Tuesday, December 20, 2005

The War on Christmas

Now this is possibly the most ridiculous thing I've heard in a long time, anything having to do with the Bush administration excepted, of course. Various right-wingnuts, led by Fox news screamers Bill O'Reilly and John Gibson, are claiming that liberals are waging a so-called war on Christmas. Their primary evidence seems to be the fact that some retailers are wishing their customers "happy holidays" instead of "merry Christmas," and holding "holiday sales" instead of "Christmas sales." Disturbingly, many middle-class religious folks (like the elder members of my own family) are buying into this nonsense. And nonsense it is.

There is no "war" on Christmas. No organization or group that anyone knows of is openly or covertly trying to eliminate Christmas as a national holiday or cultural event. None. Not the accursed ACLU, nor the United Nations, nor the Pagan Organization of Witchcraft Worshippers (POWW). Nobody.

The fact that some retailers choose to have their employees say "happy holidays" instead of "merry Christmas" is simply a matter of inclusion. In case some Christians may have forgotten, there are several other major holidays that fall in the same time frame as Christmas -- Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and New Year's Day, chief among them. Saying "happy holidays" is not only shorter than naming each holiday individually, it also has the benefit of being inclusive rather than exclusive. Nobody's trying to make saying "merry Christmas" illegal; it's just simple politeness to acknowledge everyone's religion instead of singling out one for special treatment.

I've always sent out Christmas cards that don't say "merry Christmas." I have several Jewish friends (and probably a few agnostic ones, as well), so wishing my friends "happy holidays" or "peace on earth" or something similar is a more sensitive way to express holiday greetings. I'm sure my Jewish friends wouldn't object to being wished "merry Christmas," but why deliberately mix up the religious messages? By sending out "peace on earth" cards, I'm not fighting any battles against Christmas or Christians or Christianity; I'm simply trying to be sensitive to my friends' beliefs.

The so-called Christians who think that they're being warred against obviously feel no similar sensitivity. It's a Christian nation, say they, thus we should embrace Christianity at the expense of all those annoying minority religions. This ignores the fact that this country was founded on the concept of freedom from an intolerant religious majority; the irony is quite obviously lost on today's holier-than-thou religious majority.

And the fact that Christianity is the majority religion shouldn't be ignored. That's why Christmas is such a big thing, no matter how much these supposedly put upon Christians may protest. Whether retailers call their December sales events Christmas sales or holiday sales is irrelevant; there aren't a lot of Hanukkah or Kwanzaa gifts on display. The holiday sales are all about Christmas; you can't turn a page in the newspaper or go five minutes on radio or TV without being subjected to Christmas-this and Christmas-that. Just because a relative handful of retail employees are saying "happy holidays" doesn't negate the fact that the main holiday they're talking about is Christmas.

If these paranoid Christians think that they're somehow an oppressed minority, they need to take another look at things. Try observing the seasonal madness from the perspective of a Jew or a Muslim (or, God forbid, an atheist) and tell me again how society is ignoring Christmas. It's just not happening. December and November (and, increasingly, October and September) is the Christmas season; it's all-son-of-God, all-the-time, Christmas trees and carols and decorations 24/7 for almost a quarter of the year. Christmas is not in any danger of being eliminated. If there is a war going on, Christmas has the upper hand.

Now, if the disturbed Christians want a real fight, they should consider the war between the religious spirit of Christmas and its commercialism. That's a legitimate discussion to have -- and one war that the spirit of Christmas may be losing. Hell, if I were concerned about the real spirit of Christmas, I'd want fewer Christmas sales, all of which represent the hijacking of baby Jesus by commercial interests. If you want the purity of Christmas preserved, you should be arguing in favor of "happy holidays" so that "merry Christmas" doesn't get further corrupted.

But that's too nuanced an argument. It's much easier for the yellow journalists to cry that Christmas is endangered by the evil liberal agenda, whatever that is, and inflame their gullible followers to mindless action. Sure, they can pick out a few instances where political correctness has triumphed to an illogical extreme (and I'm no fan of political correctness), but random anecdotal evidence aside, the big picture tells us that Christmas is not under attack in any way, shape, or form. The Christian majority is in no danger of being subjected to the whims of the non-Christian minority. In this country, at this time, Jesus rules. And recognizing that other religions exist (and have their own important holidays) does not in any way diminish the importance of Christmas in our society.

But that's just my opinion; reasonable minds may disagree.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

The last refuge of bigotry

The Indianapolis City-County Council is planning to vote on a gay rights ordinance next week. The ordinance would ban discrimination based on sexual orientation, and it's proving to be perhaps the most controversial issue faced by the Council over the past few years.

That's right, the City-County Council is being inundated by phone calls, letters, and email from Hoosiers opposed to the ordinance. These are people who are in favor of discriminating against gays. Yay, discrimination!

(Which begs the issue -- who taught these Neanderthals how to use computers and email?)

Over the past century we've successfully fought to abolish discrimination against most minorities, including blacks and women. While pockets of racism and sexism still exist, it's now basically accepted in our society that it's not okay to discriminate based on race or sex. Discrimination is bad -- except when it comes to homos. Then it's okay to screw the queers, so to speak.

I'm not gay, nor am I black or a woman, but I'm still offended by any type of discrimination. It's the 21st century here; haven't we gotten past all this? All the City-County Council wants to do is make it illegal for a business not to hire someone because he or she is homosexual. What's the harm in that? It doesn't want to force people to become gay, as if that were possible. What's wrong with a little tolerance?

It's the virulence of the reaction that shocks me, particularly among so-called Christians and those espousing "family values." Family values, my ass. These ignorant bigots are afraid of anyone and anything that is different from them, and want to remake civilized society in their narrowminded image. This is not progress. It is a path away from enlightenment.

I try to be tolerant about most things, as we all should, but I'm becoming increasingly intolerant of intolerance. These hateful, deceitful social conservatives need to be defeated. They're afraid that society is passing them by, and they're right. They want to return society to the dark ages, and society doesn't want to go there.

As intelligent creatures, we should be better than that. We should accept people for what they are, no matter what their color, nationality, gender, or sexual orientation. Legalizing discrimination against gays is just one step away from re-embracing prejudice against blacks, women, and Jews. We can't allow this vocal minority to gain control over what I believe is an increasingly tolerant majority.

In an ideal world, we wouldn't have to talk about gay rights or women's rights or African-American rights. But in this less-than-ideal world, we still have to deal with hate and prejudice. Let's not let ignorance define our society. We should ban all forms of discrimination, and work towards wiping out hate and prejudice in all forms. Yeah, I'm for passing the anti-discrimination ordinance -- and for standing up to the small-minded bigots who oppose it.

And that's not just my opinion; no reasonable mind would disagree.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Top five Christmas albums

And now, just in time for the holiday season, is a list of my top five personal favorite Christmas albums. So, without further ado...

A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector

Not just my favorite Christmas album, but also one of my favorite albums of all time -- always in my top five, and this time of year my number-one. This album features all of Spector's early Wall of Sound artists performing Christmas favorites: Darlene Love, the Ronettes, the Crystals, and Bob B. Soxx and the Blue Jeans. What makes this album so great is that it captures these performers and the stellar team of L.A. studio musicians who backed them at the very peak of the powers. It's sheer joy to listen to Hal Blaine, Carol Kaye, Steve Douglas, and all the rest of the Wrecking Crew barrel their way masterfully through these Christmas classics. And the one original tune of the bunch, Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich's "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)," has become a classic; Darlene Love and the crew give it perhaps the best performance on the album. I listen to this album all year long, and it should be a must-have for everyone over the holidays.

Vince Guaraldi Trio: A Charlie Brown Christmas

A real sentimental favorite, but justified. I can't believe that this year is the 40th anniversary of A Charlie Brown Christmas -- I remember watching it as a kid, just as if it were yesterday. (I was seven at the time.) A great special, based on a great comic strip, with equally great music. The choice of Vince Guaraldi's cool jazz stylings was inspired; dig the hip takes on timeless tunes like "O Tannenbaum" and the terrific original tunes "Christmas Time is Here" and (of course) "Linus and Lucy." This is what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.

John Denver and the Muppets: A Christmas Together

Another soundtrack from a great television Christmas special, this one from the 1970s. The Muppet Christmas special doesn't get repeated every year like the Charlie Brown one, but it should. There's fun stuff here ("Little Saint Nick" by Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem) as well as touching performances (Kermit the Frog singing "The Christmas Wish," and Rowlf the Dog's "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas") -- and John Denver sings some, too. If you can, search out eBay for the original 13-song Windstar release, instead of the current 10-song Laserlight re-release. For some reason, rights were lost to three of the tunes from the original -- "Little Saint Nick," "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," and "When the River Meets the Sea" -- which really removes the heart from this excellent little collection.

The Roches: We Three Kings

I love the Roches, ever since I caught them on their first performance on Saturday Night Live back in the late '70s. In fact, my favorite all-time concert was a performance by the Roches at a small club in Bloomington, Indiana, in the mid-'80s. How can you not like their warm but quirky harmonies, and off-kilter sense of humor? Okay, so Maggie, Terre, and Suzzy are an acquired taste -- but if you've acquired it, you'll really appreciate their Christmas album. There's beautiful singing here, and no small amount of quirky humor. (My favorite -- the Brooklynesque accents and attitudes on "Frosty the Snowman.") Yeah, it's a "non-traditional" Christmas album, but sometimes the non-traditional becomes a tradition.

Mel Torme: Christmas Songs

What better way to end my Top Five list than with my favorite male singer of all time, the Velvet Fog, performing smooth and classy versions of traditional Christmas carols. The standout here, as you might suspect, is Mel's very own "The Christmas Song" -- although there are other standouts, including Mel's version of "Christmas Time is Here" from A Charlie Brown Christmas. (Yeah, Charlie Brown again.) Put this one on the old turntable (or CD player) and sit in front of an open fire for a very relaxing holiday evening.

And five honorable mentions...
The top four albums on this list are always there, but on any given day the Mel Torme CD can be replaced with Ella Fitzgerald's Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas (almost as good as Mel's album), Mitch Miller's Holiday Sing Along with Mitch (an old family favorite), Nat King Cole's The Christmas Song, Bing Crosby's White Christmas, or Patty Loveless' Bluegrass & White Snow: A Mountain Christmas (a surprisingly effective traditional country approach). In any case, now is the time of year to check out all these great albums -- and load up the CD changer with the sounds of the holidays!

Sunday, December 04, 2005


My little community of Carmel, Indiana, just passed a no-smoking ordinance, very similar to the one recently passed in the big city of Indianapolis, just next door. This is a good thing, although the ordinance itself is a little on the weenie side. (It still allows smoking in bars and taverns that don't serve patrons under 18 -- a major lapse, IMHO.)

It's about time Indiana got on board the no-smoking bandwagon. I love traveling to California and Minnesota, both of which are big no-smoking states. I hate coming back home to Indiana, which is pretty much a mandatory smoking state. (If you got 'em, smoke 'em -- and if you don't got 'em, go buy some.) I get off the plane, pick up my luggage, and walk outside to the shuttle bus area where a dozen people are lighting up. The folks around here just can't put enough nicotine and tar into their lungs. Look at the statistics, and you find that Indiana is one of the unhealthiest states in the nation -- we smoke, we eat too much, and we exercise too little. Hoosiers are just a bunch of fat, uneducated, smoke-spewing pigs. That's the generalization, at least.

When I visit CA and MN, I can go into any restaurant or bar and not be overcome with smoke fumes. I can spend a nice evening eating and drinking, and not come home with my clothes reeking of stale tobacco. Not so in IN; the dense clouds of smoke in most entertainment establishments keeps me away. I'd like to think I'd go out more if I didn't have to deal with effects of second-hand smoke. (But then again, I'm middle-aged now, and I don't get out as much as I used to for lots of other reasons.)

So banning smoking from most public places pleases me. It doesn't go far enough, though. What the new ordinance does is remove the smoking section from my local Applebees, but doesn't do a thing for the bar down the block. Oh well; baby steps, and all that.

I used to have a bit of trouble reconciling my semi-libertarian leanings with my desire to ban smoking in public places. After all, I'm generally for less government regulation of personal behavior. I don't want the government telling me what I can or cannot do to my own body; I believe that the government (or church or whoever) has no business poking their nose into my bedroom; and I think that most drug laws are arcane and unwarranted. (Yeah, I'm for more drug legalization -- although, thanks, all you crystal meth users, for forcing my friendly pharmacist to display my favorite cold medicines behind the counter. I really appreciate the inconvenience.) So how do I get off arguing for more governmental control over voluntary behavior?

It's simple, really. The best of laws exist to protect us not from ourselves, but from others. What you do to your own body (in private, anyway) is no business of mine. But when what you do infringes on my rights, then regulation is necessary. So smoking in the privacy of your own home, fine. Smoking in public, where you force me to breathe your noxious fumes, not so much. No one is telling anyone that they can't smoke; the no-smoking ordinance simply says you can't smoke in places where it infringes on others' right to breathe.

One can, of course, take this sort of thinking to an illogical extreme. Should we outlaw farting in public, or bad breath? Arguments could be made for both, but now we're getting silly. As far as I know, farts aren't life-threatening. (Well, most farts aren't...) But cigarette smoke is. That's where you draw the line.

What I really can't understand is why anyone my age or younger takes up smoking in the first place. Since the mid-1960s, at least, the dangers of smoking have been well-publicized. Older generations might not have known the dangers, but my generation certainly does -- or should. So why take up what is at best a filthy habit, and at worst a life-threatening one?

I don't know the answer to that. It's easy to think that's its a social thing, with more low-income smokers than high-income ones. But I know more than a few intelligent, educated professionals who smoke, and there's no good reason for it. If we really wanted to get serious about healthcare in this country, we'd actually have a debate about outlawing cigarettes altogether. Less-deadly substances are illegal, after all.

But I'm for less government regulation, not more, and making cigarettes illegal rubs me the wrong way. I don't think people should smoke them, but I'm not about to argue for abolishing them. Prohibition didn't work for alcohol, after all; there's no reason to think it would work for tobacco, either. So let's keep the filthy things legal, but limit their use in public places. We'll all be better for it.

But that's just my opinion; reasonable minds may disagree.