NB: I wrote the original of this before Christmas and circulated it to employees of the hospital as my annual holiday message. While the controversy related specifically to the holidays may fade for year, recent issues in the news about "nonsectarian prayer" in the Indiana Legislature and the U.S. Navy suggest that similar issues will be before us for some time. Therefore, I have decided to go ahead and post the message.
Holiday Message 2005
I have been mulling over this year’s holiday controversy – or, perhaps I should write “Holiday Controversy.” Specifically, I’m thinking about the discussion that has been raised in the public media over whether extending “Season’s Greetings” or wishing someone “Happy Holidays” is an attack on or an affront to the sacredness of Christmas.
A great deal of attention has been generated on this topic, if only briefly. There is even a book on the topic, written by a television news figure. I’m not going to speak to the book, as I haven’t read it; nor will I speak to the excesses that seem to come from institutional anxiety of various governmental and commercial bodies. Rather, I want to reflect on our life together here at this hospital.
I must admit I’m more concerned about the hype than I am about the problem. I’m not terribly concerned whether governments at all levels or major retailers endorse Christmas. Indeed, I don’t want them to at all. When governments act, they act on behalf of all of their constituents, even the minority who didn’t vote for them. By the same token, retailers have a right to consider all their possible customers, and not simply the majority. So, I’m not concerned, much less offended, when the card I receive says, “Happy Holidays,” or the banner on the facade says “Season’s Greetings.”
In my professional practice I’m conscious just how varied we are. When we share this time of celebration, largely by sharing in time off and gifts between colleagues, we do it from a variety of traditions and perspectives. Indeed, there is something accurate about saying “Happy Holidays:” we have so many holidays among us to celebrate. Even within broad traditions there are differences. Catholic and Protestant Christians observe December 25 as the Nativity, while Orthodox Christians observe January 7. Other traditions follow a different calendar. Since Muslim worship follows a strict lunar calendar rather than the solar year, the dates consistent in the Muslim calendar are not consistent in the solar. Thus, a few years ago the Fast of Ramadan coincided with Christmas and Hanukkah. This year Ramadan is past, and the season of the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca, is at hand.
In a way, I want to move beyond “Happy Holidays” and change “Season’s Greeting.” That is, I want to move from Greetings for the Season to Greetings for the Seasons. Each of the current holidays in fact represents a season. Hanukkah extends for eight days, recalling eight days of miraculous light. Twelve days extend between Christmas and Epiphany, marking both the private revelation of Jesus in his family and the public revelation at the arrival of the three kings. During the days of the Hajj the Muslim expresses his or her faith, reflecting the great acts of faith of Abraham and his family. So, in this holy time there is not simply one Season. To acknowledge all of us who celebrate these holidays literally as holy days requires that I acknowledge that mine is not the only season that celebrates faith. In each of our different seasons each of our different communities celebrates the presence and the power of God, both in creation in general and in the life of the believer in particular.
Many of you may remember my part on the orientation of new employees. I speak about this hospital being a “spiritually safe place” for patients, families, and staff, where each of us “can be who we are spiritually here as much as we are outside.” That reflects my own professional responsibility to care for each person as best I can within the tradition, or decision not to be part of a tradition, that each person already has, as well as the System’s commitment to respect the diversity of all who are here, whatever the role.
With that in mind, I want to suggest that we attend to one another and rejoice with one another. Be aware of the celebration of each person around you. Greet those who celebrate a holy season with the greeting appropriate to the celebration. Celebrate, too, with those who do not observe a religious festival, but who enjoy the change of pace, the extra food, and the time away. Celebrate with enthusiasm that which is holy in your own life, and appreciate the enthusiasm of another’s celebration. Express the love and compassion that is integral to the care we give and the service we provide in rejoicing with one another, that these may indeed be happy holy days and blessed seasons for all of us.
Merry Christmas. Happy Hanukkah. Blessed Hajj and Eid. And the happiest of New Years for you and yours and each of us.