Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Reverend Billy, Festivus, and Bringing Whoville Home

How the Grinch Stole Christmas by Dr. Seuss is one of the most beloved holiday stories. And though it's about "Christmas", it's a story that transcends sectarian divisions and speaks to a broader audience.

Most everyone knows the tale: the cranky "Grinch", annoyed by the Christmas celebrations in "Whoville", plots to destroy the Whos' good cheer by stealing all their gifts, decorations, and food in the middle of the night. The next morning, instead of wails of anger and sorrow, the Grinch hears joyful singing. So moved by the discovery that Christmas "means a little bit more", the Grinch returns everything and joins in the festivities.

As I read this book to Lysi this week, I asked her, "Why do you think the Whos were so happy even though they didn't have all their stuff?" She looked down at the open book depicting a line of beaming Whos, hand-in-hand, their mouths open in song, and answered, "Because they're with each other."

Woo hoo, my daughter gets it! As much as she likes getting more toys (and she does), she likes visiting with her grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles more. When she's tired and sad, she looks up at the pictures of her extended family members on her dresser; her eyes tear up and she cries that she misses them.

Because love is better than stuff.

To non-religious folks, the point of the holiday season can be to spend time with friends and family and act in a way that strengthens those relationships. It can also be a time to consider those less fortunate and if possible take action to aid our fellow human beings. 

There are movements to combat the materialistic greed and cynicism taking over the spirit of the holiday season. Charitable giving, while overshadowed by retail purchases, is still a major part of holiday celebrations. In contrast to Black Friday, there is Buy Nothing Day, an international protest against excessive consumerism. There are the pushes to buy local and buy handmade to cut down on damage to environment, communities, and so that we have a more humanized relationship with the people who make our stuff. An old college friend of mine and his wife just started Gift Instead, a purchase-free gift registry to encourage people to buy less and express their love in more meaningful ways. 

Then there is my personal favorite, Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping. The good Rev and his gospel choir are a performance art and activist group. They have appropriated the form (but not the divisive theology) of Christian revivalism as way to raise public awareness about the harm that rampant consumerism has ravaged on the health of our communities, our personal relationships, and our very planet. In his latest podcast, Reverend Billy gives a stirring sermon about climate change from the water's edge as the tide comes in: 

Celebrating Festivus (an alternative to Christmas, first introduced to the public by the sitcom Seinfeld) is another reaction to the pressures to buy buy buy during the holiday season. Festivus has become especially popular among freethinkers, with college organizations and local clubs holding annual Festivus parties. 

Festivus is pretty much an anti-Christmas holiday. Instead of exchanging gifts, those celebrating Festivus air grievances and do feats of strength. Instead of a tree, the symbol of Festivus is an unadorned, aluminum pole which means nothing. 

This year many in the media made a big deal over a beer can Festivus pole which was erected alongside the nativity scene in Florida's capital building. While I do think it makes the point about religious freedom and pluralism, I don't really want the secular alternative to Christmas to be meaningless symbols and ritualized complaining about each other. 

A few years ago a bunch of us local freethought groups got together and put up our own holiday display beside the the nativity and menorah at the National Constitution Center. We chose a globe of the earth and the message: "Peace on Earth from your friendly neighborhood atheists, freethinkers, and humanists." Of course news outlets didn't cover that. In order to get media attention, we have to be cynical jerks. 

If Reverend Billy, with his earnest and passionate cry for better behavior is my favorite form of holiday protest, Festivus is my least favorite. 

Festivus as it first appeared on Seinfeld was a rather mean-spirited affair celebrated by rather horrible people. George wanted to use it to get out of holiday obligations, while Cramer wanted to use it to gain the benefits of having a holiday to celebrate. Both were acting on selfish impulses. 

One year my mom actually received a card that read "Happy Festivus!" and which informed her that a donation had been made in her name to "The Human Fund." Since she hadn't seen that episode of Seinfeld, I had to explain to her that the card was an exact imitation of a card the character George had given to co-workers in order to avoid spending money (George just made up "The Human Fund"). That way he could still enjoy the social benefits of participating in holiday gift exchanges and being perceived as a generous person.  

Shouldn't Festivus inspire us to give to charities, buy less stupid crap as gifts, and try to celebrate the holiday season in a way which is meaningful and compassionate? When Jonathan Swift wrote A Modest Proposal, he aimed to inspire compassion and real aid for the poor, not get people to write their own versions of his essay over and over again and then revel in their own cleverness. 

There have been times when I've read the Grinch and thought it was a nice tale about how things should be, but aren't. For so many people in the real world, it seems it's the stuff that matters most. But now I think Seuss was speaking the truth.

It's not that there's anything wrong with expressing our feelings of gratitude, admiration, or love with purchased gifts. Note that in the end, the Grinch gave everything back. The problem comes when we feel we must do it that way. When we lose sight of what really gives our lives meaning.

It truly doesn't matter to me if I get presents from the people I love. I just want to hear from and visit them. I want to know they're okay, and help if they're not. I don't need to give presents to anyone either. Nobody who truly knows and cares about me would think less of me if I gave up gift exchanges altogether. The gifts are merely an expression of what's already there.


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