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Between the Lines: Have yourself a merry ‘Christmukah’

This year’s Christmas column comes in three parts: A Scrooge-like rant; an interlude in which the author repents of his Ebenezerish qualities; and an uplifting conclusion of peace, love and joy.
First, the rant.
Of all the aggravating little pieces of political correctness to which we have been subjected over the years, “Happy Holidays” is the worst.
We wish bland, toothless “happy” holidays upon one another because we’re afraid to say “Merry Christmas.” Afraid that a grumpy pagan, Wiccan, Muslim, Jew or Jain will complain to the manager and have us thrown out of the restaurant for not being ecumenical enough. For having thoughtlessly foisted our own religious traditions upon non-believers or other-believers.
Maybe this effort to dumb down Christmas is why some of the more fanatical Christians complain about people taking the Christ out of Christmas. (In the case of the Christian zealots, this is presumably as part of a socialist conspiracy to deny individual freedoms by forcing us to have proper health care, outlaw Uzi machine guns, fluoridate the water, and ruin our children by teaching them about sex.)
For many of us, though, Christ and Christmas parted company a long time ago. Christmas has lost its religious mystery and is now the biggest cultural and commercial holiday for millions of its most fervent celebrators. It’s not much of a religious event anymore.
But maybe, just maybe, we should put the Christ back in Christmas — enough, at least, that it’s once again OK to wish someone “Merry Christmas.”
Instead, we default to “Happy Holidays.”
Exactly which holidays, I’d like to know?
Arbor Day and Thanksgiving? Lincoln’s Birthday and the Fourth of July? Isn’t a little late for those this time of year?
Can’t we all just get along and wish each other “Merry Christmas”?
OK, so here comes the second part of the column — the one in which the columnist abandons his curmudgeonly attitude and acknowledges that maybe “Happy Holidays” isn’t so bad.
After all, haven’t we Christians been imposing our mores, prejudices and, yes, our holidays on the rest of the world for an awfully long time? Our Muslim and Jewish counterparts have been pretty patient with us over the decades when it comes to Christmas.
It’s bad enough that Christians co-opted the millennially ancient observation of the winter solstice. Looking at the record, many scholars believe that the historical Jesus was born in the spring. But the Christians grabbed one of the great holidays — the darkest day and the return of the light — and turned its symbology into their own.
Perhaps more apropos anytime you step into a store between Halloween and New Year’s, Christmas has taken over massive portions of the aural atmosphere.
If I hear an overly earnest version of “O Little Town of Bethlehem” one more time in a public setting, I swear I will find the music speakers and disembowel them, tweeter by tweeter.
U.S. Christians have a lot to answer for. It’s bad enough that we make a habit of invading whatever Muslim country we can’t prop up with a corrupt oil despot.
Now we also have to answer for “Jingle Bell Rock.”
Being attuned to the religious sensibilities of everyone is a small price to pay for an inclusive season of celebration. So I’ll grudgingly acknowledge that there’s a good case to be made for saying “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.”
Moving on to peace, love and joy (Part 3 for those of you keeping score at home), I have a perspective to share that may lighten these dark days.
In at least one area of human folly that has plagued our species forever — one that is especially appropriate to the time of year when we honor the King of Peace — things appear to be getting better.
That is to say that these days, humans go to war notably less often than we used to.
Writing in last Sunday’s New York Times, conflict experts Joshua Goldstein and Steven Pinker reported that in the past 40 years, war is “in decline.” Measured objectively and statistically, they say, humans are fighting fewer wars and our conflicts are much less destructive.
Why is this so?
Goldstein and Pinker cites several reasons. Behaviors that were once not only tolerated but encouraged in some settings — “cannibalism, human sacrifice, heretic-burning, chattel slavery, punitive mutilation, sadistic execution” — are now regarded around the world as abhorrent.
Moreover, war no longer pays well. It yields neither great wealth nor geographical conquest. There are systems in place to contain most conflicts. For example, an estimated 100,000 UN peacekeepers help keep peace agreements in civil wars. Growing trade and prosperity also stand as bulwarks against armed conflicts, which would damage trade and destroy prosperity on both sites of any large conflict.
Even more optimistically, Goldstein and Pinker posit, “The deepest cause of the waning of war is a growing repugnance toward institutionalized violence.”
If they are right — and in this season of the dark becoming light, let’s give them the benefit of the doubt — then we have enduring reasons to hope that the future will bring us happier holidays and more times of peace.
Merry Christmukah, everyone.
Gregory Dennis’s column appears here every other Thursday and is archived on his blog at www.MiddleburyVT.blogspot.com. Email him at gr[email protected], or drop him a note in care of Santa Claus.

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