not an active hunt.  That, as I think of it, is going out looking for deer or other prey, or for evidence that could lead you to that prey: tracks or trails or nests.  What I did was nothing like that. Instead, I went into the woods, climbed a ladder about ten feet into a tree, and sat for nine hours on a cold, wooden platform and waited, for a long time.  So, instead of hunting, perhaps it should be called waiting, or something more passive than the implication that I'm out doing something to actually catch a deer.  
     This year I waited for about four hours before I saw two deer running through the woods, away from me. I never had a shot.  Then I waited for about five more hours before I saw one deer walking parallel to me. It was late, about 4:30 pm, and getting dark.  The deer I saw was a buck, a little further away than I would like, but withing my sights.  I shot...and missed, and then, as quickly as I came, picked up my gear, and left before getting trapped in the dark woods.

     All that waiting can be soothing and thought provoking.  It can be so silent that I could hear an individual leaf fall from a tree and hit the ground; I could hear a solitary squirrel walking on a limb; and I could hear the wind rustling the few remaining leaves on the treetops long before I could feel it moving over my face.  That quiet hunting/waiting gave me time to think about the land I was on.  How only a few years after the loggers left, their roads were almost undetectable.  I thought about the Native Americans that likely lived there hundreds, even thousands of years ago.  How they used that land to sustain themselves.  What is sport for mankind today--even though most hunters eat what they kill it is hardly necessary to survive in our society--was working for sustenance to the people that lived there before.  I thought about how they may have walked to the creek for their drinking water, gathered the wood to keep warm, cook their food, and build shelter.  I thought about the first European settlers in the area, fighting their way through the solid woods that made up most of Ohio with their horses and wagons.  And how when they decided where to settle, perhaps not far from the very spot I sat, they would have to build everything for themselves, from only the resources the woods could provide.  No trips to the lumber yard, hardware store, Home Depot, or Lowe's. No carpenters, plumbers, electricians, to call for help.  I thought about wars that might have been fought there, or in woods just like these throughout the country. The differences between the many skirmishes and battles between Native American tribes, between the Native Americans and the early settlers, between the Americans and the British, and between the North and the South.  How the changing technology changed the nature and strategy of the fighting. I thought about life and death and the harshness of nature without the advances and technology we enjoy in our lives today. Even with my layers of cotton, wool, and polyester, I was still cold from time to time.  But I, unlike so many that have come before, had a warm car to return to only a mile down the hill.  

     I couldn't write a post about hunting without getting into the ethical questions about it.  I should say I've never been an avid hunter.  In fact, during the month leading up to the big day I sometimes find myself thinking of reasons not to go, and if it wasn't for my friend, whom I enjoy spending time with and who enjoys hunting immensely, I would likely never hunt again.  I know that many of the people I share political and social views with would not agree with my Adventures in the Woods, so I would like to explain my reasons for deciding to go, even if it is just what my mother, a psychiatric nurse, might call rationalizing
    I have no moral or ethical problem with hunting or hunters, as long as they eat or donate the meat they kill.  I have more of a problem with cattle or chicken farms that raise animals in captivity, sometimes restrained in such small quarters the animals can't turn around, only to slaughter them for food.  At least the animals that are hunted are free to live in their natural habitat until they are killed.  Although I don't have a problem with hunting and most hunters, I sometimes have a personal issue with it; is it right for me to kill a deer, gut it, and eventually eat? Some of the recent video of the poor treatment of animals at cattle and chicken farms, and the significant contribution the cattle industry has on climate change, has really forced me to consider vegetarianism.  But I'm not a vegetarian.  Neither is my wife.  And our son's doctor has encouraged us to feed meat to our toddler. 
     Although I get a thrill out of seeing a deer after waiting hour after hour, I don't get a thrill out of killing it. I am proud, or at least content, that I had the patience to wait, that I am capable of handling a gun safely and hitting a target, and that, if I had to, I'm able to bring home some food for my family. 

     I have decided that my Adventures in the Woods are good for me.  They provide me with important time alone, without the distraction of a phone, TV, radio, computer, or even books; just me and the woods.  My adventures remind me how quickly nature can be destroyed, and revived.  They give me time to think about the history of the area and of mankind.  Being hot, cold, wet, and exhausted all give me reasons to be grateful for what I have.  Hunting is one of the most primitive of human activities, and it makes me remember that although we enjoy the beauty and love of animals, we also need them to eat and survive.  
     Although I didn't get a deer this year, I got what I needed out of the trip, and am glad I went.  As for next year? Maybe you can help answer that.