Saturday, December 29, 2007

My Wish List for 2008

When New Year’s Day has come and gone I wonder how many resolutions will have already been broken. It’s one reason I don’t like making resolutions. It’s for the same reason I rarely make promises. Despite one’s best intentions, sometimes the saying is far easier than the doing.

But that doesn’t stop me from creating a wish list for the coming year. I did that last year, and as stated in my last column, very few of my wishes for 2007 were granted. Still, there was some progress on a couple. So I’ve decided to keep wishing for what I listed last year and add a few new wishes for 2008.

These, of course, represent things that I wish would come to pass. Others’ opinions will vary. Opinions are like, well, bowel movements. Everybody has them.

My first, but not necessarily most important wish for the coming year is for everyone to stop writing checks at the checkout stand. It’s woefully annoying to those standing in line behind the offender.

Don’t people understand that debit cards can be used exactly like checks, but they are much faster and easier? While waiting in line a Wal-Mart yesterday, I found myself in the express lane behind a middle-aged woman who was writing a check and conversing with the cashier at the same time. After writing in the name of the store, the amount, the date, and signing her name, she had to wait while the clerk ran it through the printer and then check her identification.

When it was my turn, I swiped my debit card while the clerk scanned my items. When she was finished, I was finished. All she had to do was give me my receipt. For those who like recording their transactions in a check registry, you can still do that. Just drop the stupid checks, please.

My second wish for 2008 is for people who haven’t mastered the nuances of driving to just stay off the road. I get tired of waiting behind people turning left at one of those traffic signals that have a left-turn arrow, but no red light for the turn. The rule of thumb is, if you don’t see a red light, you can go ahead and turn if there is no oncoming traffic. You don’t have to sit there and wait for the next green arrow.

Next on my list of wishes is one for education. I wish religious groups would stop trying to infiltrate public schools with their dogma.

There is nothing they won’t try. One evangelical organization has even built a fine museum in Kentucky. Its exhibits look as though they are based on real scientific principles. But nothing could be further from the truth. Everything in the museum, no matter how scientific it looks, is based on Scripture, which has no corroborating evidence other than itself.

If conservatives want to build shrines to their religion, that’s fine. Just label them as religious institutions so that children and naïve adults won’t get confused.

That brings me to my last wish for the coming year, one that admittedly is a pipe dream more than a bona fide wish. But I’ll wish it anyway.

I wish that all fundamentalists, whether Christian, Muslim, or some other belief system based on the supernatural that also has a fundamentalist element would simply admit that everything they preach is nothing more than what I’m writing here, an opinion.

People ask me why I’m against religion so much. I tell them that I have no problem with people believing in whatever supernatural force they wish. It’s America and we have the freedom to believe in anything, or not.

My problem is that, although none of these fundamentalists have a problem saying their belief system is based on faith, they still insist that it is absolute truth. It’s fine to believe something to be true without evidence; it’s quite another thing, however, to call it factual.

Faith is what you believe without facts or evidence. You just choose to believe it, for whatever reason. Almost by definition, then, faith is opinion, because it is not support by facts or evidence.

I wouldn’t have nearly as much of a problem with churches and their museums if they all exhibited clear signs at the door saying that what is espoused therein is opinion, based on nothing but antiquated belief systems and not supported in any way by empirical data or facts.

I told you it was a pipe dream.

Friday, December 21, 2007

I Wished upon a Star, but Nothing

Last January I wrote in one of my columns that I don’t usually make New Year’s resolutions, but I did publish a wish list for the coming year. This was a list of things from the local to the global level that I, personally, would hope to see some progress in.

Obviously, I wasn’t naïve enough to suppose that all my wishes would be fulfilled within 2007, but I was hoping there would be some progress made toward my eventual wish fulfillment.

So, in reflecting back on 2007, let’s take a look at what, if any, progress has been made toward making my wishes come true.

The short answer is, precious little. It’s no big surprise, but somewhat disappointing. Still I hold out hope and carry over these wishes into 2008.

Locally, I wished for increased growth and development within Edinburgh proper and the Edinburgh school district. I don’t see much evidence that significant growth has taken place over the past year. It is nice, though, to see new commercial development on the south end of town, including a mall expansion.

A wish I had for the state General Assembly was for it to pass, or at least begin considering, legislation that would ban all smoking in public buildings and within enclosed places, like cars, when there are children present.

The state has done nothing. But localities are continuing to jump on the no-smoking bandwagon. Bloomington is especially friendly to smoke-free environments as it is currently considering a ban on smoking in cars when children are present.

I was also hoping that, nationally, the new Democratic Congress would pass legislation overturning the decree of the almighty Bush monster that prohibited funding for stem cell research. And, in fact, Congress did pass such legislation, twice. But they didn’t have enough votes to override Bush’s veto. So his self-proclaimed, all-encompassing personal judgmental morality still reigns supreme.

I was also hoping Congress would allow the No Child Left behind Act to expire. Apparently, I won’t get my wish there, either. But there may be some changes in the legislation that may more closely reflect the reality of education instead of mandating a pipe dream.

I also wished that world leaders would get together and start seriously planning for the use of alternative fuels that won’t pollute the environment or exacerbate global warming. There may be a start in that area, but only a start. And the Bush administration is continuing to do whatever it can to make sure America doesn’t contribute to the progress.

After all, it’s the unspoken position of the Bush administration that we don’t need to save the future for our kids since the Rapture is surely upon us. Which leads me to my main wish for next year, and that is the next president will have a modicum of common sense and logic, and that his, or her, mind will be open to rational thought processes. He, or she, should also keep their religious beliefs out of the Oval Office.

But I’ll have a fuller list of wishes for 2008 coming up next month.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Dispelling Myths about Christmas

Christmas is the only holiday that is both a legal federal holiday and a Christian celebration. That’s probably because Christmas is two holidays in one; it has a secular component that includes Santa Claus, presents, decorations, and parties. It also has a religious component, which includes church services and the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ.

But both sides of the Christmas holiday are fraught with myths and urban legends. So I thought I’d dig a little deeper into the history of the season to uncover my top 10 myths about Christmas. I’ll start with five urban legends about secular Christmas.

Myth 1 – The image of Santa Claus as a fat jolly man with a white beard and red suit and driving a sleigh pulled by reindeer has always been associated with Christmas.

Actually, Santa Claus is loosely based on St. Nicholas of Turkey. He was the patron saint of children and sailors. He was very pious and generous, but he was not fat. He was a very thin man. He drove no sleigh that anyone knows about, and certainly there are no reindeer in Turkey. The poem usually attributed to Clement C. Moore, “A Visit from St. Nicholas” was published in 1823 and is the source of the modern conception of Santa Claus.

Myth 2 – The candy cane was invented by a candy maker in Indiana around the turn of the last century.

Candy canes were invented in France in the 1400s. They were solid white. A German cleric put the crook in the cane to make it look like a shepherd’s staff for the kids of the church. The red stripes were added in the early 1900s.

Myth 3 – Clement Clarke Moore wrote the poem, “’Twas the Night before Christmas.”

Actually, the title of the poem is “A Visit from Saint Nicholas.” And there is considerable doubt as to who its author is. Evidence also points to Henry Livingston Jr. as the author. Moore, himself, originally denied authorship.

Myth 4 – Poinsettias, the red-leafed houseplant that decorates many-a-home on Christmas, is poisonous.

Although it is not meant to be eaten, and it might give you an upset stomach if you did eat it, as would most other houseplants, the poinsettia is not particularly toxic. Mistletoe berries, however, are poisonous.

Myth 5 – Commercialism has spoiled Christmas.

Well, when you consider that prior to the Civil War, Christmas was a rather obscure holiday in America, which was scantly celebrated and at best was considered a minor holiday, commercialism may have actually saved Christmas. After the war, commercial interests found that by hyping Christmas as a time of giving, decorating, and having fun, they could increase their profit margins substantially. So, far from being ruined by commercialism, the fact that Christmas is now by far the most celebrated season of the year is thanks to commercial interests.

Now for the religious myths surrounding Christmas:

Myth 6 – Jesus was born on December 25 in the year 1.

Actually, no one knows when Jesus was born, nor even where he was born. The bible says that there was a census for the entire world, called by Emperor Caesar. In fact historically, there never was such a census, so it can’t be used to narrow down the date. Most historians believe he was born sometime between 7 and 1 BCE. And he was not born in December. Since shepherds didn’t watch their flocks by night in the winter, he was surely born sometime between April and October. The early church decided to hijack the pagan solstice celebration, which occurred in late December, and Christianize it.

Myth 7 – A bright star in the sky hung directly over the stable where Jesus was born.

There have been several hypotheses put forth as to what the star actually was. These include a comet, a supernova, and a planetary conjunction. But there are no astronomical events on record that could account for the star. The closest one is a planetary conjunction that took place in 7 BCE, but the conjunction did not hang in the sky over Bethlehem.

Myth 8 – Three wise men from the East visited the baby Jesus.

Actually, the bible doesn’t say how many visitors from the East there were. And biblical accounts (Matt. 2:11) suggest the visits were to a small child in a house, not a baby in a manger. So the visit must have occurred much later.

Myth 9 – The term Xmas is disrespectful to Christians because it leaves out “Christ.”

In fact, Xmas is derived from the Greek term, Xristos, which does begin with an X and is, indeed, a reference to Christ.

Myth 10 – Christmas has always been the biggest Christian holiday.

People always say, “Let’s put Christ back into Christmas.” But until the nineteenth century, Christmas was shunned in America. Early Protestants almost never celebrated it. In fact, for 25 years in the 1700s, it was against the law to celebrate Christmas openly in Massachusetts.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

What's Christmas without Traditions?

This is the season of paradoxes. Christmas is a time for joy, warmth, and family coziness. The key word in most Christmas traditions is family. It is the second time within the span of a month when families get together to eat, play parlor games, and re-bond with each other.

On the other hand, Christmas is a stressful time. Shoppers who love to shop are thrilled with all the bargains that abound this time of year. But reluctant shoppers who would just as soon avoid the hustle and bustle of the malls often become stressed. Thankfully, Internet shopping has helped those who hate getting out.

And then there are those people who have no families or who are unable to connect with their families during the holidays. Few things are more depressing than being alone during the time of year when you’re supposed to be with loved ones and friends. Is it any wonder that the holiday season elicits more suicides than any other time of year?

I am fortunate enough to have a large family, and a large extended family. Typically, on the first Sunday in December, we all take a road trip down to Kentucky where we have a large dinner and mingle with, well, mostly strangers. I assume most of them are my relatives of one sort or another, but they are strangers to me.

When I was a young adult, we had a lot of Christmas traditions going on. Dad loved to decorate the house. It was very festive, if somewhat tacky. A few of us would gather on Christmas Eve for hot chocolate and snacks, looking forward to the big family get-together the next day.

Our tradition was for a huge Christmas breakfast, even though we held it closer to noon. Then, after we stuffed ourselves with scrambled eggs, biscuits and gravy, bacon, sausage, and pancakes we would drag ourselves into the living room to open up the huge pile of presents that surrounded a tree that was once visible.

We would spend the rest of the day sleeping or playing with some of the toys the kids got from Santa. We might end the evening with some kind of game, such as Trivial Pursuit.

Most years, the guys would get together one day between Christmas and New Years and have a night on the town. My brothers and I along with a friend or two and perhaps Dad would crowd into someone’s vehicle, usually our school bus camper, and head to the Circle City for dinner, followed by a visit to some entertainment venue.

But, alas, traditions are usually not forever. People get older, some die, others just get tired. We haven’t had a boys’ night out in years. Our huge pile of presents has grown much smaller, since we all realized we could save money by just drawing names. And all the grandchildren have grown up. That also means fewer cool toys for us adults to play with on Christmas, too.

Christmas is still a wonderful time of year for me. There are lots of great memories, and some of our traditions are still going strong, like breakfast. But it is also melancholy as I hark back to the days when Mom’s house was filled with grandchildren, Dad was still with us, and I could enjoy my long vacation from college or, later, teaching high school.

In spite of all the changes that are obligatory parts of growing older, the time between Thanksgiving and New Years Day is still my favorite time of year. I enjoy listening to Christmas carols; I enjoy all the beautiful decorations, and I still enjoy what remains of our family holiday traditions.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Indiana Day is Next Week, but Will Anyone Notice?

Are you ready for next week’s big celebration? Ok, so I’m being sarcastic. And, no, it has nothing to do with this month’s other big holiday, Christmas. December 11 is Indiana Admission Day, as will presumably be proclaimed by the governor.

When I was in the sixth grade, I remember being taught a subject called Indiana History. The whole course lasted only a couple of weeks and was part of our regular history class, except we used a different text.

I enjoyed the class. I liked learning about the corduroy roads that were built in the state back in the 1800s, or the fact that two of the nation's most important highways, the Michigan Road and the National Road, intersected in Indianapolis. That's one reason why Indiana was called the "Crossroads of America."

One of the things I learned in that sixth-grade history class was that Indiana became a state in 1816, on December 11. It took two attempts, but we finally made statehood.

It began in 1811 as a petition to Congress for admission. The original petition got lost in the shuffle due to the War of 1812. But then, in 1815 another petition was sent to Congress. That time, Congress acted and President Madison signed the enabling act in April of that year.

After the first Indiana Constitutional Convention in June of 1816, Indiana officially became a state on December 11, when Madison signed the Congressional resolution formally admitting Indiana into the Union.

Indiana's population at the time was only 63,000. Today, Indiana is still known as the Crossroads of America. Although in area it is the smallest state west of the Appalachians (except for Hawaii), it is an important state for manufacturing, agriculture, and transportation.

Unlike many other states, however, Indiana does not do much to commemorate its admission into the union. Some states take their admission day very seriously. Hawaii, for example, has declared it an official state holiday. And Nevada even holds a three-day celebration honoring its admission day.

Even though the governor is supposed to proclaim every December 11 as Indiana Day, few Hoosiers ever give it a thought. It will soon be Indiana Day again, but see if anyone notices.

For many years, from the 1960s up until 1991, Indiana Day did not officially exist, even though it was supposed to, as directed by the Indiana General Assembly in the 1920s. Former Gov. Evan Bayh began issuing the proclamation again in 1991 after a phone call from me to his staff reminded him of his legal obligations on the matter.

Since then, governors have been upholding the law by proclaiming Indiana Day. But the proclamation alone does nothing to make the day special to the state's citizens.

Indiana Day would have more meaning if more school children were required to take an Indiana History class. Some high schools offer the class, but only as an elective. It should be a required part of the curriculum of all high schools or middle schools. And students should be required to take it.

In addition, instead of requiring the governor to proclaim Indiana Day each year, the General Assembly should pass legislation permanently marking December 11 on the calendar as Indiana Day, not as a paid holiday, but as a day of recognition of Indiana's history. It’s part of our Hoosier heritage.