Opinion: Let the lights shine
|Published: 12-01-2023 7:00 AM
Parker Potter is a former archaeologist and historian, and a retired lawyer. He is currently a semi-professional dog walker who lives and works in Contoocook.
With the national holiday of Thanksgiving behind us and several religious holidays ahead, this seems like a good time to think about holiday spirit. I begin with some personal history.
For part of my youth, I was raised in the Catholic church. Here’s how. My mother was raised a Catholic and even went to a parochial school. My father’s family, however, went to a different church every Sunday, test driving various denominations. More importantly, by the time my mother met my father, he had already been married once, and divorced.
In order to be married to a divorced man by a Catholic priest, my mother had to: have the ceremony take place on the front steps of the church rather than inside, promise never to set foot in a Catholic church again, and raise her children Catholic. As a result, until my non-sectarian father found his real religion, joined a country club, and secured a regular Sunday morning tee time, he took my siblings and me to Catholic church and Sunday school while my Catholic mother stayed home, even on Christmas and Easter. When I learned that family history, I was all done with organized religion.
When I married Nancy Jo, who is Jewish, the Rabbi who performed our interfaith wedding — inside the synagogue no less — approved the idea of my participating in the fun Jewish holidays with good food and skipping the hard ones, so long as we raised our daughter in the Jewish faith, which we did. Guess which approach to doctrine-defying “problem” marriages I prefer? And guess which agnostic dad couldn’t make it through his speech at his daughter’s bat mitzvah without choking up?
I describe my religious history as context for my feelings about Christmas. I am a secular Christmas guy. The season is full of happy memories for me, memories of colorful decorations and music that touches me deeply even without a strong connection to the religious aspect of the holiday.
First and foremost, Christmas for me is about being with my extended family, eating and laughing together, and exchanging gifts. I can still recall specific gifts from decades ago such as a plaid flannel shirt and a parka I still wear that my mother ordered from L.L. Bean, a leather Ohio State jacket that I also still wear given to me by a brother-in-law, a fancy boxed volume of the collected works of Aristotle and an antique French grammar book, both from my mother, and a sterling silver ID bracelet from my parents that I was foolish enough to give to my first girlfriend and never got back.
My fond memories of the season also include the couple of years when my Christmas gift to my family in Ohio was a trunk full of fresh seafood from Annapolis, Maryland. In other holiday food news, my mother once let me stuff the Christmas turkey with White Castle hamburgers. Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it.
Because of all those happy memories of celebrating Christmas with my family, I’ll never forget my sadness in 1995 when work kept me away from Christmas with my family for the first time in thirty-seven years. As I drove home from work on Christmas Eve that year, a tear rolled down my cheek as a familiar Christmas carol played on the radio, and to this day, I know exactly what road I was on when that happened.
So the bottom line is that I am not religious, have a deep affection for family Christmases, and have a wife and daughter who are committed to their Judaism.
Along come the December holidays. People wish me a merry Christmas, and if they are people I want to know me well, I gently explain that I am part of a Jewish family that spends Christmas day on three stools at our favorite sushi bar. Now, the human siblings of the dogs I walk make me Chanukah cards. I am touched by their thoughtfulness.
Perhaps it is these lovely experiences that make me bristle when holiday greetings become a flashpoint for midwinter skirmishes in the culture wars. People saying “Merry Christmas” are not trying to impose Christianity; they are simply trying to share the joy that flows from what Christmas means to them. People saying “Happily Holidays” are most assuredly not declaring war on Christmas; they are acknowledging that midwinter is the time for several different religious holidays, and they are attending to the feelings of the people to whom they are directing good wishes.
And that’s the key, good wishes. “Merry Christmas” and “Happy Holidays” are not political statements, and we should resist those who try and make them so. Those greetings are expressions of goodwill, attempts to share joy.
Right around the time of the shortest days of the year in the northern hemisphere, people celebrate Christmas by putting lights on trees and houses. People celebrate Chanukah and Kwanzaa by lighting candles for eight nights. I’m sure there are other midwinter holidays of illumination that I just don’t know about.
At this time, as we are facing our longest darkest nights, let us all strive to shine our best and brightest lights, and to appreciate the lights that glow in those around us. Happy Holidays.