How the Christmas cookie crumbles

An e-mail fracas at North Seattle Community College hits on why "the most wonderful season of all" causes us so much angst.
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An e-mail fracas at North Seattle Community College hits on why "the most wonderful season of all" causes us so much angst.

Here in Seattle, the phrase "Merry Christmas" has been largely expunged from public discourse. Haltingly and awkwardly, we wish each other happy holiday; we talk vaguely about a holiday season; we plan parties that by all appearances look like Christmas parties, but we never call them such. This despite every indication that Christmas, at least the consumerist trappings of it, is alive and well. Every Starbucks sign hawks a peppermint latte; the sound of Barbra Streisand belting out "Jingle Bells" can be heard all over town; whole city blocks are lit up like, well, like Christmas trees. Not to put too fine a point on it, but Seattleites more than any other citizenry I've witnessed seem to love themselves some Christmas lights. (Although not without challenge.) No doubt darkness by three o'clock in the afternoon has something to do with this, fueling one's desire to push back with gaiety against the dreariness of a Northwest winter.

So it came as no small surprise when the very people who are supposed to be stormtroopers in the so-called war against Christmas — college professors — leapt to the defense of a North Seattle Community College staff member who was chided for referring to "Christmas cookies" in a recent e-mail message. Nobody I talked to had kept the hapless sender's original message because we get on average 20 "all staff" e-mails per day, the bulk of which end up in the trash without so much as a glance through. Apparently she sent out an order form for cookies, and these were supposed to have been holiday cookies, but she called them Christmas cookies. The reference slipped past most people's radars but was noticed by a human resources officer whose job it apparently is to sit in a mistletoe-free cubicle somewhere in the district, monitoring e-mail for vague religious references.

What finally tore our attention away from the crush and grind of late-quarter workload was the original sender's apology message, sent to all staff and carrying the subject line, "Holiday Cookie Order Apology." In the tone of someone clearly being asked to apologize for behavior for which there is no need to apologize, the sender lets us know that, in sending out her cookie order form, she had not been "trying to highlight, segregate, discriminate, or diminish any specific religion." Her closing is that granddaddy of non-apologies, the one that says I'm only sorry for your offense, not my action: "Again please accept my sincere apology should I have offended anyone." Remarkably, the sender goes to great lengths to avoid use of the word that got her into trouble in the first place. "I mistakenly made a reference to a specific religious holiday in the subject line ..." she writes.

The apology was sent at 6:48 p.m. on a Thursday, her punisher seemingly adding insult to injury by requiring her to work after hours. The first response came in at 8:48 a.m. on Friday (college instructors apparently aren't early risers) and begins with simply, "No apologies please." The writer decries the political correctness that has made people constantly fearful of offense, and then adds:

Love and friendship is more about Merry Christmas and Happy Kwanza, about the Peace Pipe and the Peace Symbol, about Yin and Yang, Cosmic Unity, the Rainbow, Ramadan. I'm sure I didn't represent someone here and I admit a lack of knowledge of every culture, but the point is we need to join hands in the celebration of the richness and differences of our cultures, and stop being encouraged by the revengeful few who create this turmoil, and make us resentful and militant during a celebration of peace.

You have to love a town for rhetoric like this. It reminds me of "Uptight Seattleite," only this isn't satire; it's real. Notably, in a message that asks someone else not to apologize for offending, this writer imbeds an apology of her own, lest she offend anyone by not representing them in her ecumenical list. She not only apologizes for possible exclusions but for her "lack of knowledge," as well.

Over the next three days, more than 30 messages on the subject clogged recipients' inboxes. To append the "Christmas to Ramadan" list above, staff chimed in with "Happy Hanukkah," "Feliz Navidad," "Maligayang Pasko," and "Mele Kalikimaka." Several jumped in with simply "Merry Christmas," as if reveling in an opportunity to write that instead of "Happy Holidays." One added "Happy Festus," but I think he was referring to the holiday popularized on Seinfeld, Festivus (as in, for the rest of us), not to the Missouri city of Festus, although I suspect this group would extend their embrace to the citizens of Festus, too.

Interestingly, several Muslim members of the college community felt called to express their disdain for the HR officer's actions and their support of the e-mail mob and of Christmas in general. One simply wrote, "Merry Christmas to all, From your Muslim colleague." Owing no doubt to the first response message, which referred to the "revengeful few who create this turmoil, and make us resentful and militant during a celebration of peace," another took this tack: "Confession: I'm a Muslim and I love Hanukkah and Christmas cookies. With this confession, I'm now affraid that Osama bin Laden will label me as an INFIDEL, and place a heafty price on my head."

The human resources officer who, it was assumed, had requested the apology did not come out of this well. First, there were the sarcastic disclaimers: "By copying/pasting a Zen story into this e-mail I do not endorse Zen buddhism or any other religion or atheism or agnosticism." Next came satire, as writers speculated on what else the now fully demonized HR officer might have to censor, from the word "holiday" (which is a derivation of "holy day") to the very shapes of the cookies in question (a star is off limits, a tree too suggestive). Another writer likened the HR officer and his minions to Big Brother and the state in George Orwell's 1984. Finally, one simply wrote, "What a shame." Only one person, a librarian, felt called to defend the HR officer's motives: "Probably he thought that he was just doing his job and trying [to] keep non-Christians from being hurt. He didn't realize that Christmas is a cultural holiday as well as a religious holiday and that there are many people who love Christmas, maybe even people who don't believe in Christianity."

Her answer more than any other explains why the furor broke out in the first place. Christmas in these United States is so much a cultural and even capitalistic phenomenon, it's often hard for people to understand why anyone would object to its rituals or expressions. It's so obvious, it barely needs to be said: Many celebrate Christmas with a tree and presents and only vague machinations of religious intent. Christmas is like football: wildly popular and gloriously profitable. I suppose if there really is a war on Christmas, it's coming from the commercial success of Christmas itself, which has probably done more to destroy its religious underpinnings than any politically correct mandate.

It was a tradition in my family to host a holiday smörgåsbord every Christmas Eve. One year, a friend of mine who had attended in previous years flatly refused my invitation. "I'm not participating in Christmas anymore," she said, leaving me bewildered. Outside of a few decorations, there was never anything religious about these Christmas Eve gatherings. At least until after the guests left, when my mother turned the TV channel to midnight mass at the Vatican, it seemed to be mostly about the food, the trays of sausage and cheese ordered from Swiss Colony only once a year for this occasion. My friend, a Muslim, was just then discovering an activism about her cultural identity and faith that I had not seen in her before. I tried to understand, but truth be told, I was let down and offended by her refusal, a reaction I liken to the energy of the e-mail response at North Seattle.

But something keeps bothering me about all this. It feels too easy to ignore the Christian hegemony of the past (and in most cases, present). Sure, I'd like to believe we live in the kind of world that allows for free expression of religious sentiment at work and other public places without anyone imposing on anyone else. Yes, the HR officer's reprimand strikes me, too, as pedantic, ill-placed, out of touch. In the la-la land of tolerance that Seattle often is, it's too easy to say, Let's all just join hands and celebrate our differences. Let bygones be bygones! Let the lion lie down with the lamb.

The problem is, those who practice minority religions in this country have felt neither cause nor comfort to be as open with their rituals and expressions as Christians are about Christmas. While Hanukkah gets some play from the culture at large as a sort of alternative Christmas, it's not as if we take collective notice of Yom Kippur, an arguably more important holiday than Hanukkah in the Jewish tradition. Outside of the token Kente cloth and menorah set out beside the Christmas tree in December, the dominant culture really doesn't make an effort to be inclusive, not in any meaningful way.

I'm sure my friend refused the party invitation because she was tired of having Christmas annually shoved down her throat, culturally speaking, while her culture and faith remained invisible. Years later, after she married (I was one of few non-Muslims to attend her wedding), I received a card from her in observation of Eid ul-Fitr, which marks the end of Ramadan and the breaking of the fast. She and her husband made the card themselves, for no card maker in the U.S. had a line for Eid, something my friend tried in vain to change. The sentiment handwritten inside was simple and moving, and, I think, exemplifies how people of different religions should share the beauty of their observances with each other. "We want you to know that we are thinking of you as we celebrate Eid," it said.


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