Sunday, December 23, 2018

Let's apply some critical thinking to Christmas

Now that we have critical thinking embedded in every educational institution, we should expect that our traditions will be challenged. Is doing something on the basis of tradition a good enough reason?

Let’s ask some questions about Christmas.

Is December 25 Jesus’ birthday? Some will say that Jesus is the reason for the season, and that celebrating him is the ‘true meaning of Christmas’. This doesn’t hold up to examination. There is nothing in the gospels about Jesus being born in December. In the early Christian communities the birth of Jesus was not celebrated because the story of Jesus’ birth hadn’t started yet. Emperor Constantine, who declared Christianity the official religion for the Roman Empire, declared in 336 AD that December 25 would be celebrated as the birth of Jesus. This was reinforced by Pope Julius I a few years later. The first recorded use of the word Christmas was in Old English in 1038 CE. The words ‘true meaning of Christmas’ were first used on the blurb for Dickens’ book ‘A Christmas Carol’.

Does the celebration have pagan roots, and is it about winter? We know that Christmas replaced a winter solstice celebration in the Northern Hemisphere. It makes sense to have a festival when winters are cold and long and people are prone to depression. The early Puritan settlers of America banned the celebration of Christmas because of its pagan roots. Why are we in Australia decorating everything in fake snow, eating plum pudding and singing about Jingle Bells? Why do we sing carols by candlelight in a heatwave during daylight savings? Celebrating a winter wonderland doesn’t make sense in Australia, where it is hot and we all go swimming.

Is Santa real? The conspiracy about Santa is deep and broad. Adults behave as if he exists. They talk to children as if Santa really does know if they have been naughty or nice, and that he will sneak into their house at night and leave presents. Shopping malls and the post office are complicit with the lie. We can track the story of St Nicholas, through to the 1922 story of ‘The Night Before Christmas’ and the Coca Cola image of Santa as a jolly fat man wearing a red suit with white trim. The practice of exchanging gifts began in the late 1800s. Christmas became a national holiday in the US in 1870.

Is Santa good for parents? Parents have the power to reward and punish children if they choose. They could accept that power rather than defer it to a fictional middle man. It would be honest and transparent and grow trust. As children grow, parents tell them they need to believe to receive, as if that is logical and a good philosophy for life. It is strange that parents lie to keep their children happy then children pretend to believe to keep their parents happy. Is this a good model for relationships?

Is Christmas good for women? Christmas is run by women; they do all the work to keep it going. Women put toys on layby mid-year and keep track of gifts children might like. They organise the food and do the cooking. They organise the relatives and try to make sure everyone is happy for the big day. This brings into question the unpaid work women do. This is work women could just stop doing. We could give the work of Christmas to men and see what happens. We could let children know they are dealing with their mothers directly, and women could accept the credit for the work they do. It makes no sense for women to do the work of gathering gifts and giving the credit to a fictional fat man. It works against the goal of gender equality.

Is Christmas good for the environment? The way we celebrate Christmas has an enormous environmental impact. We spend time shopping, buying gifts packaged in plastic, then wrap them in paper that is bought especially and used once. We buy gifts for people who need nothing new. We wrap the biggest thing we have, our houses, in Christmas lights. We buy more food than we can eat. It makes no sense to save energy, to reduce, reuse and recycle for eleven months of the year, and then create enormous amounts of waste in celebrating Christmas.

We can celebrate when and how we like. Christmas does not have one true meaning. The meaning is constructed, contested, and evolving. We should be challenging ourselves to celebrate according to our values - our real values - not the ones we are told we should hold. This may be uncomfortable, as learning often is. No-one ever said that applying critical thinking makes a person popular. But asking questions should be acceptable, shouldn’t it?