I can’t emphasize enough how much of a non-issue this was on campus before outside muckraking groups made it one. As a matter of reading comprehension, it’s worth noting that the website page begins with the sentence “The university does not have an official policy regarding religious and cultural décor and celebration in the workplace.” The website subsequently offers suggestions on how to handle the beautiful desire many of us have to celebrate with our colleagues at official UT functions at the end of the year when we know that not everyone is Christian. The guidelines are about workplace (note, workplace) parties that need to include folks in departments and units who are Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, and of many other faiths. If I were working in Abu-Dhabi or Jerusalem and my office had an end-of-year party that was all about Ramadan or Hannukah, or if my office sent out Ramadan or Hannukah greeting cards, I might feel a little awkward or unwelcome, even if it was the dominant tradition there. An office party is very different from being invited to a party at someone’s home, church, or other organization. It should be welcoming to all, a laudable goal in an age of threats, profiling, refugees, and mistrust. What if, for one day out of the year, we could leave that all behind?
So, here’s a little quiz. True or false:
- UT made Christmas parties illegal. FALSE. The University, and I quote, “does not have an official policy regarding religious and cultural décor and celebration in the workplace.” That is a fact.
- No one can have a Christmas party at UT. FALSE. A short list of officially recognized groups that recently had Christmas parties includes Tyson House Lutheran/Episcopal Campus Ministry, Beta Upsilon Chi, AOII, Kappa Delta, Kappa Sig, Gamma Sigma Sigma (and most Greeks, I think), and plenty of others.
- You get in trouble for wishing someone Merry Christmas at UT. FALSE. In fact, I routinely wish people Merry Christmas, I was wished “Merry Christmas” at the door of the Clarence Brown Theatre, on my way in to see one of the TWO Christmas shows UT is currently performing (get tickets while you can), and I see “Merry Christmas” signs up in many places.
- Student organizations and other groups routinely host Christmas parties. TRUE. Joyfully, absolutely, demonstrably true. See. #2. Ask someone who is actually at UT.
- The University is currently performing two Christmas plays, has light string Christmas trees on top of buildings, UT-themed Christmas ornaments, and Christmas trees in many offices, including the office of Chancellor Cheek and the Vice-Chancellor for Diversity. TRUE. Just come down and take a look.
You might, at this point, justifiably ask why all the fuss? What is going on? My best guess is the amygdala. Let me explain. The amygdala is part of the brain (the limbic system, to be more specific) that regulates a few different responses, but especially, fear. It’s pretty fascinating. The amygdala tends to be larger in males (congratulations, guys) and definitely can be conditioned to respond with more and more of the fight or flight response, which is very useful if you are fighting a saber-toothed tiger but not so useful when your hard drive crashes or you are being manipulated by a news network trying for ratings in a 24/7 news cycle. Unfortunately, when it starts firing, our higher cognitive functions, the part of the reasoning brain that keeps us grounded, can start to go “offline,” a process that neurobiologist Dr. Dan Siegel explains in this article and video. Once this happens, we literally can’t think straight; we flip our lids.
We live in anxious, troubled times. There are real threats to our collective safety, food supply, and general well-being. But the problem with our fear response is that once something has triggered it, our brains are wired to attach that feeling to something, anything, and to do it fast, whether or not it has anything to do with the actual problem. The more we fear, well, the more we fear. The internet, especially Facebook, Twitter, but also 24/7 news, encourage quick, knee-jerk responses. Considered judgments and thoughtful civil conversation, which might lead us to better solutions, literally become harder to have as our fear response is manipulated more and more, carving those grooves in our brains, until we are permanently alarmed and terrifyingly susceptible to suggestion.
Which brings me to Christmas. Christmas is, at this point in Western history, both a religious and a secular holiday. Let’s face it, people who don’t go to church still celebrate Christmas. I happen to be one of the people who still goes to church, but I welcome all comers to Christmas, even if it is more of an idea for them than a particular moment in the Christian calendar, which, not to be pedantic, we have not yet reached (it’s still Advent, designated as a season of penitence and preparation). I think the reason that Christmas has become so important to many otherwise non-religious people is that signifies peace, joy, and fellowship, all of which are desperately needed and powerful counters to the dark force of fear. Most of us work, live, and even play in a non-stop, 24 hour culture of activity. Sleep deprivation is a national epidemic (I know, I’ve been there), American families get less time with each other as jobs demand more for flat or falling wages, and a culture of competition whispers in our collective ear that we have not done enough. Christmas, at its best, is to be a time of peace, of rest, of simple joys, and much-needed fellowship with the ones we know and love. For Christians, it’s the coming into the world of gentleness itself in the form of a baby. Even when in fact it’s a frantic season, people still want that gentleness, rest, joy, and fellowship that too often eludes us. The ironic thing is that when we don't get these things, we begin to feel anxious, fearful, and defensive. This can lead to irrational outbursts, like people claiming that there is a “war on Christmas,” that red Starbucks cups are an assault on Christmas, or that a university with Christmas trees up all over the place and dozens of campus Christian groups is hostile to Christians. It doesn’t make sense, unless you can step back and see how tired everyone is, a fact that is exacerbated by how much overpriced coffee they are drinking out of red cups.
As an antidote to fear, then, and very much in the spirit of Christmas, Tyson House, one of the many Christian organizations on campus, suggests that everyone calm down and have a cookie. We actually invited the Tennessee legislature to our Advent worship and Christmas caroling party, on the UT campus, where we worship freely and openly every Sunday evening of the semester. We wanted them to see for themselves that Christmas is just fine at UT and to allay some of their fears. Unfortunately, none of the legislators came. We know they are busy and we welcome any of them to join us any time.
My hope is that the legislators were resting. I think we all need rest, with or without cookies, and a little more time to gather our thoughts and spirits; to think about what is worth our energy; what needs in the world we can help meet; how we can connect with each other in the midst of chaos. If we did, maybe we could see that, at least for one day out of the year, we should put aside differences and embrace one another in our diversity and shared humanity, without one group, religious tradition, or nationality having to be dominant. Now that would be a miracle indeed, calm and bright.