The True Meaning of Christmas

I’m reposting a bunch of my holiday posts, as a part of a holiday tradition thing. Enjoy!

So what does Christmas really mean?

war on christmas book coverAmong all the traditions of the holiday season, one that’s becoming increasingly familiar is the War on the Supposed War On Christmas. In this tradition — one that dates back to the sweet olden days of overt anti-Semitism — the Christian Right foams at the mouth about the fact that not everyone has the same meaning of Christmas that they do, and works themselves into a dither about things like store clerks politely recognizing that not everyone is a Christian by saying “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” Because in the mind of the Christian Right, it somehow disrespects their faith and impinges on their religious freedom to share a country with people who feel and act differently than they do.

Okay. Insert rant here about how the Christian Right isn’t actually interested in religious freedom and respect for their faith. They’re trying to establish a theocracy. They don’t care about religious and cultural plurality. They don’t care about the fact that winter holidays mean different things to different people, and that different people celebrate different ones and in different ways. They don’t care about the fact that not everyone in the country is Christian, and that lots of people who do call themselves Christian are actually pretty secular in both their everyday life and their celebration of the winter holidays.

No, scratch that. They do care about it. They think it’s bad.

But that’s not actually what I want to talk about today.

In the face of Bill O’Reilly and company screaming hatefully about the true meaning of Christmas, I want to talk — in true grade-school essay form — about what Christmas means to me.

Because I actually like Christmas.

lighted treeChristmas; Solstice; Hanukkah; Kwanzaa; Festivus; “the holidays”; whatever. I don’t have a strong attachment to any particular name or date or occasion. Any mid-winter holiday around the end of December will do. Lately I’ve been calling it either “the holidays” or “Santamas” (in honor of what Bart Simpson has described as the true meaning of the holiday: the birth of Santa). I was brought up culturally Christian, though, with Christmas trees and Santa and all that, and I do tend to refer to it as Christmas at least some of the time.

And I love it. I always have. I know it’s fashionable to hate it, and I get why people get annoyed by it — but I don’t. I love it. It’s one of my favorite times of the year.

And here’s what it means to me. [Read more…]

Some Thoughts on Spending Christmas Day Alone

I’m reposting my previous holiday posts, as part of my holiday tradition thing. Enjoy!

I’m not spending Christmas Day alone. I’m spending it with Ingrid. I’ve spent Christmas Day with Ingrid for as long as we’ve been together: sometimes with her family, sometimes just with the two of us. And I love spending Christmas with Ingrid, whether it’s with her family or just with her. I’m greatly fortunate in my in-laws — I like them as well as loving them — and we have a whole set of wonderful traditions both silly and touching: some from her family, some that I’ve brought to the table, some that Ingrid and I have created for ourselves. And of course, I’m fortunate beyond words in Ingrid.

But I was single for twelve years before I fell in love with Ingrid. For ten of those twelve years, I was very happy to be single, was single very much by choice, was actively and adamantly resistant to the idea of not being single.

And during those years, I almost always spent Christmas Day alone. I could have visited my family, but I chose not to: I preferred to see my family at times other than Christmas, without the stress of holiday travel/ high expectations/ December in the Midwest. And I could have visited any number of friends who were having Christmas Day gatherings. But I didn’t.

Because when I was single, I loved spending Christmas Day alone. [Read more…]

Seven Reasons for Atheists to Celebrate the Holidays

This piece was originally published on AlterNet. I’m reposting as part of my holiday tradition thing.

grinchIt’s often assumed that the atheist position on what is politely termed “the holiday season” is one of disregard at best, contempt and annoyance at worst. After all, the reasons for most of the standard winter holidays are supposedly religious — the birth of the Savior, eight days of miraculous light, yada yada yada. Why would atheists want anything to do with that?

But atheists’ reactions to the holidays are wildly varied. Yes, some atheists despise them: the enforced jollity, the shameless twisting of genuine human emotion to sell useless consumer crap, the tyrannical forcing of mawkish piety down everyone’s throats. (Some believers loathe the holidays for the exact same reasons.) But some of us love the holidays. We love the parties, the decorations, the smell of pine trees in people’s houses, the excuse to eat ourselves sick, the reminder that we do in fact love our family and friends. We’re cognizant of the shameless twisting and mawkish piety and whatnot — but we can deal with it. It’s worth it for an excuse to drink eggnog with our loved ones and bellow out “Angels We Have Heard On High” in half-assed four-part harmony. (In fact, when it comes to the holidays, atheists are in something of a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” position. If we scorn them, we get called Scroogy killjoys… but if we embrace them, we get called hypocrites. Oh, well. Whaddya gonna do.)

So today, I want to talk about some of the reasons that some atheists love the holidays: in hopes that believers might better understand who we are and where we’re coming from… and in hopes that a few Scroogy killjoys, atheist and otherwise, might be tempted to join the party. (If not — no big. I recognize and validate your entirely reasonable annoyance at the holidays. And besides, Scroogy killjoys are an important holiday tradition.) [Read more…]

Intransitive Gratitude: Feeling Thankful in a Godless World

I first published this on Thanksgiving 2011, and have decided to make it a Thanksgiving tradition.

thank youIf you don’t believe in God, what does gratitude mean?

I don’t mean specific gratitude towards specific people for specific benevolent acts. I mean that more broad, general, sweeping sense of gratitude: gratitude for things like good health, having food to eat, having friends and family, the mere fact of being alive at all.

I started thinking about this when I was watching the “Thanks for Skepticon” video that the Fellowship of Freethought Dallas put together, where they asked participants at Skepticon 4 to say what they were thankful for. Most of the folks in the video — myself included — took the question at face value, and spoke of our intense gratitude: for science and medicine, for friends and family, for jobs in an unstable economy, for trees, for the very fact that we exist at all.

But some participants — specifically PZ Myers and American Atheists president David Silverman — questioned the entire assumption behind the project. Silverman simply reframed the question: instead of saying what he was thankful for, he spoke about who he was thankful to. And Myers took on the entire enterprise directly. He said that asking people to be thankful for something was an attempt to “anthropomorphize the universe.” He said there were lots of things he liked — being alive, his wife, his kids, squid — but he wasn’t going to express gratitude to the universe, since the universe wasn’t capable of expressing any gratitude back.

Hm. Interesting point.

So this video — and the subsequent discussion of it on my blog — got me thinking: If you don’t believe in God, does it even make sense to say that you’re grateful for stuff? Not to specific people who did specific nice things — that kind of gratitude makes sense, obviously — but just general gratitude for the good things in our lives? Does the emotion of gratitude have to have a specific object, a conscious actor who made choices that affected our lives in positive ways? Or can we feel grateful without an object?

Is there such a thing as intransitive gratitude? [Read more…]

The Pros and Cons of Caring Deeply about Others’ Suffering

First, the cons:

When you care deeply about other people’s suffering, you suffer too. Not as much as they do, generally, but you still suffer. You feel a small piece of what it feels like to be homeless, to be a suicidal gay teenager, to be sexually assaulted, to be beaten for being transgender, or to have your teenage son shot for the crime of existing while black.

You don’t get to go for the big bucks. Unsurprisingly, there’s not a lot of money in caring about other people’s suffering. Unless you’re very, very lucky (like if you write a song about other people’s suffering that goes to number one on the Billboard chart), the best you’ll probably do financially is to be reasonably comfortable. And even if you do get lucky, you’ll probably turn around and plow a good chunk of your good fortune into alleviating the suffering you care about.

You waste a lot of time arguing. Indeed, much of your time is spent trying to persuade other people that the suffering right in front of their faces is real; that the people who are suffering shouldn’t be blamed for it; that working to alleviate suffering isn’t futile. (When I was writing about misogyny recently and asked people to say something about it, many of them argued that speaking out against misogyny was a waste of time; that nobody’s mind would ever be changed by it.) Arguing certainly can be effective, and it does amplify the work you’re doing and gets other hands on deck. But it’s a waste of time in the sense that it’s valuable time spent arguing for what should be obvious. It’s valuable time that all of you could have spent doing the damn work.

And when you’re persuading people that suffering is real and that they should give a damn, you get to feel just a little bit guilty about it. As you’re desperately trying to pry open other people’s eyes, you feel a little bad about the life of suffering you’re exposing them to.

*****

Thus begins my latest column for The Humanist, The Pros and Cons of Caring Deeply about Others’ Suffering. To read more — including the pros, of which there are many — read the rest of the piece. Enjoy!

The Chicago Bean, and Some Thoughts on Geographical Icons

chicago bean 01

When I first started seeing pictures of the Chicago Bean, and started seeing it described as a Chicago icon, I was irritated. “How can that be an icon?” I thought. “I don’t remember it! It wasn’t there when I was growing up! It just went up in 2006! That’s not a Chicago icon — not like the Sears Tower, or the Picasso sculpture, or…”

Oh. Right.

The Sears Tower and the Picasso sculpture were new when I was a kid. The Picasso sculpture was dedicated in 1967; the Sears Tower was completed in 1973. They both became Chicago icons almost immediately — they quickly started showing up in postcards, in travel brochures, on book covers about Chicago, in vacation photographs of visitors from around the world. And to me, that seemed totally reasonable. Of course they were icons! I’d seen them dozens of times, hundreds of times, I’d been seeing them for most of my conscious life — it made perfect sense that they were icons. [Read more…]

Architectural Boat Tour of Chicago, Part 3 of 3 – Pics!

When I was visiting my brother in Chicago last week, we did a boat tour of the architecture and architectural history of downtown Chicago. I’m posting my favorite pics, in three separate posts so the posts aren’t super-huge and hard to load. Part One is here: Part Two is here; this is the last set.

chicago architecture boat tour 18

Another little bridge house! They’re so awesome!

chicago architecture boat tour 19

According to the docent, this building was inspired by champagne bottles. Normally I don’t like architecture that looks like things — “It’s a milk bottling plant, and it looks like a milk bottle!” — but I have to admit that this is pretty cool.

More after the jump. [Read more…]

Architectural Boat Tour of Chicago – Pics!

When I was visiting my brother in Chicago last week, we did this somewhat touristy but seriously cool thing: a boat tour of the architecture and architectural history of downtown Chicago. Chicago architecture is world-renown for its beauty and innovation: it’s been that way ever since the Chicago Fire of 1871, when architects zoomed in for the chance to rebuild the great city from scratch, and it’s lived up to that reputation ever since. (Well, except for the same bad stretch of boring glass boxes that every other city went through…)

I grew up in Chicago, but have never been on this tour before. Here are a few of my favorite pictures.

chicago architecture boat tour 01

chicago architecture boat tour 02

chicago architecture boat tour 03

(More after the jump.) [Read more…]