Community, Essays

I learned to say “Merry Christmas” in New Bedford

A display at Clasky Common – just in front of JA Parker School – celebrates Christmas culture around the world.

Way back when – more years than I care to remember or even admit to – I was a kid at John Avery Parker Elementary School not so far away from Groundwork! at County and Parker Streets in New Bedford. It may only be a distance of about 6-8 blocks from there to here –  1213 Purchase Street – but in between I’ve traveled many miles in many ways.

Which is why I now think it’s okay to say, “Merry Christmas” – even though in the 4th grade, I learned it wasn’t okay.

During that auspicious year, at Christmastime, we all exchanged gifts in class. The name I drew happened to be a friend of mine – a cool chap whose name now escapes me, so let’s just call him John.

When the day came to give each other presents, I got up and walked over to John and presented him with my gift. And then he did something astonishing.

He turned it down.

A Teaching & Learning Moment

The entire classroom fell silent. I stood there unsure of what to do or say as some 30 or so kids looked on at this awkward, silent tableau.

John eventually said, “I can’t accept Christmas gifts,” with an air of ennui and alarm.

Finally, our teacher addressed me and said that I was to sit down because John couldn’t accept Christmas gifts. This was conveyed with her usual stentorian delivery accompanied by the implicit suggestion that, like all the names of the planets and what 9 x 8 equaled, this was something I ought to have known.

I didn’t – but know now that John couldn’t accept a Christmas gift because John was Muslim.

And all these years later, I can’t help but think that what an incredible learning moment our class could have enjoyed if our teacher had told us that and encouraged John and myself to talk about what it meant to be Muslim at Christmas in New Bedford when someone hands you a Chia pet.

I held this teacher in high regard – and still do. So, I won’t write her name in this context because she was otherwise an excellent educator – one of my top five.

But she flunked this teaching moment – and it may be because when it comes to expressing “Merry Christmas,” things went haywire along the way to the North Pole.

The ‘War’ on Christmas

That’s largely because of the people who constantly seek to divide rather than unite us. You know who I’m talking about. People like Bill O’Reilly, whose “No Spin Zone” stoked the Yule fires of resentment year after year after year (until he was fired from FOX News for being an alleged sexual predator).

I assume FOX has found someone else to take his place and get folks all worked up because “some liberal Grinch is trying to destroy Christmas as a prelude to Armageddon” – or whatever the hell those people talk about. It’s too stupid to follow let alone understand.

But as time went on, I did understand something fundamental about that encounter in the 4th grade. And it was this: neither John nor I were wrong in how we behaved. We were just being ourselves.

I’m not in the 4th grade anymore – and I’m not afraid to say “Merry Christmas” for fear of the room going silent. I say it because I sincerely wish goodwill to the person or persons I’m saying it to – and hope they feel the same toward me however they may express the sentiment behind the words.

I say “Merry Christmas” because I grew up in a state that was 51% Catholic and overwhelmingly Christian. I say it not because I’m particularly religious, but it comes with the born and bred package and to fail to acknowledge that would be dishonest. “Happy Holidays” would deny the person I’m saying it to an invitation into the space between us by failing to provide any definition of who I am or where I come from.

That space is waiting to be filled by engaging in dialogue – as Pope Francis recently pointed out, and which was brought to my attention by…a Buddhist!

(Yes, there’s a Buddhist at Groundwork! And probably Christians, maybe Muslims, definitely a Pagan, or two or three…)

Pope Francis said, “The security of faith does not make us motionless or close us off, but sends us forth to bear witness and to dialogue with all people.”

You can’t do that by holding your tongue.

And saying “Merry Christmas” isn’t – and never should be – a declaration of war.

It should be an invitation to bond.

Steven Froias

Steven Froias

Mad Man at Groundwork!
Steven Froias is Groundwork!'s resident blogger. He sleeps in the boiler room at 1213 Purchase Street.
Steven Froias