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When a month scrapes by and you’ve seen so few hours of sunshine you can name them I think it’s fair to say a person could begin to feel gloomy. At the best of times I often feel I’m doing others a favor by lying low and out of sight, but the past weeks of overcast gray make even that seem somewhat sociable.
But it’s more than gray skies that dampen my spirit at the doorstep to the Merry Christmas season, one where using that formerly innocent and warm sentiment is now viewed with worry its expression will trammel someone’s sensitive sensitivities. In a way that feeling is sadder than any dark clouded sky. How did we get there, and why? How did a cheerful greeting turn suspect as dance, happiness, art, and poetry were to Puritans?
You remember the Puritans, sometimes called Pilgrims in American History. They were a serious bunch. I suspect you had to be other than fun seeking to leave England on a wooden ship for a place unsettled and likely hostile. Serious is probably a good characterization for them. Back when school curriculum had other content some of my readers would have been required to read (suspicious in education these days) Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter where poor (and wronged) Hester Prynne had to wear a letter of shame atop attire demeaning to and defining her gender. Those generations made to read the book probably discussed the heavy personal toll enforced dogma could take on people, especially women. In the space of a few generations the mood has turned with many taking the stance that defining and demeaning costume is a laudable sign of noble independence. The dour Puritans would love that form of cowing independence. But I’m not so sure.
Where did this new Puritanical inclination come from? I think it’s a product of the new left, of correctness, and of absolutism run afoul of fact. I can use the outgoing President as example. He did so by sticking to an absolute conclusion about human or social values that was misinformed and agenda driven. He’d say most assuredly and convincingly that Western and Islamic values were fundamentally identical with the West unable to claim high ground due to the Crusades and Inquisition. It can only be insistence on a rigid absolute that drives a person to claim things are equal when they most obviously are not. The Crusade Era came because pilgrims to Jerusalem were taken as hostages to be ransomed or as slaves. The West failed and the “business” of slaves and hostages went on for hundred of years more into the early American period when US Marines were used in Tripoli to stop the seizure of US citizens and sailors and a version again in 1812 with the British over impressment. The Crusader Era began around 1090 and was over by 1300 whereas military Jihad began around 600 and continued militarily until almost 1700. A few hundred years is equal to over a thousand years when an absolute conclusion has to be served. It is a bleak midwinter that obscures or denies simple fact that does not fit its presumptions.
The Puritanical (I’m possibly defaming them more than they deserve) drive for absolute truth in public and private life is a boogey deviling the West. It was the issue behind The Enlightenment, a philosophical and scientific movement roughly contemporary with the development of the form of government we know as a Constitutional Democracy. A basis for Constitutional Democracy is a “faith” in humanity versus the same entrusted to a monarchy or theocracy. In the short span of time from The Enlightenment to today more has been done (not all good, of course, nor all ill) than in any other period I’m aware of. Putting faith in the future of humanity rather than in the ego of a king or who-knows-what will of a deity is sublimely risky affair. People can, after all, run amok; leaving only themselves or one another to blame instead of foisting off guilt on a god-king-being. Humanity had a long difficult struggle to get here, an imperfect place that by no means should be set aside in deference to a supposed absolute based on shoddy scholarship. It was no small matter to sever the bond between rulership and deity or that of church and state. There is no reason worthy enough to secure religious privilege in a secular state where matters of personal belief are not to be ensconced as beholden on all. Absolutism is a tricky and dangerous pursuit. Because a person appears Presidential doing it does not mean the result has the value of a vote in the People’s Democratic Republic of North Korea.
So now, I’m back to Merry Christmas. It is a simple good wish. If someone is offended it is because they put offense there. It wasn’t me and likely not most of you either. The offended can blame themselves for missing the point, but how one misses the spirit of a cheerful exclamation is a puzzle I’d as soon not have to bear.
Instead I’d suggest that instead of absolutes or blame we look to possibilities. The advent in and of Merry Christmas is the birth of a child. Whether you accept the rest of the story or not does not matter to its humanist beginning. It is not a tale of a big-boogey god spouting rules. In a story where big-god says do this or don’t eat that it means Do As You Are Told. Our system leads in another way by using parable and metaphor. When it says the blind will see or deaf hear the clear implication is of new insight or fresh recognition when something is seen in a new light or is heard fresh in a way not considered before. That is a very big difference and when it is given up for the sake of an absolute the tradeoff is not to the good.
I wish you a Merry Christmas. For anyone offended there will be no apology except the one you owe yourself for choosing bleak midwinter every day of the year.