Wishful thinking at Christmas

At Christmas, maybe a little wishful thinking is OK

Fresno Bee, December 24, 2016

Much of life depends upon voluntary suspension of disbelief. We often set truth and reality aside to play in the fields of fantasy.

Perhaps we are too gullible. Fake news floods our screens. We are awash in bunkum and balderdash. Major dictionaries picked “surreal” and “post-truth” as words of the year for 2016.

Science and logic help us distinguish fact from fiction. But this problem is psychological. We enjoy our humbug. Sensational hoaxes are much more fun than reality. And the will to believe provides us with wonder and joy.

In 1897, the New York Sun famously declared, “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.” The editor – with the fantastic name Frances Pharcellus Church – explained, “The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see. Did you ever see fairies dancing on the lawn?”

“Of course not,” he said. “But that’s no proof that they are not there. Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world.”

Mr. Church concluded that faith, fancy, poetry, love and romance reveal the beauty and glory of the world. These things, like Santa Claus himself, are “real and abiding.”

This inspiring essay would fail a critical-thinking class. Lack of proof is not proof. Wishful thinking does not make things true. Imagined wonders are not real just because we want them to be.

A LIFE OF PURE, UNADULTERATED REALITY WOULD BE DISMAL AND DULL.
THE COSMOS CARES LITTLE FOR OUR HAPPINESS. BUT THIS EMPTY UNIVERSE ALSO CONTAINS CHRISTMAS.

And yet, we do not live by truth alone. We love our illusions. We are fascinated by fables and fantasy. Poetry transports us. Music moves us. The unreal worlds of television, film and literature fill our empty hours.

A life of pure, unadulterated reality would be dismal and dull. The cosmos cares little for our happiness. But this empty universe also contains Christmas.

The miracle of birth cannot be reduced to mere biology. Love, beauty and joy transcend material reality. Generosity and forgiveness can break long cycles of violence and hatred. But these wonders cannot be enjoyed unless we believe in them.

On Christmas Eve, the will to believe takes center stage. Christmas stories hinge upon the crisis of faith of an incredulous child. Belief in the unbelievable empowers Santa and his sleigh. Credulity is the ticket to the Christmas wonderland.

The same is true of art. Music is merely sound and rhythm. Poetry is scribbles on a page. Films are flickering, two-dimensional images. We must allow ourselves to be enchanted by these things. And when we give in to the illusion, we encounter meaning that transcends the material world.

Religion and politics also require suspension of disbelief. Bread and wine are transformed. Flags and insignia are not mere cloth. We encounter the sacred and sublime through a leap of faith.

It is easy to dismiss this as humbug. A cynical Scrooge will complain that love is hormonal, justice is power, and truth is the echo of a lie well told. Critical reason bursts the bubbles of the false and fantastic.

THE CHALLENGE IS TO STEER A MIDDLE COURSE. WE NEED TO KEEP WONDER AND HOPE ALIVE.
BUT WE ALSO NEED TO KEEP OUR HANDS ON OUR WALLETS.

But we do not live by reason alone. Poets and playwrights know this, as do shysters and charlatans. And therein lies a significant problem. Like other artists, the con artist plays upon our credulity. He sells us a pack of lies, which we gladly pay for.

The challenge is to steer a middle course. We need to keep wonder and hope alive. But we also need to keep our hands on our wallets.

There are times when it is appropriate to set reality aside and celebrate the play of the imagination. Christmas is surely one of those times. We sing the songs and tell the tales, weaving a fantasy that glows in the child’s wondering eyes. F.P. Church rightly celebrates “the glad heart of childhood.”

We cannot live every day as if it were Christmas. The adult world includes violence, hatred, stupidity and ignorance. Sober thought, grounded in reality, is the cure for these maladies.

But despair is also a problem. Wonder and hope are often in short supply. And cynicism pinches our hearts.

So yes, Virginia, we need to believe in Santa. Tomorrow we’ll be back to battling bull. But today we play with the fairies, creating a world of generosity and love for our children to enjoy.

http://www.fresnobee.com/living/liv-columns-blogs/andrew-fiala/article122726694.html

Christmas culture wars

Let’s avoid Christmas culture wars and be charitable

Fresno Bee, December 17, 2016

At recent rallies Donald Trump has announced, “We are going to start saying Merry Christmas again.” In Wisconsin, Trump spoke from behind a podium with the words “Merry Christmas USA” emblazoned on the front.

Meanwhile, the American Civil Liberties Union forced Knightstown, Ind., to remove a cross from the town Christmas tree. The Christmas culture wars are raging again.

The Constitution provides some guidance. The First Amendment guarantees your right to say “Merry Christmas,” “Happy Hannukah,” or “Bah humbug.” You can plant a cross, a menorah, or a Festivus pole in your yard. However, the First Amendment prevents the government from imposing religion upon us.

But what about Christmas trees? The Indiana town removed the cross but left the tree. Christmas trees seem sufficiently secular to pass constitutional muster.

That tells us something about the meaning of “Merry Christmas.” The phrase can be a religious dog whistle. But it can also have a secular meaning.

Christians want to keep Christ in Christmas. For some, “Merry Christmas” is a proclamation affirming that Christ was born to save us from our sins. But most people are probably not thinking about theology when they offer a friendly “Merry Christmas.”

No yuletide greeting is entirely unproblematic. “Happy holidays” seems inclusive. But it leaves atheists out, since they don’t believe in “holy days.” “Season’s greetings” is more inclusive. But prickly pious types may take offense at such an insipid salutation.

Christ is certainly the root of “Christ-mas.” But what about the word “merry”? Even that word can be offensive since it contains a veiled hint about intoxication. The second-most-famous use of the word is in the phrase “eat, drink, and be merry,” where it points toward drunkenness.

Christmas parties are made merry with mulled wine and martinis. Some enjoy mimosas on Christmas morning. Christmas began as a drinking party. It developed from the Roman Saturnalia, a time of drunken merriment associated with the winter solstice.

Some Christians oppose gaiety. Christmas merriment was banned in England in the mid-17th century by Puritans under Oliver Cromwell. American Puritans such as Cotton Mather condemned the “mad mirth” of Christmas. For Puritans, salvation is serious business. Merriment in this world distracts us from the need to be saved from sin.

Can’t escape religious diversity

This brief history reminds us of religious diversity. Some view this world as a vale of tears. Others embrace the joys of life. We disagree about theology, the value of happiness and the meaning of life.

And that is why we need the First Amendment to the Constitution to guarantee religious liberty and prevent government from imposing religion upon us.

Religious diversity is a fact. According to the Pew Center, only 63 percent of Californians are Christian. Twenty-seven percent are not religiously affiliated. The remaining 10 percent include Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, Muslims, Shamanists, Sikhs and others.

Some non-Christians enjoy a secular version of Christmas. The Pew Center reports that 81 percent of non-Christians celebrate Christmas. Santa Claus, Christmas trees, and eggnog do not require faith in birth of a savior in Bethlehem.

Significant diversity exists even among Christians. Catholics and Protestants celebrate Christmas on Dec. 25. Orthodox churches celebrate it in January. Other Christians – Adventists, for example – believe Christmas celebrations are unbiblical.

Many roots to Christmas traditions

Christmas is not in the Bible, after all. The disciples did not commemorate Jesus’ birthday. Mistletoe, elves and reindeer were adopted from pagan sources, as was Santa Claus.

Christmas is also a product of pop culture. It includes Charlie Brown, Rudolph and Bing Crosby. We might note that Bing’s famous song “White Christmas” was penned by Irving Berlin, a Jewish composer. Berlin also wrote “God Bless America,” by the way.

It is a unique American blessing that we are free to say “Merry Christmas.” But we should use our freedom wisely. Liberty without compassion quickly becomes obnoxious.

Let’s be charitable with regard to religious phrases and symbols. It is rude to force a holiday greeting down someone else’s throat.

“Merry Christmas” is not a threat or a command. It is a toast to be said with a smile, not a sneer. It is an offering of hospitality, not an expression of hostility. In these dark winter months, we need less-malevolent mulishness and more making merry.

http://www.fresnobee.com/living/liv-columns-blogs/andrew-fiala/article121328108.html