Saturday, December 15, 2012

# 28 One World is Enough

     It's the last week before the Christmas Break, and I'm looking forward to the impending shift in routine. I don't know if it's because this part of the school year takes me from the tail end of summer, through fall and into winter, but I feel like a lot of ground has been covered.

     All staff just received an official memo from the liability worried school board about what we can and can not use as celebratory decorations. The short story is, everything must be non-flammable, non-offensive and consequently, artificial. My imagination wanders sometimes and I envision a bureaucrat sitting in a sterile office made from petroleum products, concluding that everyone will be better off in building made from synthetic materials. They don't seem to understand that when synthetics catch fire, they smolder, melt and the toxic fumes kill you before the flames do. I am pretty sure if it were possible to vent the lobby of our school; we could have a hotdog roast with a natural wood bonfire and the only fire related tragedy would be an inexperienced roaster's extended wiener. But I digress.

     In my school, there is an artificial tree in the lobby, patiently holding up some plastic decorations. In spite of all the restrictions some kids have done a stellar job installing the little Christmas display. For me, it's become a metaphor for what Christmas has become in the public schools. No Christmas music, no decorations, no Carolers, no Christmas Assembly; all salutations are prefaced with Holiday or Season, as in "Holiday Music", or "Seasons Greetings". Even the Christmas Concert has become a Talent Show. It is a public school after all, and well, any potential spiritual message is so watered down that the actual focus of the season is just a leaky faucet hanging over a plastic laundry tub. A dull thud.

    Now, I realize that at this point, some might think my perception of Christmas in my workplace is a little jaded. Maybe you suspect I walk with the bitter blood of Scrooge coursing through my veins, but I beg to differ. Personally, I don't have a problem with the atmosphere during the last week. People are tired, and anxious all at the same time, but they seem more relaxed, if that makes any sense. It can be a wonderful week and this year I am enjoying it. However, there are still social ice patches to negotiate.

      Everyone starts to coast to the end of the week and then it happens. Some member of the righteous minority pops their head out of a brown snow bank and belches out their moral outrage that we don't have Christmas assemblies anymore and we shouldn't be saying Happy Holidays, or Seasons Greetings. They lament the loss of "simpler time" when everything revolved around the "true" meaning of Christmas. Then the media seems to remember that they can sell some advertising if they fuel the sentiment and off we go: call-in talk shows, newspaper columns and on and on. The melodramatic argument has become as predictable as shortbread cookies made with genuine margarine instead of butter. Who are these weird people I think? Do they figure they have been directed by some divine being to pronounce We are all C.T.D. (Circling The Drain) because of the way we celebrate Christmas?

     I would like to say to these folks with the narrow view masquerading as moral outrage: While you were sleeping, Canada changed! Get over it.  There is a reason why Canada is at this point in her life. So, let's get some perspective about Christmas in Canada eh:

     Firstly, most of the symbols we use to acknowledge Christmas in Canada are in fact not Christian, but rather adaptations of Pagan rituals surrounding the winter solstice. This includes the: tree, feast, presents, lights and several other symbols of the "Christian" season. Later, the Dutch introduced North America to the Santa icon by way of New York (New Amsterdam). Then our most recognizable and beloved depiction of Santa, the obese fella in the flashy red outfit, was manufactured by a Coca-Cola marketer. (Talk about a product testimonial!) And with those advertising dollars at work, it was only natural that this version of Santa would land in The Great White North.

    Contrary to what successive Canadian governments promote, we have been trying to make this idea called Canada work for over 400 years now, not 147 years. Canada has always been about taking in minorities and negotiating the sharing of the space. There have been and are squabbles, but if you look at the complexion of us as a people, it is pretty diverse (we are mutts or mutts in waiting).

    Consequently, it is no wonder that a secular culture suits us so well. The down side of this fact is that we have no uniform spiritual fabric that blankets us, but the up side is, we are free to stitch our own spiritual tapestry. I suspect it is less the luxury of choice and more a decision fueled by need though. After all, Canada is in the same predicament as so many other countries in the Northern Hemisphere. We too are always struggling to keep the population growing, and so, we need to look to other countries for rejuvenation. The demographics of immigration are such that many of our new Canadians come from countries which do not subscribe to a Christian perspective. So, we need to demonstrate some tolerance.

    The long demise of the Christian slant on Christmas in Canada has been placed outside the confines of my memory, so I can't go there. Church patronage has sunk to an all time low and giving has become a euphemism for spending. Recently, I saw a Christmas card from the 1940s that read Happy Holidays, there was no indication of anything religious on it. The ultimate capitalist, Scrooge, has been a holiday staple for a century. His message is to cast off your Victorian need for earning and spread the joy by spending into the economy. Charities have become huge corporate like entities with massive advertising campaigns. They demand money with the reward being appeasement of guilt and a paltry tax deduction.

     Maybe I have been so fully indoctrinated into this secular world of the public schools that the old way is lost on me, but the fact is, most of the kids I teach now are not Christians and know very little about the traditions. In one of my classes, there are Hindus, Muslims, Jews, Atheists, Christians, and a few folks who go shopping every Sunday as their own communion with a higher power. Why would we expect all of these people to abide by a ritual in which most Canadians do not actually participate? Besides, many modern Christians think Christmas is about waiting in line for Boxing Day sales right after church. Personally, I like having religion placed at the back of the sled while I work. When I stand at the front of the room, I see people, kids, not religious beliefs. When you cut through all the cultural stuff, kids are, well, just kids.

    Often I exchange religious stories with students from other religions and we talk about similarities in beliefs and practice. It becomes an education for everyone listening and knocks down some walls of ignorance in the process. For the most part, I find they are as curious about my traditions as I am of theirs. Once that barriers become more transparent everyone can relax a bit.

    Sometimes I wonder what happened to old Scrooge after he gave up his evil miserly ways. I bet the endless train of charities managed to pry his wealth away, enticing him with promises of guilt appeasement and tax deductions. In our modern world the new Scrooge would be living in poverty, a victim of his own good will.

    Maybe it is time for us all to put aside our religious affiliations at this time of the year and look to the things that bind all Canadians together. We can still return to out respective communities and celebrate our religious perspectives, but we can also get together and celebrate things that blanket us all, like: the Winter Solstice, our cultural diversity, our hat hair, lost mittens, maple syrup, leaky boots, skating on rough ice or walking into gale force winds to get to the bus in the morning.