CKL's HotSheet
What Non-Aardvarks are Pondering

By Curtis C. Chen

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November 28, 2000

Merry Atheist Children Get Presents Day!

No, I can't take credit for that gem-- that's all Dave Barry. But it does outline the problem pretty well, doesn't it? Namely:

How can sensitive, politically correct yuppies celebrate the "winter holiday season" without some kind of religious overtone?

First of all, let's not delude ourselves. It's all about Christmas. It's not Hanukkah, or Kwanzaa, or Saturnalia, or the winter solstice; we're buying gifts and decorating trees because it's Christmas. That's a historical and cultural fact, and nothing will change it.

But that's all in the past. The future should be better. "It's what we've always done" is not a good enough reason to continue doing it. Tradition is not its own purpose. Haven't you ever seen Fiddler on the Roof? There are no brake or accelerator pedals in the vehicle of civilization-- you can't control how fast it goes; you can only try to control where it goes.

Besides, as people have pointed out to me, Christmas wasn't even a big Christian celebration in the beginning. Easter is the big whammy: resurrection, ascension, all that good stuff. Christmas has only become a big deal because it's been secularized. Capitalists want to expand their markets.

Anyway. Here's why I'm thinking about this right now:

My singing group, The Richter Scales, was recently hired to perform at my company's annual "holiday party", and the organizer is concerned that religious content might offend the non-Christian employees in the building. Our proposed solution is to perform our regular, "evergreen", non-holiday-themed show-- Runaround Sue, My Girl, etc.-- and follow it up with a sing-along of secular holiday music for anyone to wants to participate (especially the young children).

I know what you're thinking-- how much "secular holiday music" can there be? I've actually managed to find six, count 'em, six traditional winter songs which make no mention of "Christmas", "yule", any deity or religion, or "Santa Claus" (a Christian Saint):

  1. Frosty the Snow Man
  2. Jingle Bell Rock
  3. Jingle Bells
  4. Let It Snow!
  5. Sleigh Ride
  6. Winter Wonderland (although it does mention "Parson Brown", a Protestant clergyman)

If you stretch a little, you can even pick up two more:

  • Auld Lang Syne (traditionally sung at New Year's)
  • Greensleeves (like "What Child Is This"... but not! Though it does mention "God" in passing)

I'm hoping that this bit of research might help someone else who's in a similar fix. If you do find this information useful, let me know! I'd be interested in your circumstances and how you dealt with them.

Finally... I hate to end on a slightly tragic note (no pun intended), but I think the following story is good food for thought on this issue:

Date: Mon, 4 Nov 1996 13:11:39 -0500 (EST)
Subject: Re: Holiday Music

[...]
> >>WOULD all of you who are giving presentations for public concerts, PLEASE
> >>include some well composed Chanukah music, so that Jewish ......
>
> While I understand the sentiment of the above comment, and I can see why
> many Jewish parents would not want their kids deprived of their share of the
> holiday spirit, I'm not sure this is the best way to go about it.

This unfortunate issue has caused many public schools to completely do away with Holiday concerts of any kind. My sister-in-law, a choir director in an affluent suburb north of Chicago, tried to do an "inclusive" concert one year. Yes, she has a small number of Jewish and African-American students, though the vast majority are white and Christian of various denominations. In order not to have the minority students feel "left out," she programmed a small amount of music that would speak to their heritage. A small but vocal group of parents objected, apparently believing that this somehow spoiled their traditional Holiday (in their eyes, Christmas) concert. The school board, to avoid the fuss, simply told her she was only allowed to do secular, non-specific music in the future, and not to do a Holiday concert at all in future years. My sister-in-law was so upset about the whole issue--the narrow- mindedness of the parents, the lack of backbone from the board--that she resigned.

I've since come to understand that this was not an isolated incident, that other school districts, to avoid any possible controversy, have outlawed Holiday concerts. What a crock.

You can read the complete discussion on the web.

When my high school choir put on a winter concert in 1991, we performed quite a few Christmas tunes, but also a Hanukkah song, a song about shopping, a rather avant-garde piece about an anthropomorphized winter, and a doo-wop medley. If anybody was offended, I never heard about it.

I wonder if they're doing a winter concert this year.


CKL

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