Aaron R. Davis
The holiday season never goes by without me thinking at least once of the walkout that happened my freshman year of high school. It was the first time I’d ever seen a protest up close, and it was probably the first thing that really solidified my cynicism in humanity.
I grew up in one of the most affluent suburban counties in the state of Illinois. The holiday season of 1990 was fast approaching — my first Christmas at high school — and apparently the school, which had been founded in 1964, was not going to follow its annual tradition of putting a Christmas tree over the awning at the main entrance for the season.
The reason for this was officially that my area — and in particular my school — had seen a growing influx of non-Christians over the years. I don’t know what the impetus was; maybe someone took issue with the religious symbol over a secular school. I remember not really thinking much about the decision at the time. It didn’t bother me; I had a Christmas tree at home. But other people … wow, people were pissed.
And you know what kids are often pissed off about? Whatever their parents tell them to be pissed off about. I know, I know. Kids are all rebellious and shit. But not as much as they think. You ever talk to a kid and they start espousing advanced-yet-backwards religious and political views, and you just know that they’re parroting what they’ve heard their parents say? This was that, written over nearly half of the student body.
People were so mad. Mad enough that they actually started to take out their hostility on the non-Christian kids. And the teachers. The day of the big winter assembly, a teacher of mine who was Jewish sat before the whole class, close to tears, and told us how students had been shoving miniature Christmas trees in her face, spitting at her, calling her anti-Semitic slurs and had created such an air of bitterness that she was literally afraid to go to the assembly for fear that someone would push her down the bleachers.
The reaction mystified me, a naïve 14 year-old, but I understand it better now: people took it as an attack on their identity. I felt differently; I saw it as tolerant. Actually, nothing quite so idealistic; I took it as simply polite. Imagine having a symbol of a religious observance standing above the door of an institution you had to enter every day; it would probably make you feel excluded and unwelcome.
Look, maybe you being unwilling or unable to imagine that the whole world isn’t exactly the same as you makes other people feel bad sometimes, and maybe you should just stop walking around like an asshole, secure in your assumption that everyone is the same as you and if they’re not, they should be marginalized and shouted down.
Notice that in these situations no one ever says “Okay, well, there are students of other religions at this school, so let’s decorate the archway with some of their symbols, too.” No: it’s either Christmas, or the war on Christmas.
Back in 1990, you never heard idiots dribbling off about the made-up war on Christmas. I never heard anyone get all pissed off about the phrase “Happy Holidays” until I had graduated high school. When I was a kid, I never had the annoyance of associating the holiday season with people spinning into a rage at not being able to push their beliefs on the whole world because of their vaunted tradition.
That holiday season of 1990, I learned something about tradition.
At the winter assembly, an assistant principal dressed as Santa Claus announced a compromise: a holiday tree in the lobby, with people of all faiths asked to contribute decorations representing their beliefs. There was a huge wave of boos in response to this appeal for reason. And then the walkout happened. About a thousand students walked out in anger, took to the front lawn and then started a chant: “We want the tree.”
I was not among the students who walked out. I thought the whole thing was stupid. I thought all of the kids walking out were making an obnoxious stand against the fact that they lived in a world of infinite diversity, and not acknowledging that fact was — and is — petty, small, cowardly and weak. But mostly I thought kids were using it as an excuse to miss class.
Those idiots had no idea what to do. They chanted, then they walked three miles — in the December cold — over towards the town’s other high school. When they were turned back by a police blockade, they came back to our school, sang Christmas carols and stood on the awning waving their stupid miniature trees. Then the cops came and there was a fight. Property damage, police interaction and in the end they got their tree … and then no one said anything else about it. No one celebrated, no one triumphed, no one even openly gloated. And then the world was changed forever. Except it wasn’t. It was a thousand kids pitching a fit until they got their stupid way.
The whole thing made the news. My Dad called me that night and asked if I had walked out or not. I hadn’t; I just went through the rest of my day. “Would I be in trouble if I had?” I asked.
“Not if you believed in what you were doing,” my Dad told me. “If you really believed in it, I would have understood, as long as you didn’t hurt anybody. But if you were just using it as an excuse to get out of class, I’d feel differently.”
He asked me what exactly people were so mad about. “Tradition,” I answered.
That’s what everyone kept saying. Tradition. They didn’t like tradition being disrespected. But seeing that disorganized mess, this mob who knocked over police barriers and started hitting each other, that was the first time I knew that some people hide behind the word tradition. That some people use it to justify distrust and hatred and selfishness. To some people, tradition is a fear of change. And ideals are simply an excuse to get out of class.
That lesson, and the cynical distrust of crowds, is probably the best gift I got that year.
Aaron R. Davis lives in a cave at the bottom of the ocean with his eyes shut tight and his fingers in his ears. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.