On Winter Festivals

Christopher Hitchens confuses me.

Don’t misunderstand. I enjoy reading Hitchens. I don’t exactly agree with Hitchens. He reminds me of something Stephen Fry wrote recently, on the subject of dinner arguments:

I was warned many, many years ago by the great Jonathan Lynn, co-creator of Yes Minister and director of the comic masterpiece My Cousin Vinnie, that Americans are not raised in a tradition of debate and that the adversarial ferocity common around a dinner table in Britain is more or less unheard of in America. When Jonathan first went to live in LA he couldn’t understand the terrible silences that would fall when he trashed an statement he disagreed with and said something like “yes, but that’s just arrant nonsense, isn’t it? It doesn’t make sense. It’s self-contradictory.” To a Briton pointing out that something is nonsense, rubbish, tosh or logically impossible in its own terms is not an attack on the person saying it — it’s often no more than a salvo in what one hopes might become an enjoyable intellectual tussle. Jonathan soon found that most Americans responded with offence, hurt or anger to this order of cut and thrust. Yes, one hesitates ever to make generalizations, but let’s be honest the cultures are different, if they weren’t how much poorer the world would be and Americans really don’t seem to be very good at or very used to the idea of a good no-holds barred verbal scrap. I’m not talking about inter-family ‘discussions’ here, I don’t doubt that within American families and amongst close friends, all kinds of liveliness and hoo-hah is possible, I’m talking about what for good or ill one might as well call dinner-party conversation. Disagreement and energetic debate appears to leave a loud smell in the air.

See, reading Hitchens is like that. A Christopher Hitchens column is like someone saying, “Well, that’s arrant nonsense.” To a Brit, as Stephen Fry would note, that’s an opening to a discussion. But I’m an American. And even if I might agree with some of his point, well… Hitchens is being more than a little mean-spirited, isn’t he? Isn’t he being far too strident? Can’t he learn some moderation, some appreciation for others’ feelings?

I bring Fry up, not because he describes my visceral reaction to a Hitchens column, but because Fry has made me aware of the cultural baggage that Hitchens, an ex-pat Brit, brings with him when he writes, like for his column with Slate.

Hitchens writes a column for Slate called Fighting Words, and generally Hitchens writes on two topics. First, the perniciousness of religion, especially its extremist and fundamentalist strands. I’m challenged, but sometimes ambivalent, about these columns — ironic, given that Hitchens seems to share my viewpoint that the religious impulse is fairly alien. Second, Hitchens writes at length about the war in Iraq and the need to stay there until the job is done. As oft as not, Hitchens’ arguments for the necessity of war relate back to the first topic — the dangers of religious extremism — yet I can’t agree with Hitchens’ ultimate conclusion — that the war is necessary — at all. Yet, in the end, I still enjoy reading Hitchens. At the very least, he makes me think.

This is a very long preface, for what will actually be a short post. 😉

Hitchens’ most recent column, Bah, Hannukah, is ostensibly about the Maccabean triumph of fundamentalism and orthodoxy over Hellenistic reason and intellect, and how that triumph set back human thinking for thousands of years. Again, this is a column that I don’t exactly agree with, though I will note that it’s interesting how Hitchens links Hannukah to the birth of Islam. And his ultimate conclusion is one worth making, even if in practical terms it wouldn’t ever happen.

Near the end of the column, though, he writes this on the falsity of those arguing there’s a “War on Christmas”:

We are about to have the annual culture war about the display of cribs, mangers, conifers, and other symbols on public land. Most of this argument is phony and tawdry and secondhand and has nothing whatever to do with “faith” as its protagonists understand it. The burning of a Yule log or the display of a Scandinavian tree is nothing more than paganism and the observance of a winter solstice; it makes no more acknowledgment of the Christian religion than I do. The fierce partisanship of the holly bush and mistletoe believers convicts them of nothing more than ignorance and simple-mindedness. They would have been just as pious under the reign of the Druids or the Vikings, and just as much attached to their bucolic icons.

It’s an honest assessment — Christianity has spent two thousand years pilfering the practices and beliefs of every religion it’s come in contact with. In the cases of Easter and Ash Wednesday, it hasn’t even bothered to disguise the origins — Eostre for Easter, and Odin for Ash Wednesday. I wrote once, “Is there an original bone in Christianity’s body?” Umm… no.

But that’s not the point anyone was going for. 😉

I can’t really argue with Hitchens’ point that most of the symbols of Christmas are secular in nature. Yes, they may have had special religious meanings to our pagan ancestors, but those pagan religions died off centuries ago. Separate out the tree and return it to its solstice roots. It’s a different thing entirely than the religious festival of Christmas.

Personally, I like Christmas trees. Hitchens says, essentially, that it’s okay for non-Christians, like myself, to have one. 😀

Hitchens has made me think. As I said above, I don’t exactly agree. He has to write with great stidency and vigor to make his argument — and he does make his argument — and I find I can’t really argue against him, but neither can I agree with everything. I find myself content, though, to read Hitchens, get a little angry at the stridency, and then, at last, accept it.

At least, until the next time I read a column by Hitchens, and disagree with everything in it. Because he’s been too strident and mean-spirited. 😆

One thought on “On Winter Festivals

  1. I’m definitely not a Christian, but I will never read anything by Christopher Hitchens no matter if I might agree with it. His pro-torture stance during the Abu Ghraib scandal still makes me want to kick him in the balls each time his name is mentioned.

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