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[Originally published in Unity Magazine Nov/Dec 2022 issue. Pic via vendorful.com]
Mark Twain once famously said, “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.” This might be the time of year we most lean into his quip. From Native Americans and Pilgrims idyllically brunching together, to time-bending circumnavigation and gift delivery in a sleigh propelled by flying reindeer, to the incarnation of God via miraculous virgin birth, the narratives connected to our most cherished holidays require our suspension of truth and fact.
We choose instead to observe celebrations based on our preferred, more comfortable versions of history. Or, arguably worse, we know the facts and still choose to honor the traditions of holidays built on fabrications. “What’s the harm?” you might ask. Simply this: when we use sanitized stories to bypass painful truths, we help to maintain systems of injustice.
We’re not exactly sure when the Pilgrims had their first harvest celebration, but the one which we often teach our children about occurred in 1621 three years after nearly half of the settlers died because of their inability to feed themselves during a severely harsh winter. Tisquantum (also known as Squanto), a formerly enslaved member of the local Patuxent tribe, showed them how to work the land. To celebrate, they held a feast after one particularly bountiful harvest. Fun fact: the local Native Americans were not invited. They arrived to investigate the sound of musket fire, because no survival celebration is complete without firing deadly weapons into the air.
Saint Nicholas, the 3rd century saint of Myra, evolved from a generous and humble monk to a magical icon that is not only a mascot of capitalism, but also a creepily omniscient tool used by parents to manipulate their children’s behavior: be good or no presents from Santa who’s always watching, even when you’re asleep.
Speaking of creepy omniscient beings, why do we still celebrate the birth of God’s “only son” at a time when it didn't happen (best guesses: June or October based on celestial events that could explain the “star of Bethlehem”), and in a way it didn’t happen? Sex, and only sex (at that time), led to conception. Also, virginity is not a thing, but that’s another article for another time.
When we blithely ignore the fallacies of our holiday narratives, we lull ourselves into inaction and systems of oppression continue to thrive. As we carve the Thanksgiving turkey, do we slice in remembrance of the estimated 12 million Native Americans that were killed by the European settlers and their descendants? Do we think about contributing to efforts to return stolen land to living tribe members? Do we acknowledge our complicity in the capitalist structures built on the enslavement of over 10 million Africans that continue to benefit the few and harm the many?
Demigods proliferate mythology: Achilles and Perseus from Greek mythology; Bacchus and Hercules from Roman mythology; are we ready for “Jesus from Christian mythology?” These demigods, by the way, were the product of randy male gods impregnating mortal women often without their consent. Apparently women’s bodily autonomy wasn’t a thing back then either. Again, another article for another time.
If you haven’t before, I invite you to not be casual about your holiday celebrations this year. Practice mindfulness, as in being fully present to the discomfort of the entire story, the inner conflicts that might arise, and what they may inspire you to do. Have brave conversations. Challenge the status quo. Only then might we be able to create new rituals and a culture that uplifts and liberates all. Oh right… Happy Kwanzaa!