NPR just posted an article discussing a study released recently. The study examined the heroism and selflessness exhibited by the employees of the Taj Hotel of Mumbai during a terrorist attack in November of 2008.

Here’s a link to the article on NPR.

Because many of the hotel employees stayed behind to aid their guests at risk to themselves, many of them losing their own lives as a result, a Harvard business professor concluded that this level of nobility in the face of violence and chaos was deviant enough from standard human behavior to warrant a study, which is quite sad.

This is not to say that I disagree with the need for a study or the possible benefits of doing such. I very much identify with the need to understand people’s behaviors and the sources they are derived from. To know ourselves, we must know others. This is an important maxim to me both as a writer and as a human.

But still, how sad that the selflessness of these middle-class Indian folks was so notedly different from what we would expect from people in as hysterical an event as a terrorist attack that a study had to be done to figure out why. Nevermind the idea that perhaps humans are possessing of a quality of inherent bravery, generosity, and solidarity with others in generally sticky situations. It’s almost as if the idea that people are innately good without expectation of reciprocity is just complete tosh.

The American culture is not the only one that produces uncharitable people. But American culture is the only one–at least that I know of–that not only condones self-servitude, but expects it, frankly, demands it. I think non-American people may not see as much of a need for a study like this one because the behavior suddenly isn’t as foreign and strange when you remove the layer of American ambition that clouds our entire perspective. Here, we laud qualities like ambition, work ethic, scrappiness; we praise people with cutthroat sensibilities for “getting theirs.” Other cultures still value charity, generosity, empathy, respect, compassion–all things from which Americans are divorced, at least when it comes to relationships outside the immediate family structure.

The people taking this study may think that they’ve learned something about Indian culture, or about the psychology of heroism or whatever they choose to call it. But I’m a little dismayed, because it speaks volumes about Americans that there was a need for this study at all.

I’m reposting this partly because I thought it was interesting in itself and partly to talk about Christmas. I know this is a sensitive subject for everyone. Bear with me.

I am a very spiritual person, mindful of my “religion.” I question absolutely everything. I wouldn’t necessarily call myself Christian but that doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate (real) Christian values or love Jesus. I mean, really, who couldn’t love Jesus, knowing all we know about him, not even as God but as a human being?

That all being said, I don’t celebrate Christmas in many religious ways anymore because I think the holiday has evolved. Let me be clear: I said evolved, not devolved. I don’t think there’s anything missing from Christmas. Because for me, Christmas is about charity, kindness, warmth, togetherness, thoughtfulness, compassion. All things that are exemplified in the metaphor of Santa Claus, and all things that we celebrate when we honor Jesus, if that’s how we celebrate.

I get irked when non-Christian people complain about the words “Merry Christmas.” That’s like getting mad because someone said “Bless You” instead of “Gezundheit” or “Happy Halloween” instead of “Happy Non-Denominational Holiday celebrating death as a part of life and honoring our lost loved ones.”

There is so much hate speech out there, I mean, real, divisive hate speech, you’re really upset that someone had the audacity to wish you good tidings on a holiday you don’t happen to celebrate? The fact is, Christmas isn’t a strictly Christian holiday anymore. So when you reject that “Merry Christmas,” what I really see you doing is thumbing your nose at kindness and good will.

I do think it’s good that Christmas is a time when we celebrate the spirit of giving. I love this season for that reason. But it’s more than that. It’s almost like Christmas gives Americans permission to be charitable, kind, and perhaps a little self-sacrificing. We spend all year doing nothing but helping ourselves, only to console ourselves by giving to food drives or pledging to NPR or donating to Goodwill or buying a cow for an African village once December rolls around. Christmas is the only time of year that it’s not completely bizarre to be a person who cares about others. Even though the story of the Taj Hotel didn’t have anything to do with Christmas, it still reminded me that in other cultures, being generous is natural, not behavior warranting careful analysis and data collection. I’ve met many a “Christian” that I would not want to share my Christmas with–and many a non-Christian that know exactly what this holiday is about. So I challenge everyone reading this to celebrate Christmas by doing someone a favor, giving someone a compliment, donating to a charity, or lighting a candle in honor of Hanukkah, not as a religious gesture but as a show of solidarity with others. And further I challenge you to continue that spirit of giving after the lights and the tree have come down.


2 Responses to A study that shows what Christmas is about.

  1. Linda says:

    I wonder, where is the line drawn between going along with whatever dominant way of expressing happy wishes is, and taking part in a language that may exclude you. Sure, it’s easier to say “Bless You” instead of “You sneezed. I care.” but does it serve to perpetuate the existence of a deity because that’s where the root of the phrase is from?
    You’ve raised lots of great questions. Starting to read the rest of your blog and I love the content so far.

    Like or Dislike: 1  0

    • Shaughnessy Conley Speirs says:

      Thanks, Linda! I appreciate the feedback and I hope you continue to like what you read.

      I do think you raise a good point. The fact that “Christ” is right there in Christmas I think puts people off. But, historically, almost every tradition we have associated with Christmas–barring the nativity story–was in place long before the holiday had that name. The ornamented Christmas tree, stockings, so much of it actually came from a pagan solstice celebration that was later renamed. So now, Christmas is what we call it, but the holiday we’re celebrating is largely a non-Christian one. It was a celebration of the changing of the season. And I also think many Christians would tell you that Christmas doesn’t really perpetuate the existence of the deity, since it’s become something that’s largely–as it originally was!–not about Christ anymore. Some lament it, I like its sort of newfound inclusivity.

      Like or Dislike: 0  0

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