The Francis Report: Life in a Global Context, is a column dealing with globally significant, locally relevant topics by Millstone columnist Arnie Francis,
Long ago, in first year Economics at university, I discovered the importance of the empirical caveat ceteris paribus, meaning “all things being equal”, or ultimately “it depends”. For example, will Mark Carney make a good Governor of the Bank of England? It depends! Will the Argonauts’ 2012 Grey Cup victory stop talk of a possible Toronto NFL team? It depends! Will cynicism prevail this Christmas season? It depends!
We all know that our Canada prides itself on its heterogeneous nature, being secular, non-theistic and accommodating. This year, for example, according to a number of Canadian sources , religious holy days in the “holiday season” abound. Some are ardently observed by practitioners while others are noted or celebrated in their passing. Either way, the spirit of the season is every bit as varied as the people of the Great White North:
- December 9 – 16 – Judaism, Hanukkah
- December 13- Islam: Ismaili, Birth of Iman
- December 19 – Russian, and Belarusian Autocephalous, Orthodox, St. Nicholas
- December 21 – Wicca , Yule Solstice
- December 21 &26 – Sikh, Martyrdom Sahibzada Ajit Singh & Jujhar Singh; and Martyrdom Sahibzada Fatch Singh & Zorawar Singh
- December 25 – Christianity, Christmas /Feast of the Nativity
- December 26- Zoroastrian, Death Anniversary of Prophet Ashu Zarathushtra
- December 26, 2012 – African Canadian, Kawanza
- January 1, 2013 – Shinto , Gantan‐sai
- January 1 – International, New Year’s Day
- January 6 – Christianity, Epiphany/Dia de los Reyes / Feast of the Theophany
- January 7 – Orthodox Christianity, Feast of the Nativity
Overshadowing this season are the Christmas Holidays, when school children have a two-week break and the work-a-day world in Canada shuts down for almost a week. Christmas (Cristes Maesse) is a combination of the word “Christ” and the word “mass”, the latter as in the old English meaning of a gathering, an amassing crowd, a group commemoration or a celebration . The celebratory festival that marks the birth of Jesus Christ, however, did not start off until some 200 years later, in Alexandria, Egypt.
Nevertheless over the last two millennia Christmas has become an important annual holiday in most parts of the world. While it is mainly a parenthesis in the Muslim world (“Christmas is not a Muslim holiday, therefore, Muslim countries do not celebrate it. Many Muslim countries, like Pakistan … extend a day off to Christian workers on Christmas day.” ), the Christmas season punctuates the broader world of capital and production, today infecting China and India in good measure. “China is not a Christian country, so for many Chinese people, Christmas is seen as a time for joy and fun rather than a religious event. And it’s particularly popular with young people… hotels, restaurants and entertainment venues have all seized upon the Christmas season as an important time to increase their business.”  “Christmas in India is declared as a national holiday and people irrespective of their religion enjoy it along with the Christians.”
For North Americans, Christmas has become a break from an over-stressed, function-oriented life. The Christmas season has seemingly less to do with religious orientation and more to do with the social experience evoked by the spirit of the season. Approximately 70% of Canadians describe themselves as Christian (32% or 2.6 billion world-wide), 2% as Muslim (23.4% or 1.6 billion world-wide), and – despite Hanukkah being well-recognized in Canada as part of our holiday tradition – only 1.1% of the Canadian population affiliate with Judaism. About 19% of Canadians are non-religious, a figure well above the world average of 16% (1 billion) . Still, all communities in Canada celebrate the spirit of the Christmas season in one way or another.
So why does Christmas continue to have such a hold on us as a diverse society with purportedly pluralistic values? Just that! Perhaps the spirit of Christmas speaks to those universally felt, core aspects of the human psyche, aspects that transcend socio-cultural traditions and religious practices.
While many Christian communities struggle with “Putting the Christ back in Christmas,” the cynicism surrounding the Christmas season (“Ten Reasons Why I Hate Christmas” ) and a blaming culture aimed at “religion” have begotten a visceral negativity towards Christmas. Oft quoted atheist and intellectual Richard Dawkins noted “I am against religion because it teaches us to be satisfied with not understanding the world” . Maybe, but for his acute observational prowess, Mr. Dawkins has perhaps thrown the proverbial baby out with the bathwater, missing altogether the transcendental gift that Christmas offers us, the harried, ill-informed and joy-starved masses.
In truth, out of its 200 decades or so of existence, only in recent years has Christmas come to symbolize unabashed consumption or an exclusively religious divider among neighbours. Beyond the all too obvious excesses of commercialism, Christmas touches our connection to, and love of, family. It tickles our conscience about renewal and reconciliation. The Christmas season emphasizes the joy of “being” (through music, food, faith, friendship), it reinforces the shared connections among communities, it prepares us for transitions (old year to new year) and ultimately it facilitates our inclusiveness and belonging to a larger world.
… but that’s my wish this Christmas. Merry Christmas!