Yesterday I gave you some of my thoughts on the “Holiday War.” Today I want to talk about holidays in general. To begin with, let’s think about what holidays are and what they mean.
- First, a holiday is usually a day off from work. That’s not a small thing. The U.S. still ranks in the top ten in hours worked per year. We need our off time.
- Holidays are usually commemorative. Christmas, Easter, President’s Day, Veteran’s Day, Halloween, Fourth of July… These all have some sort of cultural relevance to us.
- Many holidays are marked by some kind of get-together, a public celebration, and often a feast. Trick or treating on Halloween. Exchanging candy and hearts on Valentine’s Day. Fireworks on the Fourth.
What do all of these things have in common? They are all ways of connecting to community. They are social bonding events. And this is why we need them.
As I wrote yesterday, assimilation is not a bad thing. It’s just the movement of culture through time. Unfortunately for Americans, we have messed up the idea of assimilation pretty badly. A sociologist acquaintance of mine recently told me about the “melting pot to salad bowl” concept. This is basically the observation that America no longer believes in the idea of a melting pot culture, where people from diverse backgrounds come together to form a cohesive whole. E pluribus unum is no longer a goal for us. If it ever truly was.
Today, we have a salad bowl culture. We have many diverse groups, and each of them is easily recognizable. We never mistake a tomato for a piece of lettuce or a carrot slice. And perhaps we try to slather the whole thing with some kind of cultural dressing to make the differences less obvious, but the reality is that we have no intention of becoming one culture. Blacks are black and whites are whites. Christians are Christians and atheists are atheists. If we are together in one place, it’s a matter of proximity, not unity.
This is much bigger than a “Holiday War” or racial differences. It is representative of a foundational belief — it is more important for me to stay true to my people than to assimilate. We believe this very deeply in America. When Obama was running for president, he was often asked pointed questions from many sides. “Mr. Obama, are you black enough for the blacks to vote for you?” “Mr. Obama, are you Christian enough for America?” “Mr. Obama, are you inclusive enough for us atheists to vote for you?” I don’t recall anyone asking if he was “mixed” enough to bring Americans together into a more unified cultural identity.
E pluribus unum is no longer a goal for us. If it ever truly was.
Let’s face it. We are anything but a cohesive culture. To a certain extent, that’s ok. It’s something the founders wanted — to have a country where people would not be excluded or persecuted because of an accident of birth. But we’ve taken the idea too far. We mistakenly believe that America ought to be a place where dozens of different cultures can live, somehow together yet isolated at the same time. Whites can have the Kings of Leon, blacks can have Jay Z and Usher. Christians can have Christmas and Jews can have Hanukkah.
But that’s not how culture works. Look at America today. It’s one of the most divided places in the world. We might as well just section it off and give a few states to each group. Cultural cohesion doesn’t happen when nobody will play nice with anyone else. And here’s something that might come as a shock to you — Most people don’t really care what we’re commemorating. Most Christians take their children trick-or-treating. Because it’s not really about the origin of Halloween. It’s a fun time to take the kids around the neighborhood, get some free treats, and show off how much they’ve grown since last year. We don’t eat Thanksgiving Dinner to celebrate the genocide of the American Natives. We want to be with our family and friends. And let’s face it. Only the staunchest Christians give a damn about whether or not Jesus is the central focus of Christmas. We do Christmas for the lights, the dinner, and the presents. And all of that is ok. It’s cultural cohesion and bonding. That’s a good thing.
Am I saying we all ought to be “accommodationalists?” Nope. Democrats should still vote for universal health care. Republicans ought to keep fighting for corporate subsidies and tax cuts for the rich. Christians ought to keep going to church. But we have to start looking for places where we can get together and share some holiday time. You don’t have to support the War on Terror to take your family to a Fourth of July parade and fireworks display. You don’t have to believe in Jesus to see the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade either.
Cultural cohesion comes from doing things together. And trust me — I want this “culture war” to end as much as anybody. But culture wars don’t end by each side entrenching more deeply in their foxholes. Atheists won’t become part of the culture by staying home anytime we disagree with the religious majority. Christians won’t get to know any atheists and grow to value them as people if we refuse to eat with them.
It’s ok to let your guard down a little bit and just have fun. We can talk to our children about how lucky we are to live in a country where we’re not jailed for speaking out against the president. That’s a great reason to be glad for the Fourth. We are lucky that we can put up trees and decorate them with just lights — no manger scenes. No star. We can dress like a witch on Halloween and nobody will arrest us and charge us with conspiracy with the devil. We can wear our scarlet A necklaces and T-shirts and go out proudly and stand right beside a Christian with his cross necklace and cheer when the Bart Simpson float goes by.
In short, I don’t believe there’s any good reason to skip holidays. Holidays mean whatever we want them to mean, and it doesn’t matter what our neighbor thinks. We have every right to a day off, a great meal, entertainment, and bonding with our community and family. And we’re only making our own lives less meaningful when we take our ball and go home just because someone else finds a different reason to celebrate whatever holiday it is. It’s time we atheists stopped fighting about things that bring Americans of all stripes together. We live in a country with a lot of problems, but who doesn’t? We’re lucky to live in a country where we can celebrate any way we want on any holiday we choose. We shouldn’t waste this stroke of luck.