I’ve always been a sentimental person, but as I get older and struggle more and more with my health, traditions have become something of an obsession. This time of year takes me back to my childhood. The last day of school before break, snowball fights with friends, smells of mom’s baking, decorations, opening presents, Christmas Eve service and even the occasional hockey game with some tipsy relatives.
I remember my mother preparing holiday dinner for family and friends, including, if I’m completely honest, a few people she could barely tolerate. No matter what, all were welcome and all were treated with respect. When you came to her home, you were included, you were made comfortable, and you were fed … whether you were liked or not.
My mother was and is an atheist. The holidays were more about family, tradition, and being together than they were about religious affiliation or celebration. In my child’s eye, everyone was welcome as long as they behaved. It did not make a difference if you were a Democrat or a Republican, a Christian or a Muslim, a saint or a sinner … the holidays were a time for sharing and family. You were welcomed with food by my mother and tormented by my father (who was also the bouncer if you got out of control).
While we may have been a colorful group, we were not diverse. We were definitely not politically correct and we never really knew what was going to come out of any number of family members’ mouths. What was known, however, was my mother’s belief that no one was better than anyone else and everyone was treated accordingly. At the base of everything, we were all equal. Sure, we celebrated Christmas, but my parents would have happily invited anyone to join us … Christian, Muslim, Jew, Buddhist, or atheist. My mother, if she knew in advance, would most likely have tried to incorporate her version of a dish from whatever tradition you celebrated. My parents wouldn’t have tried to replicate your holiday, because that wasn’t their holiday, but what they would do is try to make you comfortable in their home and often that included incorporating food preferences and learning about different traditions. Again, it had nothing to do with religion and everything to do with respecting the person in their home…with the demand that they be respected as well.
My mother was also the one, through books and behavior who initiated my desire to learn, explore, and accept. We by no means agreed on a lot of things as I was growing up, but she taught me to respect, even if I didn’t like, people when they were in my home. When I moved out on my own and became somewhat of a vagabond, my “home” became my immediate surroundings. I welcomed strangers into my life with respect and developed life long friendships. We were, and still are, a varied group! My experience with diverse cultures has not only opened my world, but it has strengthened my own beliefs. None of my faith was minimized or destroyed because I allowed myself to accept others’ beliefs as well.
To enjoy Passover Seder with a friend and her family — who later recreated the feast for my brother and his family in my small living room in Indiana — still brings fond memories. Visiting an ashram with a Hindu friend and joining them in an incredible meal … Engaging in a religious discussion with a Muslim woman on a busy street in Brooklyn… Yes, even going with a friend to a gathering of people that, to this day, I am convinced was a cult… they all taught me how to understand something outside myself. How different, and limited, my life would have been without these experiences.
No one tried to convert me…okay, maybe the cult…but no one else. No one tried to suppress my religious beliefs or any other beliefs. They just wanted to share something that brought them joy, that elevated them. I’ve had nothing but positive experiences when listening and learning about other cultures and religions and all that was required of me was to be respectful and open … something, thanks to my mother, I would give a total stranger on the street. This attitude ENRICHED my life.
This is why I say Happy Holidays unless I know a person’s religious belief or personal preferences. It takes absolutely nothing from me and gives them respect and the realization that I accept that their beliefs are just as important as mine. It has nothing to do with being politically correct. I really don’t understand people feeling the need to demand everyone say “Merry Christmas” or anything else for that matter. I don’t demand that you say “Happy Holidays.” As a Christian, I prefer “Merry Christmas,” but I won’t be offended by any greeting that is intended to bestow blessings and happiness on me. I could use all the prayers and help I can get.
I’ve lived all over the country, in small towns and major cities, and I have yet to hear anyone insist (or even request) that I not say Merry Christmas. Some may inform me of their religious beliefs when I extend a holiday greeting, but no one has ever gotten offended if I wished them a Merry Christmas. It has been taken in the way it was meant … as a way to wish blessings and joy on them.
However, suddenly, this past year signs are popping up on my Facebook page proclaiming some version of “I say Merry Christmas, so Deal with it,” Seriously? You cannot just say “Merry Christmas?” You have to make it a challenge? If you are a Christian or, at the very least, you celebrate Christmas, what is the purpose of these pronouncements? I don’t understand them. I especially don’t understand it from people I know to be gentle, kind, and accepting. Is it social media? Has someone truly confronted you because you wished them a Merry Christmas? If not, why do you feel threatened? I remember when I was young, the 1970s, a time that we consider much more oppressive in our views than today, that it was completely acceptable to say “Seasons Greetings.” It brought smiles not offense.
I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2012. I was told I was terminal in 2014. By 2015, three people — others who had been diagnosed as terminal and who had become my network of support — died. Of those who passed away, every one not only fought to the very end, but expressed joy for every day, every minute, that they were alive …even when the pain was unbearable. Very seldom, if ever, did I hear them lament about their struggle much less complain because someone wasn’t behaving the way they deemed correct. I suspect they would have laughed at the triviality of it. I pray that my family and friends never have to experience something like cancer to understand what is really important. Not a quote or saying, but the meaning behind it. Every last one of these incredible human beings left this earth bringing smiles and admiration to those around them. No one will remember them because they were offended by “Happy Holidays.”
In the past year, literally, since last November, I have experienced indescribable pain, nausea, vomiting, exhaustion, stiffness in my joints, and, eventually, a concern that the cancer may have spread to my brain…in other words, abject terror. Luckily, the fear was brief; cancer hadn’t spread and my doctors determined pretty quickly that it wasn’t the culprit of my symptoms. It took a lot longer to figure out what was actually happening … chronic cholecystitis, gallstones, infection, and psoriatic arthritis. I began to believe that I would never be pain-free again. I shudder at how close I came to just giving up and staying in bed. There were times when the pain was so bad that I had to take oxycodone, Tylenol, and metoclopramide (anti-nausea) just to remember how to breathe. I couldn’t keep food down. I had headaches. There were ER visits and a couple of hospital stays.
Finally, after (many, many) tests, new medications, discontinued medications, a biopsy, and gallbladder removal, I woke up AND MY PAIN WAS CONTROLLED! There was no nausea, headache, or pain in my abdomen. The pain in my joints was minimal and I was able to walk again. After a year, I was free. I could walk a couple of miles on my own, I could go somewhere and not worry about getting sick. I could breathe without doubling over in pain. It was a blessing that I try to remember every single day. So, please feel free to wish me a Happy Holidays, Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Seasons Greetings. I gladly accept them all in the spirit for which they were intended. You celebrate Ramadan? Kwanzaa? Are you Hindu? Buddhist? Atheist? Pray for me. Think of me. Wish me blessings and joy. I will take it all and extend them to you as well. Life is short. I hope that you are all able to find the joy rather than the offense in it.