COLUMN SIX: Warm wishes at Christmas

Safely navigating the season gets trickier by the year

Special to the VOICE

I’m not all that concerned about the offending lyrics of “Baby It’s Cold Outside.” Nor do I really care if Santa Claus kissed Mama consensually, or that Rudolph was bullied by the rest of the reindeer for his “otherness,” or that the whip crack at the end of “Sleigh Ride” proves the horse is a victim of speciesism.

I don’t really listen to these songs any more, to be honest. As tunefully festive clichés, they have nothing to do with a child’s nativity attended by lowly shepherds and three members of the one percent who believed him to be the son of God. It matters more to me that “Mary’s Boy Child” and “Go Tell It on the Mountain” have been restored to the playlist at a B.C. mall after administrators decided it wasn’t too religious for Christmas after all.

It’s becoming increasingly difficult to celebrate “the real meaning of Christmas” in these non-sectarian and non-partisan times that give us a Festive Hit Parade of musical confectionery.

Social media campaigners for zero restrictions on immigration use the Holy Family’s flight from Egypt as leverage for their fanciful demands.

I wonder if Christmas has become politicized to the point where we can say that nothing indeed is sacred any more.

There’s that whole business of how you greet people at this time of year. We’re made to believe that wishing someone a Merry Christmas can offend them, and so far from sharing a spirit of good will we’re assuming everyone’s Christian. I have a Punjabi friend who wishes people a Happy Diwali each year because she likes to share her culture’s festival of lights. I’m not remotely Hindu but am happy to be included in her greeting.

I’m not remotely Christian either, but I’m happy when people I don’t know wish me a Merry Christmas. And I don’t reply to either greeting with Happy Holidays or something equally insipid because it’s disingenuous.

The irony here is that a season symbolizing peace and harmony has itself become the subject of all manner of controversy and politicized bickering.

Sometimes I think that the Grinch didn’t steal Christmas at all, but that it got surrendered instead.

This isn’t to say that what was once perfectly acceptable must forever remain so.

I watched Holiday Inn recently because I’d never seen the movie that gave us “White Christmas,” and I was shocked to find Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire, and Marjorie Reynolds applying blackface as they prepare for a number called “Abraham.” Along with the white orchestra, white dancing waitresses wore blackface while serving gleeful white diners and singing the praises of Abraham Lincoln. In the middle of the number the camera cuts away to the hotel kitchen where a real black woman, Mamie, and her two little children contribute a verse about Abraham setting “the darkie free.” Really?

For all we know, Irving Berlin and the producers back in 1942 might have believed they were celebrating the emancipation of black people, even if it was entirely “cosmetic,” with Mamie and her two children still stuck in the kitchen while they sing of their liberation.

“White Christmas” carries a whole new meaning now, even though the scene has been cut from most screenings of Holiday Inn.

A favourite Christmas song of mine is “The Huron Carol,” written by Father John Brébeuf in 1642. He wrote it in the Huron language to a traditional French tune while he was converting the nation to Christianity.

Translated into English in 1926, it tells the story of the Nativity, substituting Indigenous culture for Biblical—so the shepherds become hunters, the Magi become chiefs, and the gifts become beaver and fox pelts. Jesus is the son of the mighty Gitchy Manitou, the Great Spirit. Father Brébeuf was captured by the warring Iroquois, who massacred the Hurons while the French looked the other way. They tortured him over several days before killing him and eating his heart because they considered it very strong.

I find it reassuring that this carol, a beautiful and haunting piece, remains politically unscathed. If there were ever a symbol of the possible harmony between cultures that share a regrettable history, maybe this is it. Though someone out there may already be thinking about giving it the hook for its assimilation or appropriation or some other crime against correctness.

Even as an agnostic I love the Christmas story. I’ve always loved stories, and believe the well-told ones to be true while I’m reading them. But for me that’s what they are: inventions. At Christmas I suspend my disbelief and enjoy a story about redemption, peace on earth, hope for a better world, light in the darkest time of the year. I also enjoy the sacred music that celebrates the birth of Jesus, some of it written by agnostics.

For me, as for novelist Julian Barnes, “religions were the first great inventions of the fiction writers. A convincing representation and a plausible explanation of the world for understandably confused minds. A beautiful, shapely story containing hard, exact lies.”

Yet for all its fiction there’s a truth about the Christmas story—emotional truths can be as valid as intellectual ones, can they not?

For me Christmas will be a quiet day. I’ll listen to Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s, Cambridge, and I’ll play Bach’s Christmas Oratorio and Handel’s Messiah through the day. I’ll read and make some phone calls. There will be no arguments about politics and religion. And, ignoring all advice about healthy “food groups,” I’ll roast a prime rib with all the trimmings to round it off.

Merry Christmas to all who celebrate it, each in their own way.

And to everyone, stay warm.


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