A Dumb Idea

December 25, 1993|By HAL PIPER

Of all the dumb, brainless, idiotic ideas I've ever had, my kids agree, my Christmas idea is the worst. My idea is that Christmas shouldn't be a day off from work and school.

Well, today is a Saturday, so we have it off anyway. But if I were Universal Emperor, Christmas would be a working day when it fell on a working day. If people want to take vacation on Christmas, they could do so -- just as they can take vacation time for their wedding anniversaries, for the first day of trout season or for any other sacred day.

''That's dumb, Dad. That's really dumb,'' scoffs my daughter. My son, less nuanced than his sister, expostulates: ''Stupid!''

I first proposed this idea, only semi-seriously, several years ago, but my children were so horrified that they continue to bring it up whenever they need to cite an example of just how appallingly nitwitted their father is. Perhaps that is why I have continued to think about it, and have concluded that it is really rather a good idea.

Striking Christmas from the list of civil holidays would please the ACLU, of course, but that is no reason to oppose it. A pluralistic society doesn't honor Buddha's birthday or the Muslim Ramadan or the pagan May Day, goes the civil-libertarian argument, so why should it favor a Christian holy day? Is that not an ''establishment of religion,'' contrary to the constitutional Bill of Rights?

This is surely correct, but it is not why I want to get Christmas off the holiday calendar. I think it's the only way to rescue Christmas.

I once had the good fortune to live in a society where Christmas was not officially observed, indeed was discouraged. December in Moscow was just a day of the week. The city looked festive in anticipation of the great winter festival a week away. Yule trees and colored lights heralded the New Year holiday that Russians celebrate with gifts brought by white-bearded Grandfather Frost and his miniskirted sidekick, Snegurochka, the snow maiden.

Otherwise December 25 was indistinguishable from January 25. The phone rang, the telex chattered, the mail came, traffic roared on the boulevard outside. In the shops and offices, sales clerks were surly and bureaucrats were indolent. On the television, the dictates of the Five-Year Plan were being fulfilled and over-fulfilled. The world went about its business.

And we retired to our business, to the celebration of Christmas.

We celebrated it the very same way secular Christmas is celebrated, with carols and a Christmas tree and gifts and a turkey dinner. We even booked a house call from Grandfather Frost and Snegurochka and took home movies as they tried to overcome our toddler's shyness. We read ''The Night Before Christmas'' and the biblical Christmas story.

But we were out of step with the busy world, and that made our Christmas seem private and meaningful. We were together in joy, not swept up in the season.

People often say we should get the commercialism out of Christmas. That's the idea my son thinks I am proposing, the idea he says is stupid. People need an excuse for a round of parties and a festival at a dreary time of year, he says. He's right, of course, though he's also unwittingly witnessing that the neo-pagans have recaptured the holiday. (Plus, he's still at an age when the gift exchange yields him a favorable return on investment.)

I wouldn't abolish the midwinter Saturnalia if I could. I enjoy it. What I would like to do -- what we did those years in Moscow -- is detach Christmas from the commercialism. How?

Well, we could move either the secular or the religious observance off December 25. Emulate the Russians and whoop it up on New Year's Day. Or focus on the Twelfth Night, Epiphany, January 6, when the Three Kings acknowledged the infant deity.

Neither is very likely, which means we have to adopt guerrilla methods. Egg on the ACLU. Unplug the phone and the television. Somehow get out of step with the busy world, and know personally the glad tidings of great joy.

My children shake their heads sadly and make pitying faces. A dumb idea, Dad. Maybe if I have grandchildren they will listen to me.

Hal Piper edits The Sun's Opinion * Commentary page.

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