Monday, January 2, 2012

Crossing the Line

I had a concept for my present wrappings this year. It wasn't as comical or goofy as "Ugliest Presents Ever." And I decided against trying to stage an Ugly Present Wrapping Contest. Wrapping my presents like that two years in a row would have been weird. So I'm back to what I hope are truly beautiful gifts. My theme this year was Stripes. Admittedly I was inspired in part by Gene Davis and also by the David Smith show going on at the Whitney at the moment.

Since I knew precisely what I was looking for, instead of the place where I normally get my wrappings (an art supply store on West Fifty-Seventh Street, the name of which escapes me), I thought my best chance would be Kate's Paperie. Unfortunately, they have moved to a much smaller space and don't have as comprehensive a selection as I'd remembered. In addition, by the time I got there, the whole store had mostly been picked clean by the Christmas Jackals. Luckily, there remained a wrapping paper that was almost exactly what I needed. The only problem was that the stripes were on the diagonal. So what you see here is the result of some very tricky geometry with the byproduct of a lot of different sizes of triangular scraps left over.

The arrangement under the tree was a later bit of inspiration, in response to the normally haphazard pile of presents one normally finds there. At the edge of the jumble, with the rough edge facing the rest, I wanted to form a sharp line, a border on the edge of the present pile. The ribbons color-coded each gift according to its importance, and the placement of them was the order in which I planned for them to be opened, with the first present (a bottle of Port because its obvious shape made it not a very big surprise) at the top. The bottle was actually the most difficult to get lined up with stripes. I had to match the stripe of the paper with the bottle's label and tape it into place before rolling it up.

Displaying my sort of craftiness with the tools of present wrapping again is no more or less related to the visual arts than Ugliest Presents was last year, I suppose. I did kind of make fun of the twisted way this holiday has evolved in the United States. [I've become more cognizant lately of saying "United States" rather than "America," to exempt from my criticism the Mexicans and Canadians. We in the middle of the continent are the ones who are the most screwed up.] Last year's critique was really not meant to offend anyone. I more meant to suggest in a tongue-in-cheek way that if one is going to celebrate this holiday and ignore its ancient mythological, pagan, and astrological roots, then one might at least celebrate what it was meant to celebrate: a great and kind political philosopher and perhaps prophet who preached love, acceptance, and forgiveness before being condemned to die for it. This is not to mention his admonishment of money changers in the temple, which is almost precisely what Christmas has become in an abstract sense.

This year, I'd like to discuss something almost entirely unrelated to the arts, but which follows the other line of pursuit on this blog, social justice. It's something of which I was only vaguely aware of hearing murmurs in the past few years. It was more acutely brought to my attention recently. It's the patently ridiculous and imaginary phenomenon known as The War on Christmas. Only in a place like the United States could anyone actually complain about something like this without being laughed right out of the room. I mean that this is a country populated overwhelmingly by Christians, but who also are in forced contact with people of an extremely wide diversity of different ethnicities and religions. It's sort of like a white person lamenting that there is a "war on white people" in this country. A lot of crackpots do say that, in fact, but anyone who knows anything at all about the world instantly recognizes this as utter crackpottery.

Much of the "war" seems to revolve around the scandalous practice of referring to the pagan, Viking symbol of a pine tree as a "Holiday Tree." One commenter on an article made an excellent point to someone from Britain who was confused about this. It was that no one in this country today would ever look at a pine tree with lights on it and associate it with anything other than Christmas, no matter what you might choose to name it to avoid alienating Americans who practice a different religion.

For those readers living in other parts of the world, I think it's important to emphasize just how ubiquitous this holiday is. I live in the one city in the United States--with a huge population of Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus, etc.--where it might be most possible to avoid the complete cultural saturation of Christmas in the month of December. But even in New York City, it is practically impossible. In the parts of the country where the dominant residents are fundamentalist Christian (the people who imagine there to be a war on, presumably), it must be far, far worse.

I touched on this briefly in last year's, ahem, "holiday" post, but a great illustration is found in the music. We have a radio station here called 1067LiteFM. The station appeals to stores without their own custom soundtracks because it plays mostly upbeat, pleasant Light Rock and Pop inoffensive to the point of occasional dullness. They play LiteFM in the elevators of my apartment building. The small grocery down the street, the laundromat, and the liquor store all play it. I can literally shop at a number of different stores and hear the beginning, middle, and end of a single song in different locations. Halfway through November, LiteFM starts playing Christmas carols and nothing but Christmas carols until well after Christmas itself. I had to hear "White Christmas" on a day that was over sixty degrees outside. One day doing my laundry, I had to hear not one, not two, but three different versions of "Sleigh Ride." Granted, "Sleigh Ride" is mostly a secular song, but it connotes nothing whatsoever if not the Christmas season.

According to the poll, only slightly over half of U.S. residents even know what Ramadan is. Much as I might trust the poll, I'm actually quite certain the true percentage is much lower than that. For one thing, the question that was reportedly asked, "Ramadan is...Muslim...Buddhist...or Hindu?" in a poll about religion is a very different question than, say, "What is the Muslim holy month called?" and even more so, "What is Ramadan?" asked outside of a religious context. I suspect far fewer white (non-Canadian) Americans know what Diwali is. In fact, I'm sorry to admit I only learned about Diwali relatively recently in exploring the idea of visiting India. I was even speaking recently to a young Indian-American guy who didn't know what Diwali was, although granted, he's a Christian born in the United States.

[Edited to add: Whether or to what extent Christmas is acknowledged in India, Hanukkah in Indonesia, or Ramadan in Sweden or whether people of varying faiths are found in large enough numbers there to warrant discussing it are subjects for other people's blogs. Since I live in the United States, I can only have an opinion about my experiences here.]

If there is a "war" being waged--and there isn't--I think it's fairly obvious to anyone who isn't completely insane who is winning that war. And it is not the person who respectfully says "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas" to someone of whose religious background they're uncertain.

And this is part of a bigger problem, as well, a conservative backlash to ethnic integration that I'll call Religious Privilege. It's like how many white people in this country seem to believe the dominant culture should reflect their (white, Western European) sensibilities merely because it has been traditionally that way since we murdered off the Native Americans and/ or stole their land. Similarly, hardcore Christians have the "privilege" of not knowing the slightest thing about any other religious beliefs. People brought here from Africa in the slave trade mostly had their religious traditions stripped away or possibly even banned. Others were no doubt proselytised by missionary zealots. But beyond that, most every other ethnic group that immigrated here were discriminated against despite their adherence to Judao-Christian beliefs. We now have a large and growing number of full-fledged and patriotic U.S. citizens who are not just a different color, not just a different branch of Abrahamic religion, but of an entirely different religious and cultural background altogether.

Perhaps subconsciously, my multicolored gifts, all lined up in a single monolithic arrangement under the tree was metaphorically related to what I'd discuss here. Although I considered not posting this rant at all. Especially now that both Christmas and New Year's Eve are behind us, it seemed a bit unnecessarily serious a topic. But I'd like to believe that despite our occasional bigoted setbacks, the overall trend in this country over the long term is toward acceptance and inclusion of all people who might choose to come here. A tiny droplet of respect and concession toward people of different beliefs amid the drowning tidal wave of Christianity that floods through this country every November and December is something I think we could all consider a healthy step toward the future. Being insulted by the idea of including all people in a season of joy is immature, arrogant, and not in the slightest bit "Christ-like."

In looking back over the past year, I noticed things had gotten a little slow here. To be fair, many of my stories required extensive travel, research, and organization. These are the ones that have historically been the most popular, but they are time consuming. One of my New Year's Resolutions for 2012, for anyone who might welcome it, is to post much more frequently to this blog. A very Happy New Year to all my readers, and thank you for following!

©2012, Ryan Witte

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