Located next to the Buddhist temple on Park Boulevard, Buddha’s Light Bookstore has a large selection of books, accessories, and statues. Inside, Charles Hardy, 43, works around a Buddhist shrine in the center of the store. Born in San Francisco, Hardy came to San Diego ten years ago and converted to Buddhism from the Episcopal Church two years ago. He explains the Buddhist view of Christmas with the clarity of a professional spokesman.
“Jesus would be considered a bodhisattva in the Buddhist perspective. A bodhisattva is an enlightened being who can go to nirvana but chooses to stay in this world and assist others in being enlightened themselves. Christmas is totally OK. Actually, I can’t generalize for all Buddhist faiths, but in general, I would say that Buddhism has no difficulty at all with the concepts and practices of Christianity, Christmas included. Any other religious faiths and practices are OK with Buddhists. We have no problem with them.
“At the temple here, we have a holiday open house. We invite people in for a kind of Christmas celebration here in the neighborhood, to meet and greet everyone. Christmas is just fine with me as a Buddhist. I don’t decorate my home, because my wife and I never decorated our home for Christmas in the first place, but we do send out Christmas cards.”
Among the Buddhist faiths Hardy spoke of is Nichren Daishonin Buddhism. Brenda Omusi, a client at North Park’s Controversial Bookstore, practices this brand of Buddhism. Originally a Seventh-Day Adventist, Omusi is a convert. “There’s different types of Buddhism, but this is true Buddhism. We don’t have a temple in San Diego anymore, although we have a community center. But I have an altar in my home, and I recite my mantra every morning and evening.”
Omusi does not believe in Christmas, but she does celebrate at Christmastime. “I enjoy the season. I don’t worship the Christ-like thing, but I enjoy the presents. I give presents and send cards that read ‘Season’s Greetings’ and things like that.” If Christmas is one religion trying to impose itself on everyone else, Omusi doesn’t feel it. “I think that years ago it used to be like that, but not anymore — at least with the people I hang out with.”
The Hare Krishna Temple on Grand Avenue in Pacific Beach is the center for one of San Diego’s most visible Hindu sects. Badri Narayan Dass directs all the temples of Southern California, although he resides primarily in Pacific Beach. “That’s my Krishna name. I’m a servant of all the other devotees. Officially, I oversee temples in Los Angeles, Laguna, Boise, Denver, and Utah. We also have another temple in Encinitas, and we’re opening one in Escondido. I’m a member of the governing body.”
Narayan converted to Hinduism from the Episcopal Church. As he describes his life and beliefs, he speaks with a cheerfulness that is contagious. “The soul is eternal — but I’m actually 49! I met my spiritual master in 1969, and I took vows as a full-time student monk in 1970.”
Like Buddhists, Hare Krishna members have a place of respect for Jesus, while not viewing Him as the key to salvation. “We recognize Jesus as an avatar. ‘Avatar’ means ‘one who comes down.’ We accept Him exactly as He says He is, the Son of God, and that He’s come to preach the pure love of God. So we always have a nice celebration on His birthday, the 25th.”
That celebration does not include Christmas decorations. “We are coming from an Eastern tradition, so we don’t want to steal their thunder! But we give presents. What is it they say? ‘You can take the man out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the man.’ We’re all raised in America, so it’s a traditional time to give gifts to friends, family, and children, and people’s families get together. It’s a tradition that we’re raised with in this culture.
“I don’t want to minimize it. We do respect Jesus. We’d say that we’re sincerely following Him.” While the Krishna path may include following some of the teachings of Jesus, there are other traditions of Christmas that they reject. “We’re not violent. So we’re not into all those poor birds being roasted. Toss out the Christmas goose! [He laughs.] And, of course, there’s the stock answers about commercialism. I mean, you know, Christ and Christmas. We do agree that it’s not just a time of festive consumerism, but it’s supposed to be a time of reflection and rededication to higher spiritual principles.”
Up the stairs in a small building on Park Boulevard, San Diego’s Taoist Sanctuary offers classes in tai chi and meditation and philosophy. Bill Helm, 51, has been the director and senior instructor for 12 years and has lived in San Diego since 1970. “I was raised as a Methodist and sort of fell out of Methodism in the ’60s and discovered Taoism as a philosophical tradition, then later discovered it as a living tradition, in the sense of practice, where you’re actually doing something rather than sitting around reading a book and thinking about it.”
As Helm describes it, Taoism is more a philosophy and discipline than a religion. “Taoism is a wisdom tradition that emphasizes principles of nature and cosmos and the development of a harmonious relationship for the individual with nature, the cosmos, and society. Traditional Taoism doesn’t have a conversion or salvation approach like Christianity and Buddhism.” In fact, Helm says that one can practice Taoism and still be a member of any religion one chooses. “As far as the Taoist philosophy and practices are concerned, they are not exclusive in terms of where a person may want to find a deity or their particular worship.”
Helm’s description of Christmas from the Taoist perspective is complicated. “A Taoist view of Christmas would focus around the contingency of Christmas and the winter solstice occurring in very close proximity. In the Taoist tradition, the winter solstice is a period of time where the rebirth of the yang, or the light, is observed. That’s the point in the cycle — and Taoism emphasizes natural cycles — where the yang is just being reborn and the yin is at its highest. In a sense, it’s similar to what Christians consider the birth of Jesus to be, in the sense of the birth of the light and the birth of the Savior.”
If anyone is capable of ignoring the commercial hysteria at Christmas, it would be the Taoist. “In general, those aspects have nothing to do with the time and season. Those are evidences of how society has moved away from the natural path and from the deeper path of spirituality.”
American Taoists celebrate Christmas, but it is greatly modified by their Eastern philosophy. “Most people find a certain balance, because in this country you’re not born into a Taoist family in the same sense that the Chinese experience. So people on an individual basis come to some kind of integration of their paths, especially if they’re in a family context, with their beliefs in terms of Taoism, nature, and so on. I think probably most people seem to approach it from the perspective of trying to recognize the spiritual significance of that time of year and put up with the general folderol that comes with it, and, if they have kids, to allow the children to feel a part of rather than apart from it.”
Joe Schloss has been a fixture in North Park for over 50 years. Schloss moved to San Diego from New York City in 1937 at the age of nine, and shortly thereafter, his late father David opened A&B Sporting Goods in North Park. As the current owner, Schloss has been an active member of the school sporting community and Little League as well as a major supplier for many years.
Any kid who played sports in San Diego in the ’50s or ’60s would remember the Schlosses for their friendliness and service. Although he is Jewish, Schloss enjoys Christmas. “I don’t celebrate it at home or send out any cards, but I do decorate the store. It’s nice to be in an area where the spirit of Christmas is strong. It’s a good time of the year. From a business standpoint, I’ve been around the Christmas element since 1946. Naturally, it’s always been a good time of year for the retailer, although our area has changed somewhat. We’re not into the retail business like we used to be because of the shopping centers. From the Jewish faith, I recognize all of my Christian friends who are very involved in the Christmas holiday.
“My dad, Dave, was the Santa Claus in the North Park Toyland Parade for probably 15 or 20 years, and not very many people knew that except for some personal friends. He used to stand at the end of the parade and people would smile and laugh and he would see people and call out their names and they’d look up like, ‘How does that man know my name?’ He had a great time doing that! Whether he was Jewish or gentile, it didn’t matter, he really enjoyed the job.”
Dr. Jefe’s Body Piercing shop would seem a likely place to find alternative religions, but Jeff Fagen, its owner, is a practicing Jew. Raised in Philadelphia, Fagen, 35, has lived in San Diego for 11 years. Fagen describes his Judaism as “somewhere between Reform and Conservative. I’ll go to the synagogue on holidays and Chabad dinners.” Like Schloss, Fagen decorates for Christmas at work while practicing Judaism at home. “Why would I put up a Christmas tree at home? I’ll decorate the store for it, for the majority of the people. It’s a festive season. You know, the Christmas tree came around not because of Christ. It came around from newer civilizations and was adopted in society. Like gift giving — we’ll do a gift exchange here and we’ll have stockings and stocking stuffers here. I have a son, and I’m raising him in the Jewish faith. We celebrate Hanukkah — every night for eight nights — every year.
“Christmas doesn’t bother me at all. Nowadays, it’s so commercialized that it’s really about business. You know, the parents stressing out about money for the gifts for the kids — that’s not really Christmas and what Christmas is. They’re thinking about their children, and the ones who don’t have children are thinking about the parties. Being a business owner, I look forward to Christmas because it’s usually kind of a bonus time of year for me. We’re always busy then.”
One of the local Jewish community’s most visible spokesmen is Morris Casuto, director of the Anti-Defamation League. Casuto, 58, belongs to a Conservative synagogue and, like the other Jews interviewed, doesn’t mind Christmas at all. “I may be a somewhat unusual individual — I happen to love the Christmas season! I probably own close to a dozen Christmas tapes and CDs — not ‘Jingle Bells,’ but the ‘Oh Come All Ye Faithful’ variety. I think it’s among the most beautiful religious music ever written. When I was growing up in New York, before the period when we started calling this the ‘Winter Season,’ it was the ‘Christmas Program,’ and I was in a choir singing Christmas songs at public school. I could still give you a few verses of ‘Adeste Fideles,’ but I could never bring myself to sing the line ‘Christ the Lord.’ I would hum that — it was a little beyond what I was prepared to do.
“I grew up in New York City, and during the winter holiday, students were off and they had term papers to write, and I would use the 42nd Street Library for research and walk down 40 or 50 blocks in Manhattan, and it was a phenomenal experience. Last year, I was back in New York on business, but I had a chance to see the tree again at Rockefeller Center, and it seemed much smaller to me than I remembered it. My family and I have a tendency to go out and find the best-looking Christmas lights we can find around different parts of San Diego.”
Although he enjoys looking at decorated homes, Casuto draws the line when it comes to nativity scenes in public parks. “We have been and continue to be troubled by sectarian religious displays on public property. I understand that there are large numbers of people, almost invariably Christian, who say there is nothing wrong with that. I wouldn’t be surprised if they couldn’t see what’s wrong with that, because to them, it doesn’t indicate that this is a Christian nation. And if it is a Christian nation — and people have said this — that somehow Christians hold a position higher on the ladder than anyone else. We’ve heard individuals say that you can’t be as ethical or moral if you’re not a Christian, and elected officials have said that if you’re not a Christian, you can’t go to heaven, or you’ll go to hell. It doesn’t particularly worry the Jewish community because we’ve been having a dialogue with God for 5700 years! But the impact of an elected official saying that leads one to presume that there’s a possibility that belief will have an impact on how they make their decisions and interact. The Anti-Defamation League went after Senator Lieberman. We basically said, ‘Hey, enough! People aren’t going to be electing you because of your theology. You’ve made your point about who you are — now talk about the issues.’ We got a lot of flak for that. When you’re a member of a majority religious faith in a country, it is easy to see your religious symbols as benign. When you’re a member of a minority religious faith, it is less easy to see that.
“Christmas doesn’t bother me because it is not a religious holiday for me. The mercantile, or business, aspects don’t irritate me — unless Christmas-sale ads start appearing in November, but that’s not my issue. I am troubled by some [public] schools that tend to make it a schoolwide religious function. There are individuals in San Diego who call us from time to time who are concerned about the amount of religious music being played during a winter songfest. There are also teachers who go out of bounds when they talk about their own religious views during Christmastime. But on the whole, I have been brought up to neither fear nor turn my sensitivities away from a holiday that is, in its purest form, extraordinarily beautiful.”
Casuto is careful to explain that this is one issue where he does not necessarily speak for the Jewish community as a whole. “The Jewish community is just like any other community. There are those of extraordinary sensitivity and those who are relaxed enough to say, ‘This is a limited period of time.’
“The majority of individuals living in this country are Christian — I’m very careful not to say that this is a Christian country. It is not a Christian country. It is a country made up of a majority of Christians, but there’s an important and not semantic difference there. It is difficult to avoid Christmas. You go into a store and purchase something and it’s ‘Merry Christmas.’ Some may say back, ‘Thank you and Happy Hanukkah to you,’ but I don’t like that. That seems to be a riposte, like, ‘Ah! Here’s one back!’ Most people don’t mean anything by it. Most people see the December period as Christmastime. It is a holiday of such overwhelming influence and power that even Hanukkah has grown in importance as a counterpost to Christmas. ‘Oh, you get one day of presents? We get seven!’ I don’t know of anyone who really gets seven presents; that’s overkill. Hanukkah is not a secular holiday. It is a holiday that celebrates freedom — freedom from religion or freedom for religion — but it has some very miraculous components that individuals should not overlook. But Christmas will continue to be a holiday of overwhelming importance to the country, both spiritually and financially.”
In Casuto’s opinion, the biggest imposition Christmas has presented to non-Christians has occurred in public schools. “As we become a more sensitive community, understanding that not everyone is a Christian and not everyone is the same type of Christian, Christmas becomes far less intrusive on non-Christian individuals. The point of impact on individuals of non-Christian faiths was basically during school. Why? Because students were captives in schools. Individual shoppers can not shop in a store where they feel ‘pushed’ at religion. You can’t escape Christmas decorations, but that’s not intrusive. Many people go into a supermarket and don’t even see the decorations, because they’re not looking for them. They’re in that store to buy something and get out. Where Christmas was intrusive was in the schools. Increasingly, schools are much more sympathetic and sensitive to the impact on non-Christian students, so it’s not surprising that Christmas is seen in a more benevolent way.
“For good or ill, Christmas has become secularized. I remember being in Indianapolis during a major controversy over a crèche on public property. A number of community leaders came together at the mayor’s office, and I’ll never forget a bishop from one of the Christian denominations there saying, ‘I’m saddened at the degree of animosity between different groups brought on by this controversy, but I must tell you that I’m somewhat aglow at the fact that so many people remembered that Christmas is a religious holiday.’ Now, he was being somewhat sardonic, but it has become so secularized that it has become a much easier holiday to deal with than it used to be. There was a time when everything was closed, I remember. Stores weren’t open. You couldn’t get milk. You couldn’t get gas. The impact of a religious day on the broader community was much greater. Now everything is open almost 365 days a year. So the points of impact are much reduced.”
Casuto doesn’t send out cards, but his reasons are more personal than religious. “Getting a card that’s not even hand-addressed — printed out, and the envelope is printed — I don’t want to presume what the sender intended. I just think it’s odd to send things like that.”
Near the intersection of I-805 and Balboa Avenue in Clairemont is the San Diego Islamic Center. Under its prominent dome is the Abu-Bakr Mosque (the biggest of San Diego’s ten mosques) and various offices, meeting rooms, and a school. Dr. Mohammed Tarabishi, 40, is a dentist by trade and a member of the mosque’s board of trustees.
A native of Syria, Tarabishi moved to San Diego seven years ago. “I lived in Aleppo, close to Turkey. When I came to the U.S., I came to Los Angeles, then I moved to the Bay Area because of my job. After that, I came here because of the school. They have an Islamic school here and I wanted to raise my children in an Islamic environment — I have four daughters. So I moved here for the school and established my life here.”
The Christmas season sometimes falls concurrently with the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. “We follow the lunar calendar, which is different from the solar calendar. The lunar year is 15 days shorter than the solar year, so last year Ramadan came in December. This year, it came 15 days ahead, starting in November. Next year, it will be at the beginning of November. So last year it was at the same time as Christmas, but it moves.”
Muslims also show a great deal of esteem for Jesus. “We consider Jesus, peace be upon Him, as a great prophet of God. He’s one of the five greatest prophets — Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed. He came with the truth, the message of Christianity for His time, and we look upon Him as a prophet of God, but not the Son of God.
“We recognize Christianity as a religion because it is written in our holy book, the Koran. If you read the Koran, you will see more about Jesus Christ, peace be upon Him, and how He would teach His disciples, and we learn from that because He is a prophet of God. I wouldn’t be a Muslim if I didn’t believe in Jesus, Moses, Abraham — all those prophets, because they all came from God.
“We have been ordered to respect the other religions, Christianity, mainly, and Judaism — we call them the People of the Book. We have to respect them and respect their rituals and treat them in a fair way with justice, but we do not participate in such celebrations as Christmas.”
Tarabishi has a strong distaste for mixing Christmas or any religious holiday with business. “My own feeling about all those going crazy in the malls is that this is not religious. This did not even exist in Christianity. Jesus Christ did not ask Christians to go and buy such an amount of gifts and be in debt for the next year and keep paying those bills. I feel like buying so many gifts is something created by man, and it’s not good for the people who cannot afford it.
“I never use religion for business. I respect religion as religion, so I don’t send cards or participate and decorate. Because to celebrate is part of the worship. Celebrating is worshipping, and I’m a Muslim.”
Tarabishi is indifferent to the festivities and decorations that seem all-pervasive at Christmas. “It’s up to them. We respect other religions and their rituals that they celebrate, but we do not participate. In general, in the United States, there is freedom of religion, and most people are open-minded. We have an Introduction to Islam class here every Sunday, and we talk about Christianity and comparative religions. Generally, I don’t see people getting offended. Most people are open-minded.
“Sometimes some of my customers say Merry Christmas, but that does not bother me at all. From his point of view, he is thinking that he is greeting me in a good way. How could I be bothered by that? But it’s my duty to tell him about Islam, because it is a missionary religion, like Christianity. It is the duty of every Muslim to present this to others with no compulsion. We have been ordered to be kind and nice to the other people.”
Paganism, the belief in many gods, is enjoying a resurgence of popularity, and books on paganism can be found in most New Age bookstores in San Diego. Chloe Crosthwaite, 50, works at the Controversial Bookstore in North Park. A resident of Boulevard, Crosthwaite comes to San Diego twice a week to work. She smiles warmly as she describes her beliefs. “I’m Universal, and I draw from all traditions, and I’m interested in all traditions. I think they all have, at their core, basic truths that can help me in my search to find my way back to God, or out of separation. I’m a pagan, meaning to me that I honor that all things are alive, that the earth is alive, and I honor the elements that make up myself as well as everything else that I can see in physical reality.”
Born in Ohio, Crosthwaite came west when she was 25. “I was lucky, because I was raised with metaphysical beliefs all my life. My mother, who I was with until I was 7, was a practicing Christian, but from 7 on, I lived with my father. He did not attend any church, but he had very metaphysical beliefs. So I was raised with that freedom, which I’m thankful for. I’ve always been a spiritual seeker, and I’ve looked into many different traditions and have not found that any one needed to be the one tradition that I follow excusively.
“I celebrate Christmas as part of my Western tradition. I had a very beautiful Christmas celebration last year with my family, but also at a Buddhist monastery. We sang Christmas carols, had a candlelight procession — it was very beautiful.”
Crosthwaite decorates for Christmas, but minimally. “Right now I live in a trailer!” she laughs. “I’m always decorating! At Christmastime I’ll usually bring in a poinsettia, but I didn’t last year. I helped other friends decorate Christmas trees. I’ll put my Christmas cards up from my family.
“I send cards and do a little bit of gift-giving. I try to keep it within my means. I think it’s real harmful to be going out and shopping like crazy. I don’t do any of that. I do very simple gifting. I would say I do gifting all year-round, and what I do at Christmas is a little more oriented towards the kids. I try to keep it a little simpler.”
Although not a practicing Christian, Crosthwaite has thought about what Christmas means to her. “It means bringing in the light — the light in my heart. Love and compassion center for me around Christmas. That would be my focus of the Christmas season, and my understanding of Christmas would be trying to open up my heart more, shedding more light and being more of an instrument for light, on the planet and to those around me.”
Crosthwaite believes that, for most people, something has been lost at Christmas. “I think the focus has become materialistic, and that’s off track from what Christmas and the teachings of Christmas as I understand them are. We’ve been derailed. I think it’s pretty harmful, with the craziness of people going outside of their means with gift buying and having it be about material things. I think gifting is wonderful, but it should be totally within a person’s means, and that isn’t what happens at Christmastime.”
There are other problems Crosthwaite sees at Christmas, although they are not religious. “I think people have their own internal struggles about Christmas. There’s a lot of pressure about the gift thing, but there’s also a lot of pressure to be with your family, and many people don’t have functional families to be with. Many people spend the holidays alone and can be very depressed. I think Christmas is problematic for a lot of people in this country.”
Ellen Largura, 30, works in the clothing section at the Black in Ocean Beach. She relaxes behind the counter, smoking and talking on the telephone. She describes her religious philosophy as “leaning toward pagan for probably the last five years. My mother was Catholic, but she never pushed it on us. I never went to church, but I was baptized as a child. I’ve never really been religious. I’ve always taken other bits and pieces of other religions that I found interesting. Paganism is mostly about the earth and the environment, and I like that. Christianity sometimes makes me angry, because I think people are ignorant. They just believe what they are told and don’t do any research on the subject. I think the Bible was written so long ago and it’s been in so many people’s hands — changed from one language to another — that if they told me to rewrite it, I’d put my two cents in. But I don’t really believe in any of that or anything that it says — any of it.
“I prefer to celebrate the solstice, the coming of winter, but I work in retail, where Christmas is pretty big. I grew up with Christmas, so it doesn’t bother me. I don’t decorate or send out cards, although I get them from people.”
Emily Sloop, 25, is a Florida native who has lived in San Diego since 1999. Although raised a conservative Jew, “I’m kind of on my own now. I’m not affiliated with any organized religion. I don’t know if I would call myself an atheist, but I have my own set of beliefs. It kind of comes down to good leads to good — everybody’s good and you get what you give.
“I get involved superficially. I don’t mind it so much, but having never really had it in the house, I don’t have any feeling about it. I don’t decorate or send cards, but I send gifts — not necessarily Christmas gifts. It’s just a good time of year to be generous. When I was a kid, we did Hanukkah — lit the menorah and had a gift every night. If I’m with my family, I might do that, but not here, by myself. I think Christmas is excessive these days; it’s kind of lost a lot of what it used to be, but it doesn’t really bother me.”
Conley Major, 55, lives in La Mesa and has been a Rastafarian since 1982. Originally an Anglican Christian, Major doesn’t like the term “convert.” “I would say I was a convert in one sense of the word, but I don’t think it’s so much a conversion as a realization — what you might refer to as an ‘epiphany’ or an ‘unveiling’ — that we all are Rasta, and in some sense, we’re all the sons and daughters of God. It’s when an embracing of the truth comes to you. ‘Rasta’ means ‘Head Creator.’ ”
Major says that it’s difficult to explain the basics of Rastafarian belief without being ambiguous. “I don’t consider myself a traditional Rasta, but most people would say Rastas have what you would refer to as dreadlocks, although I think that’s a misnomer. Secondly, they worship Haile Selassie [the late emperor of Ethiopia] as God, and there’s the element of repatriation to Africa. They basically consider marijuana an herbal sacrament, comparable to the sacraments of Christians, who use wine and wafers. I want to caution you about the term ‘religion,’ because Rasta is categorized by the West as a religious sect, or cult, but Rasta is a way of life. Rastas see religion as another method of control by Babylon.” When asked what he means by “Babylon,” Major explains, “Babylon is like the illusion of the Tao. It is ‘All is vanity.’ We have to confront that and deal with it, and some do it better than others.”
Christmas does not fit into Major’s path as a Rasta. “My take on Christmas is basically that it represents one of the best instances of the sacred becoming profane. It’s basically a pagan-founded falsity and erroneous bunch of propaganda that Christians and Christianity have propagated and blended with capitalism very well. In terms of the masses of people celebrating Christmas, most of them don’t go to church — it’s more about trees, presents, and consumption. It’s really gross consumption, so that even makes it worse. What I’m saying is, most of us deal with Christmas on the basis of tradition and not spirituality.
“Most people, unless they’re pretty reverent and devout, get caught up in some aspect of Christmas, even those who celebrate Hanukkah and Kwanza and Ramadan. One of the reasons this is so easy to do is because, basically, we talk about Christmas or a certain point on the calendar — the harvest time, the end of the year — where people are being thankful or looking forward…in fact, Christ was probably not born in December, if there was a Christ. So it evolved not from Christianity but from paganism. The more that we get into transcending the various religious celebrations that occur at that time, and place that spirituality where we can cross those various borders, then…” Major pauses briefly. “As I had to remind my peers and comembers of the Friends of Malcolm X Library — last year, they wanted to have a Christmas party and also make it a fund-raiser. They ended up calling it a ‘Christmas party,’ and I was a little annoyed and upset because they failed to take into consideration that it was not only not politically correct, but it’s also…well, Malcolm X was a Muslim. Many in our community are Muslim, and there’s just so many different religions. To just chauvinistically, if you will — and rather arrogantly — call it a Christmas party instead of a holiday party or something more multicultural and less white-supremacist… Another aspect that Christianity has tended to do is buttress, enforce, and propagate white supremacy, and that’s another reason why I’m really turned off from it.”
Emphasizing that this is his own perception of Christmas, Major says most Rastafarians probably don’t reject Christmas to the degree that he does. “They go their various ways, but many are increasingly going with Christmas as Ethiopian in origin and celebrating in that context. Christmas is January seventh on the Coptic calendar, so while they do celebrate Christmas, there is a notion that His Imperial Majesty [Selassie] is the second coming of Christ. So some embrace that. I think the more serious Rastas that would embrace Christmas would embrace it like that, with that idea.”
Jeff Archer is the president of the Atheist Coalition of San Diego. A San Diego resident for 18 years, Archer was not brought up with any religion but was not raised as an atheist either. “I never questioned anything one way or another because it just wasn’t a part of my life. When I was old enough that I had to make decisions, I just came to the conclusion that I’m an atheist.” The author of four books, including Theater in a Squared Circle, about professional wrestling, Archer likes to tie his conversations into the topic of wrestling. He did so immediately in our talk about atheism and Christmas by quoting Ron Barrier, the spokesman for American Atheists and a pro-wrestling referee. “He said, ‘Wrestling and religion are identical. You pay good money to go inside a building, see something totally contrived, hoping against hope that it’s real.’ ”
Surprisingly, Archer is indifferent about Christmas. “As an atheist, I don’t practice it because of the religious things, but I think it’s nice to have a day once a year where everybody gets along with each other, nobody has to work, you have a nice meal, things like that. Most of the artifacts you see — Christmas trees and stuff — are pagan in origin anyway. They’re not religious, and a lot of fundamentalist Christians don’t like them.
“I have nothing against it, but I don’t like to see religious Christmas things on public property. I disagree with that totally. How about the Muslims? How about the Jews? They are believers, and I’m not, and I would be more upset if I were a believer with Christianity dominating an area officially, on public money.”
If the popular perception of an atheist is that of a humorless person ready to sue at the drop of a hat, Archer hardly fits the description. He punctuates almost every remark with a joke or ironic statement. “I had a publication called the Alternative for a few years, and I did a calendar for it in 1995. We had things a little different in it, like Fidel Castro’s birthday instead of George Washington’s. A friend of mine looked at December 25 to see how true I was to my nonbelief, and it read ‘Federal Holiday’!”
Even though he doesn’t believe in Christmas or celebrate it, Archer does send cards. “I’m a graphic artist, so I make my own. I do something that’s usually relevant to the person I’m sending it to, but no religious message. It’ll read ‘Happy Holidays’ or things like that. It’s a very secular message.”
Archer doesn’t find religious messages at Christmas problematic because he feels that Christians are putting pressure on him all the time. “Year-round I have it put on me by Christians who want to know if I have morals. When they find out you’re an atheist, it’s ‘Well, my pastor told me I shouldn’t be speaking to you.’ It’s not a disease, you know! At Christmas — maybe it’s because the Christian community is more forgiving — they’re not quite as nasty to nonbelievers as the rest of the year.”
One message that does annoy Archer is the one on the billboards that reads, “Jesus Is the Reason for the Season.” “They bother the hell out of me. It’s all legal, I guess, since it’s on private property — and I’m a firm believer that you can do what you want on private property — but I don’t believe in this stuff. I believe in science. I think some of it may be ignorance…there’s many reasons why people believe. When I see that sign, I think, ‘Well, I’ve read and researched and I haven’t even found one incident yet that shows that Jesus Christ ever existed on this earth, other than the writings of people 2000 years ago.’ The first time Jesus was ever mentioned in print was 40 years after He theoretically died. So I wonder how people can be led down this path. Most Christians have had this thrown at them, and they accept it blindly. As far as them putting the sign up, fine. But if I put up a billboard that says, ‘There Is No God,’ the thing would probably be burned!” He laughs.
“We’re not any different than anybody else. There are atheists on death row, there are atheists who lie, and there are atheists who are great people. If you look at the statistics, theoretically 10 percent of the country is atheist, yet less than half of 1 percent of people in prison for violent crimes are atheists.
“As a whole, we don’t get upset by Christmas unless it’s on public property. We’re more upset with the County Board of Supervisors’ spending $5000 last year on the National Day of Prayer — public money. That would offend us a lot more. Or a public event when people get up and pray. Christmas is not a greatly contentious issue with atheists unless it’s on public property. Then it becomes illegal and becomes our taxpayer money supporting this. Like I say, from my point of view, a believer of another faith would be more upset than I would be by something like that.
“I lived in Europe for eight years, and they have their holidays over there that are not religious, but it’s a time of the year when people have the day off. I can agree with that. So I’m not offended by the fact of Christmas, but I am when the religious aspects come into the public arena.
“Most Christians think atheists hate Christians. We don’t hate Christians. We just don’t believe in the same stuff that they do.”
Another prominent San Diego atheist, Philip K. Paulson, 54, was the coplaintiff with Howard Kreisner in the lawsuit to bring down the cross on Mt. Soledad. Like Archer, Paulson is not offended by Christmas and even sees some economic necessity in it. “I’m totally in favor of the Festival of Retail. The Festival of Retail is what catapults our nation’s economy into the next year. We need the Festival of Retail. What the message of Jesus means to Americans can be said in one word: ka-ching!”
While not offended or threatened by Christmas, Paulson’s take on the holiday is darkly cynical. “The Christmas shopping-cart music and the Christmas displays — you see them every year. They’re just boring.”
Again, like Archer, Paulson does not believe nativity scenes or religious displays of any kind belong on public property or should be subsidized with public funds. “It’s already been established law. Howard Kreisner went to court on that in San Diego, and, according to the local judge, who so happens to be Christian and biased — she legislated from the bench, based on her own religious and political biases, stating that the nativity scene is OK, as long as you have Santa Claus sitting on Jesus’ lap. She said as long as you have reindeer, Santa Claus, and secular ideas alongside the nativity scene, then it’s OK. That’s bad law. It shows a bias and preference for the Christian religion.
“I celebrate the winter solstice, which is around the 21st or 22nd of December, and that is the natural season — I guess that’s where the atheists have something in common with the pagans! We celebrate the solstices and equinoxes, whereas the Christians celebrate anything that has to do with Jesus, which was a figure in the Middle East. Christmas is the holiday of retail — that makes sense to me. It doesn’t make sense to me to have it as a religious holiday, because why should we promote the Christian religion? In this country we have several religions, and among those religions, Christianity is just one of them. Why should that be more prominent than any other? I think the reason why we haven’t had religious wars in America is because we’ve had the separation of church and state. I think we should promptly abandon the Christmas holiday and call it the Festival of Retail — which it is. Abandon it for religious reasons, because it’s in violation of the separation of church and state. Don’t get me wrong — I think we should have freedom of religion, but I also think we should have freedom from religion.
“The other thing is, the Christmas story is really a Middle Eastern story. It has nothing to do with the United States of America; it has a lot to do with the Middle East. I don’t see how it relates to us at all. The story of Jesus is totally irrelevant to any moral, ethical, or profound value that could affect people. The Christmas story is about a little infant — it’s a nice little story, but it really does not involve people in the United States; it involves people in the Middle East. It has no place in American culture, American tradition, or American history.
“If you talk to any of the major department stores, they would really object to getting rid of the holidays, because that is what really brings our economy forward from the previous year to the next. We need it, because that’s the time of year that makes up for all the losses. They may have three quarters of losses, but the winter season, marking the Christmas holiday season, will make the difference in terms of actual positive cash flow for the businesses.”
If any of his ideas sound funny, Paulson is completely in earnest. “I am not saying this to be cute. It is indeed the Festival of Retail. I find the Christmas story of Jesus very sacred. And I respect the Christians’ reverence for their Lord and Savior Jesus.” His voice rises in intensity. “I have a great deal of respect for that — but I don’t agree with it! Not only do I not agree with it, but I sense that Christianity, being a proselytizing religion, is trying to push their religion through government edict! And because it is being pushed down the throats of all nonbelievers — whether they want to believe it or not, whether they need it or not, whether they want it or not — you got it. Too bad. In other words, the Christians are saying to the non-Christian world: ‘This is what we believe, and if you don’t like it, pound sand.’
“Think about it. Would the Christians want to have a special holiday for Satan? Let’s say the Satanists — which is a religion — should have a special holiday. Would they be standing in the front door of that schoolhouse demanding that Satan be offered as their Lord and Savior? I don’t think so! Or, let’s say the atheists want to do what they did in the Soviet Union, say that atheism is the state-supported system and idea — which I also object to! I don’t want to do away with religion. I believe in the open marketplace of ideas, and I’m very much in agreement with the idea of teaching comparative religions in the schools. We should teach mythology. And along with mythology, we should teach the Baptist version of creationism as being the seven-day story of creation and that it started so many thousand years ago because they added up all the ‘begottens’ — that is, all the people who made love in the Bible — and figured out, after you add up all the people who made love in the Bible, that’s how old the planet is. I kind of find that a little bit of an intellectual stretch, and I sense that the Bible really has outlived its usefulness. It’s great for literature and great for amusement, but as a scientific document, it lacks anything…it lacks validity, reliability, and usability.
“So back to the Christmas thing, it’s just one example of how the Christians want to push their religion down the throats of everybody. Again, though, I do not want to do away with the Festival of Retail, so we need to come up with another idea. I say, abandon Christmas and continue with the Festival of Retail.”
Before its closing this year, the Blue Door bookstore in Hillcrest had been a landmark for alternative literature and independent thinkers since 1961. Daryl Jackson, 22, worked at the Blue Door and has lived in San Diego for two years. His view of religion varies. “It depends on what mood I’m in, but I was raised Catholic. Every once in a blue moon I still consider myself a Catholic — especially when I’m home in New Orleans.” While he doesn’t reject Christianity outright, he has little tolerance for Christians. “They’re really hypocritical. They go around telling you to do good things, then they say they hate half the people in the world. If you don’t belong to their religion and follow their faith, they kind of shun you and don’t like you. You want specifics? The Mormons — they’re evil! One of my friends’ sisters got married in the temple at Salt Lake City, and he was in the process of having his name removed from the rolls of the Mormon Church and he couldn’t go to the wedding. I don’t like them at all.”
Jackson smiles as he says with complete seriousness, “Christmas is the most vile, disgusting thing on the planet. For one, I don’t particularly buy that whole Jesus Christ–Son of God thing. Second, it’s way too capitalistic. I don’t decorate or send cards to anyone. I usually get kind of depressed from about October to New Year’s. Normally, I get Christmas cards and throw them away, and I tell people I don’t want to participate in their Christmas parties and stuff like that. I spend a lot of time alone at Christmas.”
Jackson’s former coworker at the Blue Door, Tamara Johnson, grew up in San Diego. “I suppose you could say I’m an atheist. I would agree with Daryl that Christmas is extremely capitalistic…but it’s a good excuse to party! I don’t mind that and getting together with friends at all.” Her tone grows more serious. “But I hate shopping so much. I refuse to go to the malls from before Halloween until after February. I like Christmas lights and I’ll put them up. The story about Christmas is nice, and it’s probably historically interesting, but I don’t really go for the ‘God’ business. I think that there was probably a guy named Jesus, and all of those things probably happened, but I don’t buy the Son of God thing.
“I feel a lot of pressure to spend a lot of money, and I resent it. I get really angry about it. It’s from family and friends. A lot of it’s personal pressure, because I would like to buy them presents, but that’s not always something I can afford. And I feel this pressure from the media to spend more money than I have.”
While she may decorate and want to buy presents, there’s one thing about Christmas that Johnson cannot abide. “I think it’s evil to tell kids the story about Santa Claus. I think it sets up lying right away. It’s horrible. I’ve worked with kids, and I wouldn’t tell a class or roomful of children that there’s no Santa Claus, but I think it’s really evil.”
Chris Reimer owns and operates Wisdom Crystals, a small shop on Newport Avenue that sells crystals, rocks, and jewelry. A big man with a gentle manner, Reimer’s philosophy reflects beliefs typical of many Ocean Beach residents. “I wasn’t really raised with any particular faith. My parents weren’t churchgoers, although they did encourage me to go to Sunday school if I wanted to. Mostly Baptist or — I think we went to an Episcopalian church at one point. We grew up in an area that was predominantly Catholic, in New Mexico.
“I wasn’t particularly influenced by anything in the Church that moved me in one way or the other. More than anything else, my particular spiritual beliefs come from some experience with the 12-step programs — that started about 1984. Since then, I’ve been open-minded and explored all possibilities, as far as faith and beliefs. I’ve tried to read a little bit of everything. I believe that we are all children of God and that Jesus was an example of the potential that we can live up to. I also believe quite a bit of the Buddhist teachings, and I’m drawn to anything that is positive in nature, that promotes love and understanding.
“We put up a Christmas tree at home and a little nativity scene. It’s become more of a ritual than something we do based on strong Christian beliefs. Unfortunately, Christmas has become more of a media event or economic event than the celebration of the birth of Christ. While that’s unfortunate, on another level it does bring people together. I enjoy Christmas more for the children than anything else. I don’t have any myself, but my partner has three children, and we were with them in Texas last Christmas. I think it’s just a joy to give them the true message — or what I believe to be the true message: We’re celebrating the birth of Jesus and what that message was about — hope and love and the idea of giving gifts and service to others. It’s not a holiday that I’m particularly moved towards anymore, except for the children.”
David McAlister, 57, roams the streets of Ocean Beach and was intoxicated when he spoke about his religious beliefs. Claiming to be a Vietnam veteran, and a San Diego resident since 1951, McAlister initially said that the only thing he believed was that he was mad at the world. When pressed to explain, he said, “I’m just hurtin’ right now. I lay down on the beach, sleepin’ in the sand, shit like that. I have no complaints against anybody. I believe in a higher power that I call Jesus.” Reluctant to identify himself exactly as a Christian, McAlister says that Christmas is annoying. “It gets on everybody’s nerves, man, and you know why? Because it’s really not about Christ. Christmas isn’t about Christ — Christmas is about sellin’ things, man. It’s got nothin’ to do with what Christmas should be about.”