The Secularization of Christmas Isn't Just Okay — It's Great

Good Tidings Great JoyStart your engines, folks, the War on Christmas is here again! This time it's Sarah Palin leading the charge with her new book: Good Tidings and Great Joy: Protecting the Heart of Christmas. Released a couple of weeks ago, the book is apparently — brace yourself, this is shocking — really, really awful. The Daily Beast's Candida Moss actually read the damn thing (bless her heart) and came away with a whole lot of nothing.

"Ultimately," Moss wrote in her review, "this is a Christmas of no-bake cookies, half-baked theology, and pre-packaged Christmas stories."

By way of the "half-baked theology," Moss said, the former Vice Presidential candidate at one point talks about about placing a menorah on her Christmas table every year to "acknowledge Christianity's Judeo-Christian roots." That bit made me laugh out loud. God, she's an idiot.

But back to the War on Christmas.

By my read, the War on Christmas has two main tentacles, or assumptions:

1. Christmas is becoming a secular holiday.

2. People are forcing it into secularization by killing off all mention of Christ.

Okay, first of all, Number 1? Flat-out true.

Christmas is becoming a secular holiday. Not for everyone, of course, but for some. Maybe even for many. Definitely for me. I love Christmas — the trees, the lights, the gift giving, all of it — but I took the Christ out of my Christmas a long time ago. Other than telling my daughter about the wonderful little legend of Jesus' birth in a stable in Bethlehem, my version of Christmas is a season of entirely nonreligious traditions and celebrations. Sure, those celebrations are rooted in my Christian heritage, and I wholly acknowledge that. (The same way Palin acknowledges her religion's Jewish roots with a menorah.) But do I attach some deeper personal meaning to Christmas? No, not at all. You could say I am a secular Christian in the same way some of my friends are secular Jews or secular Hindus. They'll probably always celebrate Hanukkah and Diwali, but does that mean they actually believe in God, Brahman, or that dude with the elephant head? Uh, no.

So, yes, Fox News, I'll give you No. 1. But you lose me at No. 2.

Apart from some civic-minded folks trying to make their public spaces more inclusive of other cultures by removing nativity scenes and the like, no one is forcing Christmas into secularization. Yes, mentions of Christ are dropping like flies. But that's not because of injuries sustained in any damn war. It's because more and more Americans — more than 20 percent of us — are nonreligious. Christmas is becoming more secular because we are becoming more secular.

The holiday isn't dying. It's evolving.

And isn't that a good thing? Would Fox News rather we secularists stopped celebrating Christmas altogether? I wonder how Sarah Palin would feel if a quarter of her family and friends stopped showing up to her annual Christmas party? I wonder how all those corporations and business owners and stock brokers would feel if we stopped spending millions of our dollars on colored lights, blow-up Santas and gifts for our loved ones every year?

No, Fox News, I won't be putting the Christ back into my Christmas. Ever. But if my family and friends will let me, I'll continue to lug home pine trees from the local Christmas tree lot and obscure all but the scent of those trees with a heinous number of Christmas ornaments. I'll hang the gorgeous, envy-inducing Christmas stockings my mother knitted for each member of my family. I'll listen to the Christmas carols my grandmother used to play on the piano when I was a child. With my husband, daughter, parents, in-laws, siblings, nieces, nephews and friends always on my mind, I'll wrap Christmas presents and watch Christmas movies and read Christmas books and bake Christmas cookies and attend Christmas parties. I'll do it all.

And in doing so, I will indeed "protect the heart of Christmas." It won't be Palin's exact version of Christmas, of course. But it will be Christmas just the same. And it will be great.

Put Your Hands Up, and Step Away from the Ideology

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So, remember when Glenn Beck's The Blaze accused me of injecting the name of a liberal website called Media Matters into a Girl Scouts book I wrote? And how the story prompted a minor shit storm when Fox News decided to feature the issue on two different segments, the Grapevine and Fox & Friends?

And then remember how then I wrote a response on this blog, mostly to clarify for the conservative newsies that I was not the droid they were looking for?

Last week was fun, wasn't it?

Well, I had kind of assumed the good times were behind us and that the bevy of rabid over-reactions — which included, but were not limited to, someone calling me "a notorious atheist who infiltrated the Girl Scouts" — were in the past. But, thanks to the Lord Almighty, it's not over yet.

On Tuesday, The Blaze published a follow-up story: Author Denies Inserting Media Matters Reference into Girl Scouts Book. The reader response was not nearly as plentiful as it had been to the first story, but the level of vitriol did not disappoint. One Blaze reader likened me to a serial killer.

"Wendy Thomas Russell, the author with ink-stained fingers, said 'It wasn’t me!" wrote this particular reader, whose moniker is Spandamonkey. "Notice the three names, just like a serial killer."

Please tell me Long Beach Press-Telegram columnist Tim Grobaty is not the only one getting a kick out of this.

Honestly, the name-calling doesn't just amuse me — it fascinates me. As my husband said, “The fact that conservatives are so up in arms because of one link in one book shows how fragile people consider their own values. If conservative values are so frail that they can be completely undermined by exposure to a single slightly progressive website, those conservative values can't be very strong.”

See why I married that guy?

All kidding aside — and, believe me, I've done a lot of kidding in the last couple of days — there are a couple things about this dust-up that really do concern me:

First, it concerns me that the Girl Scouts, a national organization that promotes honor, leadership and citizenship, is being stereotyped as liberal and dangerous to conservative ideals. I worked on three books for the Girl Scouts. I know how stringent the group's guidelines are. I know how hard editors worked to make sure they were being sensitive and fair and true to the Girl Scout’s philosophy and founder every step of the way. The fact that one reference to one  website was made in one book — and it slipped under the GSA radar — does not a conspiracy make. Far from it.

It also concerns me that, despite the amazing opportunities and self-esteem girls receive from the Girl Scouts, parents are now threatening to pull their kids out of the organization en masse. And why exactly? Because they're afraid their kids might see the name of a website? Because they think they might actually — gasp! — look at it and see what it says? Oh no! Crash! Bam! Boom! They saw! They saw! Now they're ruined little whores!

Let's face it, conservative parents are not the only ones who are guilty of running away and hiding their kids from things they don't agree with. Liberals do it all the time, too. Sheltering our kids from political and religious views that scare us is universal. And, yet, it’s so much of what I’m trying to move us away from. As my smarty-pants husband said, if we parents really believe in the strength of own values and beliefs, then we ought to know they’ll compete well in the marketplace of ideas. We ought to be confident enough to let our kids see the world as it really is, and people as they really are.

I'm not saying all liberals should go out and buy NRA subscriptions, or that conservatives need to subscribe to Planned Parenthood newsletters. But do remember: Kids will always benefit from exposure to different ideas, beliefs and ways of life — as long as parents are there to provide a guiding light.

Trust me, they can handle it. And, you know what? We can, too.

Confessions of a ‘Notorious Atheist Who Inflitrated the Girl Scouts’

A woman writes a book for the Girl Scouts of the USA and then, a couple of years later, authors a website about nonreligious parenting. Which one ends up as fodder for the conservative media giant Fox News? Why, the Girl Scouts, of course!

Life is downright wackadoo, I tell you.

So here’s the scoop:

About three years ago, I applied for and won a contract to write a book for the Girl Scouts. My job was to create an 80-page, magazine-style book on media literacy for middle-school-age scouts as part of the organization's Journey Series. The book, I was told, needed to be creative, fun and educational, but I also was given numerous requirements and guidelines. This was the Girl Scouts, after all. They had strict standards.

Titled MEdia, the book set out to educate girls about how the media works, encourage them to examine the messages they hear, and show them how they, themselves, can use the media to shape a better world. In other words, we wanted to ask the girls to put the ME in media. Get it? The book was all about boosting girls' self-esteem, and I loved being involved. I kept thinking how much MEdia would have benefited my own awkward, adolescent, 13-year-old self, had it been available 25 years ago.

Anyway, after sending the manuscript to my editors at the Girls Scouts, I was given two more contracts — one to write a senior-level book called BLISS, and another to write a handbook for adult volunteers. All three books went through various layers of editing; but other than a few rewrites, I was mostly uninvolved. The collection came out in December 2010, and the Girl Scouts began using the books in earnest this past fall.

Fast forward to last week when I found my name in a story on The Blaze, a conservative blog founded by Glenn Beck. In the Dec. 27 post, writer Billy Hallowell accuses the Girl Scouts of showing liberal bias by including in MEdia a reference to Media Matters, a website devoted to debunking misinformation by conservative news media — primarily Fox News. (As you can imagine, Beck’s not a big fan.) Hallowell states, "one wonders why the book’s authors, Wendy Thomas Russell and Sarah Goodman [who contributed several profiles to MEdia], would include this as the sole source for getting 'the word out about media misinformation.'"

Here’s the page. The Media Matters reference is at the bottom.

The Blaze story, which was picked up by The Drudge Report and a handful of other websites, suggested that the Girl Scouts were acting irresponsibly and insidiously — slanting the news and feeding it to young, vulnerable girls. And the response to the story was ferocious. The Blaze got more than 400 comments from its readers, some of whom searched my name on the web, found Relax, It's Just God, and began printing that I was an atheist. [Read: Shitty Person.]

One woman on Twitter suggested that @WendyRussell (Hey, that’s me!) was being fed information by @AlGore. Another woman left a review on Amazon.com with the headline: “Wendy Thomas Russell is a notorious atheist who infliltrated the Girl Scouts.” She went on to write: "Why would she be allowed to promote her beliefs on an organization that specifically states they serve God? Why would she place her daughter in an organization that serves God when her entire life is devoted to the ridicule of God?"

Wow, right?

It's as though this woman believed that thinking some thoughts automatically made those thoughts true. (Hmmm, where have I seen that happen before?) Unfortunately, she didn't stay on my website long enough to read even my most recent post. It was on the pitfalls of stereotyping nonbelievers; funny, that.

Meanwhile, according to The Blaze, a spokeswoman for the Girl Scouts agreed to investigate how Media Matters came to be included in the book, and promised a second printing would delete the Media Matters reference. By then, though, the “scandal” had raised the hackles of the folks over at Fox News. On Dec. 29, Fox ran at least two segments about MEdia. You can watch the Grapevine segment here and the Fox & Friends segment here. [Update: You can also watch this, which ran on the Jan. 7 edition of Fox News Watch.] Fox called for all current versions of the book to be removed from bookshelves immediately.

Comedy Central's Indecision later satirized the Fox-Girl Scouts showdown under the deadpan headline: Fox News Uncovers Girl Scouts Plot to Destroy America. Sadly, Steven Colbert has yet to weigh in.

***

So how did Media Matters end up in the book I wrote? The truth is, I have no idea.

My final draft read as follows:

The Internet is a breeding ground for “urban legends,” which are false stories told as if true, and then spread quickly. Next time you receive a txt or a forwarded e-mail about something terrible that happened to someone, try to confirm it. The fact-checking site snopes.com investigates everything from urban legends to “news” articles and posts its findings.

That's it. Just Snopes.

No offense to Media Matters, but I didn’t even know the group existed until last week. And no offense to the Girl Scouts, but, even if I had known about the group, I never would have included it in the book. Media Matters' slant isn’t only evident in the content, it’s spelled out in the freaking masthead.

So, yeah, not sure what happened there, or who made it happen. But I must confess that I’ve found the whole ordeal highly entertaining. It’s hard not to be a little proud that my little ol’ Girl Scout book is getting so much attention. It’s hard also, not be flattered when someone calls you “notorious” or injects you into the middle of a good, old-fashioned conspiracy theory.

Plus, I’ve always wanted to have something in common with Mark Twain — and now I do.

We both have banned books.