Christmas belongs to everyone, to do with as they see fit
It's Christmas time! Anyone who has set foot in a retail establishment since the very day after Halloween has known this for the past two months. Once upon a time, though, this wasn't the case, and I got to talking about strange Christmas behaviors with my grandmothers.
My Hispanic grandmother told me about the city of Oaxaca and its traditional Noche de Rabanos.
"Wait, 'night of the radishes'?" I asked, thinking this was another case like the one where I confused "pelo" (hair) with "pedo" (fart) and ended up laughing hysterically at the scary tale of a severed body part come back for revenge in "La Mano Peloso".
"The hairy hand! Hairy!" I remember my mother correcting me. But this time, I had the words right.
"Oh, yes," Grandma said, "They grow enormous radishes and then carve them into Nativities and such. It honors the Spanish padres who brought radishes over."
"So the conquistadors brought diseases, Christianity and radishes," I pondered.
"As far as I'm concerned, two out of three ain't bad, but you can see how there might be a lot of residual resentment," Grandma pointed out.
On the other side of the family, my Busia (Polish for grandma) was sighing about the way the Christmas time frame has shifted. "It used to be the four weeks before Christmas were Advent, a time of waiting," Busia said. "We had the Advent Wreath and Advent songs in December. We didn't put up a tree until Christmas Eve. Then we celebrated Christmas and sang carols all the way through Candlemas on February 2nd. Now, Christmas day I'm already seeing trees in the gutters and lights coming down! Instead of getting ready for the baby Jesus in December, it's all about the shopping!"
Well, she's partially right. There are some people and institutions who go with the retail Christmas calendar, rather than a cultural or religious time frame. But Christmas could be more commercialized than it is here in America. Much, much more commercialized. Look at Japan.
Christians comprise slightly less than one percent of the Japanese population, so there's not a whole lot of "reason for the season" there. What they do have is a lot of end-of-the-year bonus money, a fondness for exotic things, and some of the world's most savvy marketing machines. The result? "Super Funky Holy Night" consumerism!
As a franchise, Kentucky Fried Chicken gets bonus points for swooping in on opportunity. Turkey is a traditional holiday food over here, but to the Japanese, they're ridiculously enormous. Chicken is an easier concept to grasp. Same thing, just smaller, right? Hence the "Kentucki Furaido Kurisumasu", or Kentucky Fried Christmas, the "traditional" dinner for Christmas day.
Through a series of circumstances that make a lot of sense in a bizarre sort of way, the other big tradition over there has become "Romanchikku Kurisumasu", or Romantic Christmas. It's very much more like Valentine's Day than Christmas. For Romantic Christmas, couples exchange gifts like teddy bears, have a romantic dinner, and then go get a room, frequently rented by the hour. No kidding. Members of the modern singles crowd who don't have a date for "Romantic Christmas" are as despondent and grumpy about it as single people are here on Valentine's Day.
So is that good or bad? I don't know. They're 99% Shinto or Buddhist in Japan, not Christian. I don't think there's any more disrespect intended toward the actual Christian religious roots of the holiday than there was when Christians started jumping on the winter Solstice bandwagon in the fourth century AD. Maybe the actual Church Fathers who decided Christmas would be held on Solstice were trying to discourage Christians from celebrating pagan traditions, but the average person celebrates a holiday or a tradition because it seems like fun, not to go out of their way to disrespect somebody. Cultures assimilate different traditions and reinvent them (sometimes with strange result).
So while Jesus is the reason for the season for me, I see no reason why non-Christians shouldn't take Christmas and run with it. After all, it was a gift to us from older, non-Christian traditions. We took the holiday, kept what we liked, and made it into something meaningful to us that probably made absolutely no sense to the Solstice-celebrators at the time. Maybe a Kentucky Fried Christmas Dinner will spark some meaningful or friendly dialogue across different cultures. Lots of religions have holidays this time of year, and I'd rather see a wild variety of bizarre traditions than see none at all because everyone is too afraid of offending someone else. So light the Menorah, the Solstice bonfire and the Mishumaa Saba! Carve radishes and dress up Col. Sanders as Santa Claus to your heart's content! I'll be the one leaving the Christmas tree up until February 2nd, and if you tell me about your traditions this holiday season, I'll tell you about mine.
Best wishes of the season to you all.
Comments and tales of your traditions to Alex.Queen@gmail.com.
This article first appeared in the December 25, 2004 issue of the Manteca (Calif.) Bulletin.