Growing up in the States, it tends to amaze me how we can have this tension about our cultural peculiarities. On the one hand, we’re immensely proud of being Americans and all that entails, but we also look fondly on our incomplete cultural heritage. We talk about how our ancestors are from this country or that one, but we have little connection to our origins.
Looking at my own family tree, I have lots of German ancestry, but I don’t speak German. There’s some French influence, but I only know Frère Jacques from watching Star Trek The Next Generation. There’s quite a lot of English, Irish, and Scottish ancestry, but I couldn’t really tell you how each impacted me as a descendant. There’s a simple reason for this – right when immigration was at it’s highest, there was a prominent English-Only campaign that capitalized on the acceptability of racism. From it, this melting pot ideal of “American” was formed … only at a steep cost: everything cultural about our diverse origins. This English-Only campaign never really died – it’s still going strong even today and in the face of our changing landscape.
“We have room for but one language in this country, and that is the English language, for we intend to see that the crucible turns our people out as Americans, of American nationality, and not as dwellers in a polyglot boarding house.” – Theodore Roosevelt, 1907
When there was a war against languages other than English – there was plenty of people who were pushing for policy changes, they wanted to create laws for English-only in all official and legal matters. They said that people who don’t know English have to learn it – because they weren’t going to publish laws in every single language. They used racial stereotypes against whole cultural groups. Some were barred from citizenship or immigration. Even today we can see that we haven’t learned to overcome this tendency in the instances of mosques being targeted with hateful slurs scrawled on the walls with graffiti. When we’re in a war against any idea – we’ll use every weapon at our disposal.
So that’s why the phrase “War on Christmas” irks me. For one, we don’t see the same level of animosity against Christmas as there is against foreign languages. We don’t attack Christmas-celebrators like our ancestors hounded people with accents. Our rules are by and large Pro-Christmas and Anti-Happy Holidays. Culturally speaking, we identify Christmas more than we do Hannukah, Kwanzaa or any other holiday. We don’t rush out for last-minute or emergency Mennorahs – but Christmas lights. We don’t say “Habari Gani?” (It’s Swahili for: How are you?) Americans live, eat, sleep, and breathe Christmas. At war with it we are most certainly not. But as my favorite saying goes:
When You’re Accustomed to Privilege, Equality Feels Like Oppression
Christmas-celebrating Americans have had so much privilege forever that sometimes they fail to realize how overbearing they’ve been about it. If you’ve read about Blue Laws in the school textbooks – then you know that they were laws that shut down commercial business on Sundays so that everybody could go to church. The laws were unfair to Jews whose holy day was Saturdays. Their business were being hurt by being shut down two days a week – for their own holy day (by choice) and for the Christians (by law.) When Christianity lost their privilege to run the weekday by it’s calendar, they must have felt like they were being oppressed, not realizing they had been the oppressors to the other faith all along. I think it’s the same deal with this “Merry Christmas” vs “Happy Holidays” drama that’s been going on for the last while. Just as when Blue Laws reigned, nobody ever thought twice about saying “Merry Christmas” – not realizing their privilege. But now other holidays are given some equality and here some people are panicking that they’re being oppressed. Oh the horror of not being able to “Merry Christmas” in favor of “Joyous Kwanzaa” or “Hanukkah Sameach!” Really, if it comes down to it and the most important thing you get from this holiday season is that the world will come to a screeching halt if you don’t say “Merry Christmas!” then you’ve missed something important.
All three holidays share something – they are celebrations of light. The light of the world isn’t in the words you say – but in how your actions reflect your heart. You can’t find the light if you’re trapped in the darkness of privilege and oppression. You can’t see the light with your eyes closed tightly.