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The message and the messengers

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Two small items caught my eye in Thursday morning's paper.
In one, some of the troops at the Guantanamo Bay detention centre wanted a Christmas nativity scene and Christmas decorations removed from the base, on the grounds it improperly promoted Christianity over other faiths.
In the other, a shopping centre had run an advertisement wishing its customers "Happy Holidays." A McDonald's customer picked up the paper, and saw that someone had scribbled across the ad, "If you can't say Merry Christmas, then just #### off, you J## b######."
Of course, the vandal didn't use hash marks.
Don't expect me defend either of those viewpoints.
Personally, I resent cards that tell me to have a Happy Holiday. Or that offer Season's Greetings. Like Scrooge, I'm tempted to slip into "Bah! Humbug!" mode.
We don't single out any other season for special greetings. We don't urge people to celebrate any other holiday break. We all know the message refers to Christmas, but apparently we haven't got the nerve to say so. That strikes me as hypocritical.
If it's about Christmas, let's say so.
On the other hand, there's a cultural arrogance in assuming that everyone should celebrate a Christian festival. A century ago, perhaps, that assumption might have been justified. But not any more. Not in Canada today.
Perhaps the only way to understand the effect of such an assumption is to imagine the shoe being on the other foot.
When I was young, my parents served as missionaries in India. The whole country went berserk celebrating the Hindu festival of Holi each spring. Exuberant crowds thronged the streets, scattering brightly coloured dye over each other. Going downtown or to the market inevitably meant coming home with clothes, skin and hair stained fluorescent green, pink, purple, red, orange, blue, or all of the above.
The crowds made no distinction by religion. Everyone - friend or stranger, rich or poor, male or female, toddlers and elders, Christian and Muslim - all got painted with the same palette.
Expatriates generally withdrew to the safety of their compounds.
Is that what we want Jews and Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus, Wiccans and pagans, to feel like when we shower Christmas sentiments upon them? To feel that they need to keep their heads down? To isolate themselves? To feel that they're outsiders?
I hope not.
There's a common saying, "Don't shoot the messenger!" It advises us to pay attention to the message, not to blame the carrier of the message. In the context of Christmas, I suggest, that advice gets it backwards. The problem is not the Christmas message; it's the messengers.
In Guantanamo, for example, military moguls who feel they have a right - even an obligation - to impose the American way of faith on their inmates.
In the newspaper, advertisers so afraid of offending potential customers that they hide behind meaningless euphemisms, and hot-tempered readers who lash out at anything they see as watering down their beliefs.
Like Hindu crowds celebrating Holi, we fling our festive net over everyone. No one escapes. Some adherents of other faiths join the party. They send Christmas greetings - with more or less innocuous wordings. But even if they avoid the ostentatious excesses of Christmas lights and presents, they can't avoid the deluge of Christmas carols, Christmas movies, Christmas sales and Christmas parties.
They'll tell you it's OK. They don't mind. But I notice they don't do unto us as we have done unto them. They don't expect us to adopt kosher food rules to suit them, or to fast for a month during Ramadan.
The man whose birth we honour at Christmas told his followers, "Love your neighbour as yourself." Sometimes, I think our neighbours practise his teaching better than we Christians do.
They recognize that Yom Kippur or Vesak, Imbolc or Eid, have meaning only within their own religious cultures.
The answer is not to abolish Christmas, expunge it from our language and our lives, to erase religious roots from our schools, our businesses and our churches.
I don't want to turn December into a purely secular period of financial and dietary overindulgence.
But I need to remember Christmas is primarily a Christian celebration. It has significance to those who belong to the Christian family, the Christian culture. To them, we can and should say "Merry Christmas" without self-consciousness.
But we should do it while respecting the feelings of those who may belong to different cultural traditions.
It's one thing to value the message of Christmas. It's quite another thing to act like an imperial envoy imposing the emperor's message on lesser mortals.
Don't confuse the message with its messengers.
Jim Taylor is an Okanagan Centre author and freelance journalist.
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