A friend from high school is in the unbecoming habit of forwarding Internet sludge to a large mailing list. You know the thing: collections of "jokes I thought you'd get a kick out of," unfunny cartoons, patriotic "Support the Troops" goo -- the kind of thing that I generally toss out unread. (I'd put him in my e-mail spam killfile, but I occasionally do look forward to some of the school news he passes on.)
This morning's missive, though, really set my teeth on edge. The e-mail was titled "My Sentiments Exactly," and purported to have been authored by former Nixon speechwriter Ben Stein (he of the TV shows, a Creationism advocate). It was a typical diatribe against the secularization of American culture, and an obvious "War-on-Christmas" sally. It managed to bemoan the ending of school prayer, imply that Madalyn Murray O'Hair was murdered because she was an atheist (she wasn't), assert that baby-coddler Dr. Benjamin Spock's son committed suicide (he didn't), and declare that "public discussion of God is suppressed in the school and the workplace" (certainly news to me).
Of course, it mostly didn't come from Ben Stein; it was a cobbled-together bit of hokum from a CBS Sunday News commentary by Stein, with the more inflammatory business about O'Hair and Spock added in from another bit of Internet claptrap purporting to report some comments by Billy Graham's daughter after September 11. In sum, the item forwarded to me was simple intellectual pollution, more goddamned dumbness that cloaks itself as folksy wisdom and makes its forwarder feel virtuous for having passed it on.
Besides the slanders and the untruths, and the profoundly irritating conflation of the concepts of "secular" and "atheist," what was most off-putting about the thing was its general aggrieved tone, as though its author were part of some put-upon minority, an underclass of the righteous who loathe the idea that many people don't take their religion quite as seriously as the righteous think they ought.
As an atheist, by constitutional law I can't legally hold public office in the states of Arkansas, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas. (The U.S. Supreme Court said this was baloney in 1961, but the prohibitions are still in those states' constitutions.) An activist friend attempted to convince me to run for the Loudoun County School Board a year ago; I had to tell him that this blog is quite easily connected to my "real" name; and that if it were found out that I've occasionally blurted out my lack of regard for supernatural pixie-dust in these pages, I'd be unelectable for garbage commissioner, let alone be trusted with the education of the county's li'l malleable minds.
So who's the Downtrodden Minority here?
Now, why am I yammering on about this on Christmas Eve? Because, absence-of-god-dammit, I love Christmas. I love the weird agglomeration of historically pagan, Christian and Roman symbols and traditions; they make me feel connected to the centuries. I love cutting down a young pine tree and dragging it into my house to slather it with electric lights and small family mementos. I love the smell of pine, cinnamon, cloves, chocolate, candle-wax, coffee and brandy. I love the Solstice, and look forward to lengthening days. I love the music. (Wonder Woman's copy of The Carpenters' Christmas album is playing in the next room as I type this, and I'm even prepared to tolerate that, as long as I can throw on Bach's Weinachtsoratorium afterwards.)
I love the fact that in a couple of hours, I will summon Betty and Freddy to track Santa's progress on the NORAD website, even if they both lost their belief in Santa ten years ago. We will read "The Night Before Christmas" and a couple of other books as we have every year for many years (I've never been able to interest them in Dickens, unfortunately). We will hang our stockings by the chimney with care, all of us fully aware that the idea of a fat man in a red suit sliding down the flue with a sack of toys is a trifle silly. It doesn't matter that it's a dumb myth, easily seen through by a reasonably intelligent six-year-old. It's what you do.
I rather deeply resent the accusation that I, in some to-me-unclear way, declared War on Christmas. I'll cop to a War on Irrationality, sure. War on Dumb Received Wisdom on the Internet. But because I think that everyone's Solstice observation should be respected, from Albigensian to Zoroastrian, because the assertion that the United States was founded on "Judeo-Christian values" is a grave insult to the Enlightenment, and to history itself, I resent the implication that I want to stamp out an entire holiday.
So let me conclude the sermon with an absolutely unambiguous, impossible-to-mistake message:
Merry Christmas, everyone!
Then, go read this.