Christmas Party or Holiday Party?

Growing up in a small East Tennessee mountain town in the 1930s long before TV, computers, the Internet, smart phones and the like, young boys found amusement in a lot of different ways. One way to have “fun” was to poke a stick in a wasp nest.

It only took one time for me to realize that the wasps get very angry when their nest is disturbed and that no matter how fast you could run the wasps were faster.

I get the  impression that Rickey Hall, the vice chancellor for Diversity and Inclusion at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, likes to symbolically poke a stick into wasp nests to see what happens. When he announced “guidelines” for “holiday” parties recently he found out. The wasps are still swarming, many calling not only for his ouster but also for UT Chancellor Jimmy Cheek to resign.

Like many, my first reaction to Hall’s suggestion that campus groups make sure their “holiday party is not a Christmas party in disguise,” that may include “games with religious and cultural themes” bordered on outrage.

But on further reflection, I think he may be right. But I would change it to say a “Christmas party is not a holiday party in disguise.” How many so-called Christmas parties are really about celebrating the birth of Jesus? In my experience, not many outside of specifically religious celebrations. Christmas parties typically involve a lot of merriment, drinking and even at some gift-giving, but at what point do the revelers stop and consider the true meaning of Christmas?

Outside of organized religion, Christmas for many people has become a purely secular holiday. For the retail business, it is a time to make money and the exploitation of Christmas starts weeks ahead of time. Santa Claus is not really a religious figure, even though the concept was based on St. Nicholas, a fourth century bishop who gave secret gifts to the poor.

In the Catholic Church, such things as singing Christmas carols or saying “merry Christmas” are discouraged during Advent. You are supposed to wait at least until Christmas Eve before singing “Silent Night,” “Joy to the World,” or any other carols. Until then we sing “O Come Emmanuel” and other Advent songs. Outside the church we are bombarded daily by Christmas music everywhere, from the media to piped-in music in supermarkets.

While I certainly would not support banning true Christmas celebrations by religious groups, I think it makes a lot of sense to get rid of the fiction that most of the big bashes at this time of year are “Christmas parties.”

I think that Hall has done Christians a service by reminding us that Christmas is not about revelry but about the birth of the man we believe to be the Son of God.

UT fortunately did not fire Hall for his suggestion, but merely “counseled” him. And to make sure he doesn’t poke anymore wasp nests, they took away his control of his website. Now everything he wants to post will have to be channeled through Margie Nichols, vice chancellor for Communications. So in effect the university has chosen to muzzle Hall.

I think that a university’s position should be to praise Hall, not censor him, and let him continue to stir up controversy and bring issues out for public discussion.

In my years as a reporter, writer and editor in the news business, I tried to adhere to the saying, “Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” I think that’s a good motto for a university as well.

A final thought: We hear a lot of people saying they want to “put Christ back into Christmas.” In other words, they want to combat the secularization and commercialization of Christmas and make it once again a purely religious holiday.

One way to do that would be to quit labeling secular parties as “Christmas parties.” Maybe that’s how Hall should have couched his messaged.


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