What do St. Nicolaus and St. Patrick have in common? They’re both Catholic saints and have Holy Days named in their honor. However, their Holy Days are also holidays that are not observed solely as religious, but assume huge cultural significance, as well.
St. Nick is a fat, white-haired, jolly old man in a red fur suit with white trim who repeats “Ho, ho, ho”, and rides in a sleigh pulled by flying reindeer. He represents gift-giving and -getting, bright colorful lights, worker elves, and decorated fir trees in the snow. Except for being Catholic, Saint Nicholas has little to do with the birth of Christ, but is known for his generosity. He lived in Turkey in the 4th century and does not appear to have associated with reindeer or elves. Although Turkey does get snow in some parts, it seems unlikely that he would have worn red fur.
St. Pat is usually depicted as a drunken leprechaun dressed in green and is associated with shamrocks, symbolic of his shamrock-y Irish identity. He pinches people that don’t wear green on his day and is reputed to have driven the snakes out of Ireland with his shillelagh. Saint Patrick was a Catholic priest who is considered the founder of Christianity in Ireland. He served in the 5th century and, I suspect, was neither a leprechaun nor a drunkard. St. Patrick’s Day is honored on the day of his death.
So, some of us celebrate the Holy Days (such as those honoring St. Nicolaus and St. Patrick), some the holidays (such as those honoring St. Nick and St. Pat), and some celebrate both. Culturally, our festivities veer far from their religious beginnings. Some may decry the lack of faith or the taint of secular celebration on those Holy Days, but it may be that neither detracts from the other. The truly religious can practice their religion unimpeded; that’s what our country is all about, right? However, the cultural celebration of these holidays is a separate function.
As a religious matter, Holy Days are observed by those who follow that religion. Whether Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, Wiccan or other, the holy observances are a matter between an individual and their god(s). Conversely, cultural observances are endemic to a given culture, and may or may not be observed by any given individual. Granted, it’s hard to go shopping in December and not trip over the Santas, reindeer or elves, just like it’s hard at the end of October to avoid all the witches, skeletons and candy. For that matter, we all should avoid pubs and bars on March 17th, and maybe even avoid driving that night.
We are hearing a background noise about a supposed “war on Christmas” waged by liberals against America’s “true religion”. I admit to being more comfortable with “happy holidays” than “merry Christmas”, not because I hate Christians but because I have friends (Jews, Buddhists, atheists and others) that are not. Anyway, December is a great month for holidays celebrated culturally by all sorts of people. In church, it may be more appropriate to say “merry Christmas”, but not being a church-goer, I don’t really know. However, I do celebrate Christmas and Easter, not because of my faith but because of their cultural significance. I also celebrate Halloween, even though I’m not Wiccan, and I celebrated the recent eclipse, even though I am neither an astronomer nor pagan.
We each need to understand our places in both religion and culture, and recognize that it’s not a competition. (Unless it is, and that isn’t religion. That’s war.) For some, there is no distinction between their religion and their culture. In my limited experience, many Jews and Mormons seem to keep their culture and their religion tightly knit. But most of us, whether religious or not, seem to live our religion a little (or a lot) removed from the culture we embrace. And, there are some who can maintain a strong religious commitment, but keep their cultural and political behaviors apart from those beliefs (maybe the Alabama senate race is a recent example?). But we do share common values and mores within our culture; indeed, that’s one of the things that makes for a common culture.
It seems that we can be more critical of a religion-professing person who seems to transgress our cultural values and their own beliefs than a transgression of someone without religion. We add hypocrisy to the committed sin, and double-damn the sinner. For example, we seem to be harsher with an evangelical preacher having an extramarital affair than we do with someone else. It’s not as though we accept the violation by someone else without criticism; it must be the hypocrisy that raises the stakes.
We are each only human; we share human traits both good and bad. We are not perfect, but neither are we each fatally flawed. Our religions and our culture provide us common ground, where we share our human-ness with all its vagaries of pain and joy. In fact, I believe we celebrate our common humanity on our Holy Days and our holidays. They are a time for coming together, not for pushing each other apart.
So, I wish you all happy holidays (and Happy Holy Days of your choosing, if you have them). May you enjoy all your days in good health and prosperity.
Peace be with you (And also with you)
Assalamu alaikum (Wa alaikum assalaam)
Shalom aleikhem (Aleikhem shalom)
Namaste (Sukhi hotu)
And, by the way, Merry Christmas!