Bring the New Year

Here we are again saying goodbye to another year and bringing in another new year. It boggles my mind (mainly because it reminds me that I’m getting older) how fast annual events come about, whether they be birthdays, anniversaries, holidays or even the Stanley Cup playoffs. New Years is one of those annual events.

Now when you talk to people you discover that some people tend to live in fear. For example, these individuals are afraid to travel because “terrible things,” like terrorism, might (and I emphasize the word might) occur in the world. I categorize these individuals as the pessimists. Now I will admit that I sometimes can fall into this category. It’s easy to do. These are the people who always point out the negative in the world. These are the folks who say, “What kind of world will our children or grandchildren live in?” Fearful individuals seem to believe the world is “going to hell” and are anxious because 2016 will be even worse than 2015.

What I find interesting is that attitudes have not changed. My Mom talks about how her parents used to worry about the kind of world their children and grandchildren would be born into. My parents used to be concerned about the state of the world as they lived during the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Cold War. The world has always faced challenges and threats. Today is no different. The reality is the world continues to survive.

Now to be fair, there is some merit to their fear; to their pessimism.  2015 has seen many heartbreaking events. Here are some that caught my imagesattention. In October Hurricane Patricia, the most intense hurricane ever recorded in the Western Hemisphere, had winds up to 322 kilometres per hour (200 mph). November saw  multiple attacks by Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), the best known was the attack in Paris, France, resulting in 130 fatalities. Also in November of this year Turkey shot down a Russian fighter jet which is the first case of a NATO member destroying a Russian aircraft since the 1950s. In June of 2015, ISIL claimed responsibility for three attacks around the world during Ramadan such as the one in Kuwait City where a suicide bomber attacked a Mosque killing 27 people and injuring 227 others. Then there was the Greek government debt crisis in July when Greece became the first developed economy to miss a payment to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in the 70-year history of the IMF.

Of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the story that has been dominating the news most of the 2015 year and that is the Syrian refugee crisis; the worst refugee crisis since the Second World War.  The International Organization for Migration claims that more than one million migrants and refugees crossed into Europe in 2015. Now I could list other events, but there is no question that there have been numerous shameful events in 2015.

Thank God  (or Allah, or Yahweh, or the Universe) there are those who always see the good in the world. I categorize them as the optimists.  Optimists are filled with hope. These are folks who believe that the world can be better; that humanity is not all bad. Individuals such as these look to 2016 with an attitude of hope, hoping that things will improve.  I choose to align myself with the optimists.

There is merit to their argument. Here are some of the jovial events that caught my attention. In April, health officials declared the Americas the first region in the world to be free of the endemic rubella, or German measles, thanks to a 15-year effort to vaccinate men, women, and children everywhere in the northern hemisphere. This is great news since rubella can cause death or severe birth defects when women catch the disease during pregnancy. In July, history was made when Cuba and the United States reestablished full diplomatic relations, ending a 54-year history of GUSTAVO-CAMACHO-GONZALEZ-L1060274_(23430273715)hostility between the nations. In December, a global climate change pact was agreed upon at the COP 21 summit, where  195 countries adopted the first-ever universal, legally binding global climate deal. This is great news for the planet. Also in December of this year SpaceX, a company that hopes to revolutionize space technology, lands a Falcon 9 rocket.  This is the first reusable rocket to successfully enter the Earth’s orbit and return. This brings hope for space travel as it makes it cheaper. December also saw Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi make a surprise visit to  Pakistan to meet his counterpart, Nawaz Sharif.  This is the first time an Indian leader has visited Pakistan in over a decade.  Relations between these two countries have been bitter ever since the violent division of British India in 1947, and the two nations have a history of  numerous military conflicts. This shows that good relations are possible between rivals. That gives hope that peace is achievable. Also in December the members of the Scottish Parliament voted unanimously in favour of a law to ban smoking in cars that are carrying children. That’s great news for kids. There are certainly more positive events of 2015 I could report, but you get the idea.

The Atlantic Monthly in December of 2015 , a magazine published in Washington, D.C,  wrote an article called 2015: The Best Year in History for the Average Human Being. The article cites numerous reasons for making this claim.  Here are a few that caught my attention.

“At the Paris climate conference in December, countries demonstrated renewed resolve to tackle global climate change together. Absent any policies enacted to slow climate change since 2010, the world might have been more than 4 degrees Celsius hotter in 2100 than pre-industrial temperatures. Existing policies to cut emissions reduced that forecast to 3.6 degrees, and the additional pledges in Paris brought it to 2.7 degrees Celsius.”
“The Global Terrorism Index says, 11,133 people died in terrorist attacks—suggesting terrorism accounted for about 1.8 percent of violent deaths worldwide. And for all that terrorism deaths have increased since 2012, they remain responsible for perhaps three hundredths of one percent of global mortality…Rabies was responsible for three times as many deaths as terrorism that year. Stomach cancer killed more people than murder, manslaughter, and wars combined…”
“Civil and political rights also continued their stuttering spread. While 2015 saw rights on the retreat in countries including Turkey and Thailand, the number of electoral democracies worldwide remains at a historic high according to Freedom House…This year, there were peaceful and democratic transitions of power in settings as diverse as Burkina Faso, Tanzania, Myanmar, and Argentina. And Saudi Arabia held local elections where, for the first time ever, women were allowed to stand as candidates and vote.”
The Atlantic Monthly focuses on the positives of 2015. What astounds me is instead of feeling good about the progress made in 2015, the pessimists choose to downplay the article. CBC did this in their article, 2015 ‘the best year in history’? Not everyone agrees. Why not be proud of what humanity has achieved in 2015? Why can’t humans celebrate the positives rather than dwell on the negatives?
When doing research for this post, I ‘googled’ predictions for 2016. What is intriguing to me is the vast majority of the predictions are ‘doom and gloom’ predictions.  One ‘hit’ was titled 2016 will be a year of living dangerously for the global economy.  The Inquisitr, an internationally recognized news website, predicts World War Three will start in 2016.  When you think about it, the third world war has already started as the war on terrorism involves much of the world community. I guess they’re right about that prediction. At least Newsweek predicts a  rise in electric cars which if it becomes true is great for the environment.  Now remember, a prediction is just a guess or a forecast.  When I ‘googled’, “How many predictions came true in 2015?” the vast majority of ‘hits’ were talking about the movie Back to the Future II. In this movie Marty McFly and Doc Brown travel to the future in their time machine, the DeLorean. The date set on the time machine was October 21, 2015.  The various websites were comparing the 2015 of today with the 2015 of the movie. I had little luck finding anything else. That leads me to believe that most of the predictions made for 2015 didn’t come true. Certainly some of the political changes that occurred in 2015 weren’t predicted.

best-year-everSo what will 2016 bring? The pessimists will likely envision , more ISIL terrorist attacks,  more anger from Mother Nature in the form of violent storms, more conflicts between nations, more economic problems, and on and on. Optimists will focus on the positives like improved political relations, the international community working together to slow climate change, improvements in human rights, improvements in health, and so on. I choose to be in the optimist camp. I choose to believe that 2016 will bring many good things. Really, the only thing we can control is the choices we make. To quote Brad Paisley, “Tomorrow is the first blank page of a 365 [366 for 2016] page book. Write a good one.” I’m choosing to make it a good one. I’m choosing to make 2016  a great year!

Interesting reads: 5 Major Trends and Make your 2016 better

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What is the Meaning of Christmas?

If I am honest with myself, I have to admit that I have always had some struggles with the consumerism of Christmas. I grew up with six siblings and parents who didn’t have much money. We always received gifts for Christmas, but they were simple gifts like farm sets and matchbox vehicles. Truth be told, we were happy with the gifts given to us, even though they were not the biggest or newest toys on the market at the time. Being an adult for some time now, I’ve witnessed family and friends giving extravagant gifts worth hundreds or thousands of dollars, and I have always thought how ridiculous this seemed as it was proof for me of the rampant consumerism that occurred at Christmas time.

People’s struggles with consumerism have been going on a long time. In 1965, an animated television special based on the comic strip Peanuts, by Charles M. Schulz, debuted for the first time on television. The special was called A Charlie Brown Christmas and this was a cartoon that really addressed the issue of consumerism at Christmas.

51ACRI9SIYL._SX940_In the cartoon, Charlie Brown knows that he should be happy, but he isn’t. He believes that commercialism is the problem. He struggles with his younger sister Sally who wants him to help her with her Christmas letter to Santa, where she dictates, “I have been extra good this year, so I have a long list of presents that I want. Please note the size and color of each item, and send as many as possible. If it seems too complicated, make it easy on yourself: just send money. How about tens and twenties?” He is also conflicted when Snoopy enters a Christmas decorating contest and wins a cash prize.

Charlie doesn’t know what to do about it all. When Lucy suggests that he direct the Christmas play, Charlie Brown hopes to find the true meaning of Christmas in the process. Even that doesn’t seem to work. One of the last pieces for the play is to get a Christmas tree as the set centerpiece. Charlie Brown, along with Linus, takes on the task with his entire cast wanting him to pick out a nice aluminum tree. Instead, Charlie Brown chooses a small, frail looking real tree, which when he tries to decorate it  he believes he has failed.

Even Linus declares, “Christmas is not only getting too commercial, it’s getting too dangerous.” Linus’ sister Lucy tells Charlie, “Look, Charlie, let’s face it. We all know that Christmas is a big commercial racket. It’s run by a big eastern syndicate, you know.” The cartoon is about Charlie Brown who is trying to obtain the real meaning of Christmas, which he believes is eclipsed by commercialism.

No one speaks of consumerism around Christmas better than Cal Thomas, an American syndicated columnist who often writes from a Christian perspective. Mr. Thomas recognized uncomfortable truths about Christmas in his December 2003 column. In his column he wrote:

“I’m not sure it’s worth keeping Christmas anymore. Oh, it is fine for those apparently dwindling numbers of us who still believe in the “original cast” of Jesus, Mary and Joseph, the Wise Men and the animals. They, as any post-Thanksgiving (not to mention postmodern) shopper knows, have been replaced by the road show of reindeer, winter scenes, elves and the God substitute, Santa Claus, who serves as a front for merchants seeking to play on the guilt some parents bear for ignoring their kids the rest of the year…

Why participate any longer in this charade where the focal point of worship has shifted from a babe in a manger to a babe in the Victoria’s Secret window? From gold, frankincense and myrrh to Bailey Banks & Biddle? No room in the inn has been replaced by no room in the mall parking lot. If God would get a lawyer out of hell, He might be justified in suing for copyright infringement. His great story has been hijacked and transformed into its opposite.”

Even though the column was written twelve years ago, Mr. Thomas still echoes the sentiment that many people feel today. Add to that the desire by some for political correctness or the mentality of some that we cannot say “Merry Christmas” for fear that we might offend non-Christians; that the politically correct thing is to say “Happy Holidays.”  The Bible Society of Australia conducted some research in 2011 about the Australian public’s attitude towards Christmas. 70% of Australian believers think the true meaning of Christmas has been lost. Their research also discovered that 51.9% of ‘non-Christians’ think that the true meaning of Christmas has been lost. (see Loosing the meaning of Christmas). So that begs the question, what is the true meaning of Christmas? Is Christmas just about giving gifts as our consumerist society wants us to believe?  I’ve been reflecting on this question for some time now and I have come to the conclusion that Christmas is really about love.

img_3204In 1995, Dr. Gary Chapman published a book called, Five Love Languages: How to Express Heartfelt Commitment to Your Mate, a book I read a few years ago. Here is a quick summary of the five love languages as described by the Verily website.

  1. Words of Affirmation: Actions don’t always speak louder than words. If this is your love language, unsolicited compliments mean the world to you. Hearing the words, “I love you,” are important—hearing the reasons behind that love sends your spirits skyward. Insults can leave you shattered and are not easily forgotten.

  2. Quality Time: In the vernacular of Quality Time, nothing says, “I love you,” like full, undivided attention. Being there for this type of person is critical, but really being there—with the TV off, fork and knife down, and all chores and tasks on standby—makes your significant other feel truly special and loved. Distractions, postponed dates, or the failure to listen can be especially hurtful.

  3. Receiving Gifts: Don’t mistake this love language for materialism; the receiver of gifts thrives on the love, thoughtfulness, and effort behind the gift. If you speak this language, the perfect gift or gesture shows that you are known, you are cared for, and you are prized above whatever was sacrificed to bring the gift to you. A missed birthday, anniversary, or a hasty, thoughtless gift would be disastrous—so would the absence of everyday gestures.

  4. Acts of Service: Can vacuuming the floors really be an expression of love? Absolutely! Anything you do to ease the burden of responsibilities weighing on an “Acts of Service” person will speak volumes. The words he or she most wants to hear: “Let me do that for you.” Laziness, broken commitments, and making more work for them tell speakers of this language their feelings don’t matter.

  5. Physical Touch: This language isn’t all about the bedroom. A person whose primary language is Physical Touch is, not surprisingly, very touchy. Hugs, pats on the back, holding hands, and thoughtful touches on the arm, shoulder, or face—they can all be ways to show excitement, concern, care, and love. Physical presence and accessibility are crucial, while neglect or abuse can be unforgivable and destructive.

I have always thought that there was a lot of merit to Dr. Chapman’s Five Love Languages. How does Christmas fit in with Dr. Chapman’s love languages? Well, after thinking about it, it turns out that Christmas addresses all the languages of love. Let’s have a look at each.

  1. Words of Affirmation: Giving affirmations are part of the Christmas tradition. Compliments such as “that Christmas dinner was delicious” or “You look great” are freely given. Christmas cards are sent out each year expressing sentiments of love to others. Christmas letters do the same thing. This does not include the affirmations we give when we greet our loved ones when visiting them at Christmas. Words of affirmation have always been a part of the Christmas tradition and still are.
  2. Quality Time: Christmas is about spending quality time with family. The Bible Society Australia research I mentioned earlier discovered that 94% of Australians liked spending time with loved ones at Christmas. I know of individuals that only see their loved ones at Christmas time. To quote Burton Hillis, “The best of all gifts around any Christmas tree: the presence of a happy family all wrapped up in each other. Quality time is unquestionably an important part of the Christmas tradition.
  3. Receiving Gifts: Not much needs to be said about this love language. The biggest aspect of Christmas is gift giving. It has always been this way. However, that doesn’t mean that gifts have to be worth enormous amounts of money. Mother Teresa once said, “It’s not how much we give but how much love we put into giving.”
  4. Acts of Service: Christmas is also a time when people do something special for others. It might be buying an extra gift to donate to Santa’s Anonymous. It might be conducting a food bank drive. Christmas seems to be a time that brings out the “goodness” in people. In my community, one family puts on a Christmas dinner for those less fortunate in the community. Acts of Service are a part of the Christmas tradition.
  5. Physical Touch: I can’t speak for everyone, but my experience of Christmas has always been filled with lots of hugs and kisses from loved ones. People seem extra happy at Christmas and therefore seem more willing to express their feelings through physical touch That could be a hug or a kiss or at the very least a hand shake.  Dacher Keltner in his article Hands on Research says, “the science of touch convincingly suggests that we’re wired to; we need to connect with other people on a basic physical level. To deny that is to deprive ourselves of some of life’s greatest joys and deepest comforts.” Physical touch is a critical part of the Christmas tradition.

So after much reflection on the topic, I’ve come to the conclusion that Christmas is more than the consumerism that I’ve been dwelling on. It’s more than gift giving. Christmas brings out the best in people. Christmas is a time that brings forth more love into the world. Christmas is about a spirit of love, otherwise known as the Christmas spirit.

The Christ child is a symbol of love, hope and peace that creates a joyful season. For Christian believers its more than a symbol. For non-believers the child is a symbol of love. Perhaps Linus Van Pelt expressed what Christmas is all about best when he said, “And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God, and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.'”

Christmas is an attitude. It’s a time when we allow the spirit of Christmas that inspires us to give and receive. That can be in the form of acts of kindness, giving gifts, saying a kind word, smiling at a stranger,  giving hugs freely, or visiting someone you haven’t seen in a long time. Calvin Coolidge says it best when he said, “Christmas is not a time or a season but a state of mind. To cherish peace and good will, to be plenteous in mercy [I prefer to say compassion], is to have the real spirit of Christmas.” The true meaning of Christmas is about a change in attitude. It’s about allowing the spirit of love, otherwise known as the Christmas spirit, to take hold of us.

Christmas Controversies

Every year as the Christmas season approaches controversies erupt around political correctness and tolerance. This year there was the Starbucks controversy (see Red Cup Controversy) , which monopolized imageheadlines in November. The company typically has its red holiday cups decorated with snowflakes, Christmas ornaments or reindeer, but chose for a minimalist design this year with cups that are red with nothing but its green logo. Starbucks executives said they wanted to embrace “simplicity and quietness.” However some Christian conservatives saw these new cups as an attempt to diminish the importance of Christmas.

Screen Shot 2015-12-15 at 10.50.33 AMAnother controversy occurred in Oakville, Washington, a town of 700 people who typically celebrates Christmas without controversy (see Christmas Message Sparks Controversy).  This year volunteer firefighters at Grays Harbor Fire District No.1 put a biblical message on their sign. The sign outside the fire station read, “Unto us a savior is born. Merry Christmas.” So when someone complained the fire commissioner ordered the sign to come down and their Christmas tree turned off.

I understand some of the thinking around these controversies. After all we live in a multicultural country and it is important to be sensitive to the different cultures around us. In fact, Canada celebrates multiculturalism and has officially made multiculturalism it’s policy. In 1971, then Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, the father of Canada’s present prime minister, Justin Trudeau, acknowledged its commitment to the principle of multiculturalism and formalized a policy to protect and promote diversity. Canada was the first country in the world to adopt multiculturalism as an official policy. This policy affirmed the value and dignity of all Canadian citizens regardless of their racial or ethnic origins, their language, or their religious affiliation.

In 1988, the Canadian Multiculturalism Act was enacted by then Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. This Act has two fundamental principles:

  1. All citizens are equal and have the freedom to preserve, enhance and share their cultural heritage.
  2. Multiculturalism promotes the full and equitable participation of individuals and communities of all origins in all aspects of Canadian society.

The United States does not have any kind of act recognizing its multicultural diversity that I am aware of, but nonetheless, like Canada, it is a country made up of immigrants and therefore it’s society encompasses many cultures.

So I get it (I think). I understand the need to be sensitive to other religious traditions and cultures. After all, the Canadian Multiculturalism Act states, “Citizens…have the freedom to preserve, enhance and share their cultural heritage.” So the way I see it, Christmas is a time for Christians to share their religious heritage.

Christmas is celebrated on December 25th and is the day when Christians celebrate the birth of Yeshua or Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus is regarded by most Christians as the Son of God and the savior of humanity. It seems every year there are some people who take offense to Christians expressing this belief.  Christians should not feel stifled in any way when celebrating one of their biggest festivals!

250px-Menorah_0307The Jewish tradition celebrates Hanukkah or the “Feast of Dedication,” also known as the “Festival of Lights”.  This festival is celebrated on the 8th day of December and it is a time when Jewish people recall a miracle in the Jerusalem temple during a war fought by the Maccabees for the cause of religious freedom. Temple candles only had enough oil to burn for a single day. Yet they burned for eight days. Jews light candles on a menorah, two on the first day, three on the second, to nine on the eighth day. Jews should not feel restricted in any way when celebrating Hanukkah. In fact, this celebration should be encouraged. Perhaps in addition to Starbucks having cups with Christmas decorations on it, the company should also include cups with the menorah on it.

Also on December 8th, or on the Sunday immediately preceding it, the Buddhists celebrate Bodhi Day. This day recalls the day in 596 BCE, when Siddhartha Gautama, also known as the Buddha (meaning enlightened one) sat beneath a Bodhi tree and is believed to have achieved enlightenment, thus escaping the repeating cycle of reincarnation: involving birth, life, death and rebirth. Being this is an important day for the Buddhists, why not have some Starbucks cups with Bodhi trees on them in December as well. This would be a great way to educate people about the various religious traditions among us and maybe even build religious tolerance, which is so badly needed in our world.

For Muslims, Eid al-Adha is a significant annual Islamic observance for many Muslims around the world. It is also known as the Feast of Sacrifice or Festival of Sacrifice or Day of Sacrifice as it commemorates Ibrahim’s (Abraham) willingness to sacrifice his son to God. Eid al-Adha is a happy occasion that many Muslims celebrate. It is around the 10th to the 13th days of the Islamic month of Dhu al-Hijjah (or Dhul Hijja). This is the twelfth and final month in the Islamic calendar. It is a very sacred month in the Islamic calendar, one in which Hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca) takes place. It is a time marked by special prayers and many Muslims gather for special prayer services. Many people also visit family and friends, exchange greetings and gifts, and make donations to the poor. It is also a time for forgiveness and compassion. Doesn’t that sound a lot like Christians at Christmas? At Christmas don’t people gather for special prayer services, visit family and friends, and exchange greetings and gifts?

In 2006, 2007, and 2008, Eid al-Adha was celebrated in December. These holy days have left December, but will return in about three decades. Why not have some Starbucks cups commemorating this Islamic festival during the month when it is celebrated. This would be a great way to educate people about Islam especially during a time in history when Islamophobia is rampant. Why not?

We can get so caught up in political correctness or the mentality that we might offend non-Christians if we celebrate Christmas publicly. These festivals should be celebrated publicly and acclaimed with pride. I am not referring to just the Christian festivals but all religious festivals. Instead of being afraid to offend someone, companies such as Starbucks, should be willing to acknowledge these festivals when they occur and their cups should acknowledge the festival of whichever religious celebration is occurring. Maybe I’m being naive, I don’t know. Maybe this is easier said than done, but it seems to me that this would be a way to educate people about the various religions of the world and a way to build religious tolerance rather than contributing to fear and resentment of other religious traditions.