Theological ponderings from William Loewen

Sensitive, not accurate

I don’t know anyone who was actually offended by the red cups controversy at Starbucks. Maybe I just don’t have the right social media contacts, I don’t know. This isn’t the first time what we call the time around Christmas has stirred up a media frenzy, and it probably won’t be the last.  I’m not the kind of person who gets offended at the idea of being wished Happy Holidays, but I wonder how accurate that sometimes is.

Now, believe me when I say I’m aware of the various other religious holidays happening around this time of year. Ever since calendars were based on the sun and the moon, people have used the Winter Solstice as an excuse to have a holiday. In fact, that has more to do with when we celebrate Christmas than any sense of historical accuracy. But while there is a veritable pantheon of other reasons to be festive, in a commercial setting, I think “Merry Christmas” is often the only one that is accurate. I’m not saying that this should be case, but sadly it is.

In our western culture, we’re very good at getting offended on behalf of other people. So, if a non-descript imaginary retail store had a bold “Merry Christmas” greeting for their customers, they would probably get more complaints from non-religious people, and even Christians, than they would from adherents to other religions with overlapping festive schedules. From my experience, most religious minorities in Canada are happy to experience religious freedom and are far more interested in interacting with others living out authentic versions of their own spirituality, rather than live in a world artificially free of religion. I wonder if those complaints were collected, if they might sound something like this:

“Why wouldn’t you include my faith group in your signage? We shop just like Christians; a whole lot in November and December and then not again until April.”

“For your information, I’m not buying Christmas gifts. My people too have allowed their sacred festivals to be absorbed into the western commercial process.”

“Rather than absorbing myself into my religious calendar, I am trying instead to simply buy my faithfulness, so if you could make your holiday greeting a little more generic, that would make it easier for me to do that.”

This is why I am not perturbed when I don’t see a Merry Christmas greeting written onto the receipt, the coffee cup or the walls of our commercial establishments. It our post-modern western society, we dare not leave anyone out, unless we offend them, so rather than say anything offensive, we do our best to say nothing at all. It is a shame to be left out, unless what we are being left out of is corrupted.

I wonder what the response would be if, instead of writing generic holiday greetings, stores would include holidays greetings specific to the other religious festivals being marked. What if people realized that the “Kwanzaa gifts” they found on sale were manufactured by slave labour overseas? What if we were greeted at entrance of store by an image of the Hindu god Ganesh pointing with his many hands to various items you could purchase there? What if the Hanukkah themed mall display included manikins wearing women’s underwear with Maccabeean tassels? Maybe this already happens in more metropolitan places than I’ve lived, but I suspect that somewhere along the line, leaders and adherents of these other religious and cultural groups would stand up and say ‘no thanks.’

In our most commercial settings, only ‘Merry Christmas’ is fitting, because only the church, by aligning itself with western states and western culture, has allowed one of its most important holidays to be co-opted like it has. I only wish it weren’t so.



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