Given what Jesus purportedly stood for, I’m not sure he would have been too keen on how we’ve contorted his birthday celebration into an orgy for the senses. The reality, though, is that fewer people are attending church and, for many of us, Christmas is simply an excuse for overindulgence of all kinds. I’m probably no different than most people. I enjoy getting more time with my adult sons, sharing a few treats with family and friends, eating a little more than I should and getting some extended time away from the office. We haven’t exchanged gifts for years, but enjoy the sense of warmth and togetherness the season brings.
Since I assign no religious significance to my seasonal celebrations I always end up a little melancholy this time of year when I think about everything Christmas. As such, as we prepare to tuck into our Boxing Day leftovers, the things I wish for pretty much remain constant, year in and year out. I don’t really think the following things have a snowball’s chance in Hell of changing much, but wouldn’t it be nice if they did?
I’m mainly talking about extremism, and not in the way our media tends to portray it as a problem exclusive to Muslims and other non-Christians, but all extremism. Since religion counts on emotion and faith to exist and, with its cultural and historical significance often giving it a pass from scrutiny, organized religion of any kind taken to extremes is dangerous.
I personally feel religion is dangerous – period. This, for no other reason than any system completely based on faith is not my kind of system for living life. However, I also strongly believe that we each have to follow our own path. The minute a belief system harms others, though, it ceases to be a benign personal choice. Unfortunately, the rights the western world has generally enshrined for individuals around religious freedom, makes stopping extremism difficult. And any system based on faith and emotion is ripe for abuse in the hands of the wrong people.
Whether you’re talking about Jim Jones and Koolaid, Muslim women being forced to endure second class status and wear niqabs, priestly abuse of boys, polygamy and underage brides, or countless other human rights violations in the name of a deity, the toll of religious extremism on people is incalculable. Without extremism, the U.S. and some allies wouldn’t have spent the last decade plus, mired in a middle eastern quagmire that killed thousands of innocent people.
The sad thing is that the concepts upon which religious violence are based are utterly meaningless. At their core, these problems generally boil down to whether your God or mine is a better one to believe in, or whether your or my way of life is best. With thousands of years behind religious extremism, no one is about to convince most believers that they’re misguided. Even Buddhism, with no one deity and its central tenet of attachment as the root of all suffering, has had to deal with its share of scandals regarding monks and boys.
AnimalsI haven’t eaten meat in twenty years and I waffle to and from full veganism regularly. The Christmas season, in particular, is a rough one for animals. We’ve been indoctrinated to cook turkeys, geese, lambs and pigs in record numbers for holiday feasts. The U.S. alone slaughters close to 10 billion animals (USDA NASS, 2005) annually for human consumption. This isn’t the good old days of hunting, killing, skinning and preparing an animal for eating yourself. The issue is not eating meat so much as it is, eating it when it’s been mass produced and slaughtered inhumanely.
I recognize that many people are attached to meat and that this isn’t likely to change significantly. However, their desire for meat often makes them ignore or avoid the reality of how their food gets to their plate. At least, I’d like to think it’s that because it’s hard to believe anyone wants to eat meat when they realize how the vast majority of animals are raised and slaughtered for their consumption. There will always, unfortunately, be people who like meat and simply don’t care about the animal suffering.
How many kids discovered a puppy or kitten under the tree this year? Probably too many. Companion pets are a wonderful thing, but when they are bought on impulse or as a surprise for kids, enough thought has often not been given to what is effectively adding a member to the family.
The BC SPCA strongly recommends against giving pets as gifts during the holidays (or at any time in fact), undoubtedly due to not wanting the shelters to fill up with discarded gifts animals, that seemed a good idea at the time. Given their campaign to find good homes for (at present) 4000 animals that need adoption, inadvertently adding to the tragedy hardly seems a good idea.
“The SPCA strongly discourages giving pets as gifts. But if an individual or family has carefully considered their decision and the responsibility of a new pet, the holidays can be an optimum time to adopt. Families are more likely to be off work or school during the holidays and have more time to spend with each other and with their new companion animal.”
It’s a shame that such a largely enjoyable time of year has such a downside from the perspective of animals. Halal or Kosher meat is a step in the right direction. However, eating a little lower on the food chain and making sure pets are adopted with a lot of planning and forethought, can make a huge difference.
Regardless of what your celebrations look like for the holiday season, it’s hard to escape the fact that consumerism has made a mockery of what Christmas is supposed to be. As fewer people go to church and celebrate in traditional ways, we now welcome the season to get great deals on electronics, clothes and other stuff we don’t really need. Children are conditioned by advertising (and modern parents who often fail to set many limits at all) to expect Santa to bring them all kinds of stuff, most of which will be played with a few times and tossed into a chest of other unused stuff.
This runs completely counter to the concept of giving, which is what Christmas is supposed to be about. If children are raised with the expectation of getting and not giving, they’ll likely grow up into adults who spend most of the holiday season overindulging and looking for as many deals as they can and hoping for as many gifts as they can from others. This is not to say that these same people don’t do some giving as well, but from what I can see, collectively we spend a lot more time over the holidays in getting mode, as opposed to giving mode.
Generosity is the habit of giving freely without expecting anything in return. It can involve offering time, assets or talents to aid someone in need. Often equated with charity as a virtue, generosity is widely accepted in society as a desirable trait.
I’m well aware that often, people do give more at this time of year than the other 50 weeks. Sometimes, though, while charities (particularly the ones that help the homeless this time of year) are appreciative for the extra help and donations, some lament the lack of generosity and charity the rest of the time. It’s only so rewarding to get extra help, when most of the time, there isn’t enough.
It’s not just the exchange of gifts where greed shows up this time of year, but in all the overindulgences I mentioned earlier. Pulling back a bit, buying less stuff we don’t need and spending less time overeating, overdrinking and in pursuit of acquisition would help us all. The problem, of course, is that one person’s overindulgence is not another’s.
Maybe the answer, then, is not so much in whether we give at Christmas. Maybe just spending a little more time year-round donating money, fundraising or volunteering for worthwhile causes.
Greed and animal welfare
Nine years ago, The Guardian’s George Monbiot got it right I think, when writing about the impending crisis of using our arable land for raising livestock for dairy and meat, as opposed to feeding people directly,