Guests of the Inner Sanctum

Humor: Kevin Purcell on France and Inter-religious Relationships

Happy New Year!

I know we don’t know each other, so maybe that came across as a bit shallow, but what is a society if not the reflex regurgitation of scripted, unfelt niceties? Because what’s the alternative, really? Take away the surface pretense of civility and good feeling and what do you have? You have France. Sure, you get to be sullen and dreary and “real,” but you also get crushing existential angst, ponderous black-and-white movies about death, Germanophobia and compulsory smoking laws. Nothing will eat up your day faster than actually considering how you feel about your fellow man. I’m an American. I’m chipper because I have things to do.

I have slightly less to do now that the holidays have passed. Unlike previous years where I’ve spent my post-Christmas season lost in a combination of elastic-waist pants and self-loathing, I’m trying to be more positive. I’m taking the calendar freedom between now and the whirling insanity that is Presidents Day to reflect on the festive season by asking myself some serious questions, like: what does Christmas actually mean? Have I succumbed to the temptations of commercialization and acquisitiveness? What must the holiday look like to those who don’t celebrate it? Did I really eat an entire tin of Danish butter cookies?

With the exception of the last one, the questions were inspired by the novel experience I had this year of experiencing the holidays in the company of my Jewish girlfriend. I was astonished and embarrassed to find that, for all my self-congratulatory liberality and open-mindedness, I’d thus far lacked the imagination to really consider my own cultural assumptions. Nothing quite stops you in your tracks like someone, with genuine curiosity, simply asking Why? Sometimes a combination of conventional wisdom, family lore and Wikipedia are enough to cobble together a satisfactory response to, say, why I’ve decided to dress up a captive pine tree like an Amsterdam prostitute just so I can watch it slowly die in my living room. Other questions, like say mincemeat pie, simply defy the human capacity to explain.

I’m happy to say the flow of information went in both directions. I learned on my own about how deeply Christian America is as a country. Culturally I mean, not necessarily religiously. We can say there’s room for everyone, but sometimes it requires an actual effort to make that space a tangible thing. And from her I learned that Hanukkah is not the Jewish celebration of the birth of Jesus. In fact, I checked their whole holiday schedule and almost none of them have anything to do with Jesus at all. The only one I’m not sure about is Passover. It happens right around Easter, so there’s bound to be some overlap. It only makes sense.

I’ve learned a lot and, in this period of new year reflection, I’m learning more. Not just seeking answers but, stripped of some of my unthinking cultural arrogance, how to ask the right questions. Like: not if, but why I ate an entire tin of Danish butter cookies. I knew it wasn’t a good idea. And I can’t actually like them that much. Nobody does. You think you do, but let me ask you: have you ever seen anyone eat a Danish butter cookie out of a tin in July? Like hell you have. If we really cared for them, there’d be a year-round market is all I’m saying.

And see, writing that last paragraph just took 45 minutes out of my life. I’m reconsidering my whole New Year approach. It kind of proves my point about the French: nothing productive ever comes from thinking.

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