As we hurry through our busy lives we often utter seasonal well wishes as if they were part of an unremarkable routine. But our “Season’s Greetings” are meant to celebrate meaningful moments that reconnect us to deeply held shared beliefs or to express respect for such beliefs. Some scholars call this “expressive philanthropy” as it articulates shared visions conveying our affection and good will to others who are like us.
As we reaffirm the beliefs and customs of our faith community, we also face choices.
It’s hard not be swept up by the current of rituals, both sacred and profane, that can overwhelm us during the holiday season. But hopefully we will remember that we are free to decide how to become re-enchanted with the beliefs that are vital to who we are. And I also hope we remember that we are free to decide how to relate to others who do not share our faith. This is a precious freedom that deserves to be nurtured and celebrated.
I grew up in a mixed faith family where saying “Merry Christmas” rather than the more inclusive but anodyne “Happy Holidays” was occasionally problematic, mostly for not being uttered. My mother would feel disrespected when my father’s Muslim friends would express their good wishes for a generic “holiday” rather than the Christmas that they knew it was. After all, my mother would say, she had no trouble with wishing them a “Ramadan Mubarak.”
Were they seeking to reduce the dignity of the Christian holiday by not speaking its name? I doubt it, because as I look back from today’s tense times, I can see how my father’s friends might actually have felt that they did not have the right to use a name that was not of their tradition.
I felt a similar pang as I was signing our school’s holiday cards this year. It was a little strange writing “Merry Christmas” to those friends and colleagues who I knew celebrate it. Did I have the right to invoke a blessing in a tradition to which I only had a partial connection? Should I avoid writing two words that have become a political act to some who seek to reaffirm a faith identity they see diluted in a sea of ever expanding words of inclusivity? And was I neglecting to give everyone in our community their due attention by only addressing their faith with the more generic “Happy Holidays?”
Then a colleague stopped by my office to express his appreciation for the wish of “Merry Christmas.” “It did not go unnoticed,” he said. I felt reassured in my faith in the big-hearted spirit of American generosity.
We should always lean forward in offering well-wishes in good faith and assume that they will be graciously accepted as such. Even when the whys and wherefores of a faith tradition are not fully understood, the mutual assumption of generosity in the gesture will carry us a long way. Add to this some curiosity and we may well be surprised by what we learn, about others and ourselves.
The exchange of goodwill across faiths can be an opportunity for discovery. Informative comparative conversations can enhance the season during which one reconnects with one’s fundamental creed.
Though still a matter of discussion among scholars, it is said that the origin of the word “religion” comes from the Latin Re-ligare denoting that which binds us together. The ties that bind can be welcoming of outsiders, or they can be set to be impermeable and exclusive.
Some of us turn to portrayals of what we think life must have been like in what is remembered as a simpler, more authentic time. Others uncover the injustices and imperfections in our status quo, confronting those who seek reassurance in a call to tradition.
In seasons when we return to the profound beliefs that bind us in communities of faith, we also have choices and opportunities for discovery. Rituals that fail to adapt to change risk losing the power to enchant. Perhaps one way to remain vital is to be more inquisitive about how rituals of reconnecting both articulate who we are and how we relate to others in our diverse society.
Being inquisitive about our identities and how they are formed and sustained is vital to the spirit of generosity that I have experienced in my American journey. We hear a growing impatience with the proliferating formalities of being sensitive to others, but I don’t think we are tired of being respectful of others.
Rather, I believe we are tired of formulaic prescriptions of how to engage others. Often we are told how to speak and how not to speak before we have understood what is at issue. We don’t know why established ways of speaking and relating are problematic.
We have furious battles between claimants to absolute rights rooted in indisputable tradition and those who condemn its injustices.
We clearly have work to do to understand the different ways we interpret the world and the differences in fundamental values that are not amenable to easy reconciliation through empirical science.
To prepare the ground for the work ahead, I suggest that we reconnect to the spirit of generosity that sees every person inherently worthy of the possibilities of freedom in the American project.
Building shared hope so that we can discover a vision and build a reality to accommodate our differences can begin with the simple act of extending your hand, sharing a greeting through which you affirm what another finds valuable, or expressing your gratitude. These can be meaningful performances of goodness or philanthropy, helping to restore our common bonds.
As we join hands to celebrate our sacred bonds, let us work to discover how we can nurture the spirit of generosity that we need to build better understanding in our country.
And most of all, let’s not forget the freedom with which we are entrusted as we celebrate Merry Christmas, Happy Hannukah, and Happy Holidays.
Eugene R. Tempel Dean