Sunday, December 22, 2013

Why I say "Happy Holidays"

I really shouldn't like this time of year as much as I do. As the daughter of two of the most prolific drinkers who've ever shaken a swizzle stick (copyright: Laura Enright) I should hate this season for the very same reason that I hate Thanksgiving, a holiday I hate for the reasons I should hate this season.

Holidays in my family were anything but. They were often nasty, bitter affairs steeped in anger and alcohol and a soupson of hatred as one drunken parent tried his or her best to piss of the other (when they weren't starting fights with one of the kids). Thanksgiving, for example, was spent in enforced togetherness measuring how much wine was left in the second bottle of Cold Duck and trying to gauge whether the drunk my parents were falling into was a happy or angry drunk. If it was a happy drunk, we could all play cards and enjoy life. If angry...well, you can imagine the rest.

That's not to say that we didn't have some good times. Those late night poker games were a lot of fun. And when I was really young, and my parents were still trying, there was joy in the season. Unfortunately, the bad times became more frequent as time went on and left more of an impact. So holidays for me, at least when it comes to the notion of "family", don't mean a heck of a lot.

But there is something about December. 

To me it's a magical time. Part of it could be because I love winter and the romance behind it. The idea that one year, with all its joy and sadness, is grinding to a halt soon to be replaced by the hope of a new year with all its potential. That's why cultures were drawn to celebrating this time of year. December 21, the shortest day of the year with all its promise of warmth to come as the days grew longer again.

Okay, winter isn't always magical.
I was raised a Catholic. Well, when I say raised, I use the term loosely. Honestly, my parents didn't really raise me as anything. I mean, there was some vague theological discussions in my house between my mom and I when I was a kid, but neither of my parents seemed all that interested in religion outside of listing on forms that they were Catholic. I think we went to church for a few years, but that didn't last. If I hadn't spent my grade school years at a Catholic school, I probably wouldn't have gone to church at all. I didn't get much of an education at the school, but I did make it to church every Friday during lent (it got us out of class. I don't know which was worse). 

But because we were pseudo-Catholic/Christians we celebrated Christmas. We didn't go to church on Christmas, and the baby J's name barely came up, but we did celebrate Dec. 25 (with gifts and the afor mentioned drinking). So when I wished someone happy tidings at this time of year, I wished them "Merry Christmas." I remember decorations and cards that had the term "Happy Holidays" or "Seasons' Greetings" in them, and the world didn't end. But "Merry Christmas" was natural to me. 

When I was 14 I left the church. Come on, we all knew it was coming. I had a mom and a dad who couldn't stand to be in the same room, yet the church was telling me that these two getting divorced and perhaps finding a better relationship with other people was a sin. Even when I was 10 I could see through that nonsense. They're moving onto mates better suited to them would have helped out not only them but their four children who had to live with the bitterness and hatred they showed each other every day. Don't tell me divorce is a sin. Or homosexuality. Or contraception or abortion, for that matter. I could not agree with the teachings of the Catholic church, so I moved on. 

Christianity became for me one more religious philosophy out there, and each had its good points and its bad points. But I began to realize that it isn't necessary to have any religious philosophy to be a decent person. 

It's possible that it was a nun who unknowingly started me on this path. When I was in second grade a nun (I forget her name) told me that I shouldn't do good to curry God's favor. I should do good cause it's the right thing to do. I took that to heart. And even while I believed in the Christian God, I didn't do good to placate him. I did it cause it was the right thing to do. Instinctively. Without denomination. 

Which is why I'm so very receptive to the greatness of this time of year. This time of year has resonance in many cultures. Hanukkah (that's the "Judeo" part of "Judeo/Christian" that so many people like to cite) this year started Nov. 27 and ended Dec. 5. Dec. 21 marked the date of the Winter Solstice, sacred to many Pagan religions (that's the festival where so many Christmas traditions sprang from). 

Hey look! It's a Holiday Tree!!
Hell even those who don't believe in anything can enjoy the energy of this time of year as we say goodbye to the old year, with it's good and bad and usher in the new year with its promise to come. I have friends of all stripes, theologically speaking, so for me, wishing someone a "Happy Holidays" covers all bases.

There is something for everyone. That's precisely why I say "Happy Holidays." As someone who works with the public, I'm not going to be arrogant enough to presume what religion a person I encounter does and doesn't celebrate. I work with and come into contact with people of differing faiths. And what's more, I don't really care. When someone wishes me a "Merry Christmas" I take it for what it is, another human being wishing me the best at this time of year. Even today, 35 years after I said goodbye to the Catholic church, my first instinct is still to wish people a "Merry Christmas." It's how I was raised. But I've retrained myself to say, "Happy Holidays" because I want to include everyone in the joy I feel at this time of year. It doesn't detract from my life in anyway. But it opens my warm wishes to everyone, no matter their faith (or nonfaith). 

How is that a bad thing? In this fantastic nation where some very far-seeing people established the right for people to believe (or not to believe) in anything they wished, how is it a bad thing for someone to wish someone else "Happy Holidays"? I'm not taking the Christ out of Christmas. I'm doing something much more important: I'm honoring my fellow human beings, including those who don't believe in Christ. By wishing "Happy Holidays" I'm bestowing good wishes upon them without assuming what theology they follow. When a municipality names something a "holiday tree" or a "holiday parade" they're actually honoring the men who fought to create this nation by including everyone in this nation (including all those paying taxes into this great nation). Religious freedom was groundbreaking in the late 1700s when it came about in the United States (who weren't exactly united over everything). It's something that we should still honor today. Yet there are factions who piss and moan because someone is wishing someone else a "Happy Holiday" at this time of year. It's kind of sad, saying more about those people doing the moaning, than those people bestowing the wishes.

So with that, as 2013 draws to a close, I wish everyone, whatever they celebrate, happy holidays and all the best for the new year. 

Sunday, December 1, 2013

For the Love of Libraries

A few weeks ago, there was a discussion in a city council meeting regarding the budget of the library for my hometown. The library was seeking a 5 percent increase in the library budget and a few members of the council as well as the mayor questioned the need for programs and certain materials available at the library.

I try to stay out of politics on this blog. I have another blog for that (Enright's Tavern). But this is an issue important to me because libraries are important to me and it seems that in these financially dicey times, the moment budget slashing is considered, the first glance is always cast in the direction of the local library: The heaviest utilized institution in a town. There are those who even consider them nonessential to a community, which is absolute rubbish. 

I will admit, libraries have changed since I was a kid. I remember the library in the town I grew up in was small and quiet (it actually started in the basement of a local hotel, then moved up to its own building nearby. Now, after getting the okay for a new building several years ago, it's quite large and beautiful). Neither of my parents finished high school, yet they both impressed upon their kids a love of reading. I didn't need much incentive. I fell in love with reading the moment I realized that I was actually understanding the words in the book I was reading (as opposed to pretending to sound out the words). My dad, an electrical contractor in the village, even served as a library trustee for a couple of decades. One of the stops of the library bookmobile was my street, outside the tavern that my grandfather built in the thirties (those were the days when not a thought was given to a library bookmobile standing outside a tavern). I used to put the horses out in the spot where the bookmobile would park and when they left, I raced my bike along on the sidewalk after them. When she got a chance to read, my mom could devour books (I envied her ability to read as fast as she did). She made sure we were regular visitors to the library. And from an early age I was drawn to the worlds and knowledge the library helped me tap into.

I learned the value of libraries. I've turned to them for researching my writing and for my reading pleasure. They are an incredible resource.

Times have changed. Libraries are still a wealth of knowledge, but they're so much more. Even in the digital age, libraries remain important for a variety of reasons: Educational, entertainment, socialization, heck even babysitting (having kids wait in a safe place after school until parents can pick them up). One part institution of learning, one part community center, they can be a focal point of a community, bringing citizens together, as the library where I've worked for 14 years did the day after Thanksgiving when the library stayed open three hours later (while City Hall and other city entities were closed all day) for a holiday open house. People came in for refreshments and holiday programs, and holiday songs were performed in the reference department. Even Santa stopped by for a storytime. It is a popular event every year and we can expect phone calls from the taxpayers beginning that morning asking what the line up is for that night. Years ago, when the library was closed for six weeks for an asbestos removal project, stores and restaurants in the area noted a significant drop in business during that time since patrons weren't visiting the library (and following up a morning at the library with a lunch at the bagel shop or some other establishment).

Our current mayor wasn't mayor during the time of the asbestos project, though it's doubtful that fact would have registered. Nor does it seem he's done any research on the library. The mayor has presented himself as a champion of the taxpayer and he's made himself blind to reality when it comes to the issue of the library and the taxpayer. I've never actually seen him in the library though I hear that when he was running for mayor years ago he was only too happy to stand outside, glad-handing the many people going in and out of the library. And he was scheduled to show at the holiday open house. So, while he understand the marketing potential of the library when it comes to self promotion, he seems to be a bit out of touch with the value of the library to the city. Consider this statement made in regards to the DVD and video game collection:

"'From a taxpayers standpoint, I don't understand why the taxpayers are paying the library to buy movies and video games for people to come in and take out for free.' He also suggested the Library Board may need to have a 'philosophical discussion' about the 'core function of your library.'"
(Source: Park Ridge Herald Advocate Nov. 21 "Park Ridge Library considering spending cuts next year")

His comment astonishes me because, aside from the taxpayers, I don't know who else he thinks is checking out the DVDs and video games. And they check them out in droves, especially before holidays when they need to entertain family or friends. Years ago, the library charged a $1 per movie fee. When that policy was stopped and the movies were free, circulation rose dramatically. It is the taxpayers popping those things on hold before they're even released. It is the taxpayers making requests to buy certain television shows. When the library decided to offer video games, it was greeted with enthusiasm by the taxpayers as parents could now save money by not buying the games that their children will use a year and then put aside.

I speak with some authority on this because I work in circulation and I'm the one checking these items out to the taxpayer

Again, the mayor might know this if he showed less disdain and more interest in the library. While patrons from other libraries are able to check the DVDs out (not the video games so far) it is indeed the people of the community, the people whose interests he claims to be watching out for who are benefitting from these and other items in the collection as they are with the programs run by the library. Those are the children of tax payers enjoying storytimes. Those are the taxpayers going to see movies or talks. Attending job seeking seminars and taking part in reading clubs.

And it was the taxpayers who voted the library #5 in a recent article on the ten best things about Park Ridge. The mayor insists that he's looking out for the taxpayers but the library is the one institution in town that gives the biggest bang for the taxpayer buck.

It is shameful for a mayor to look upon the local library, an institution vital to the health of a community, as if its some sort of fiscal black hole. Unfortunately, this is an attitude on the rise the past few years in communities across the country. As the economy began to tank in the early 2000s, library usage rose dramatically, not that you'd know by listening to leaders like the mayor of my hometown. The mayor is not alone in his cluelessness about the library and its functions. Indeed in the same article, in regards to cutting free programs, an alderman stated "that though free programs are 'nice [they} are not necessarily the core function of what a library should be.'"

Of course this alderman couldn't be more incorrect. The core function of a library is to enlighten, whether that enlightenment comes from books or programs all accessible and highly enjoyed by the taxpayers. Perhaps it isn't the library but rather people like this alderman and the mayor who need to consider the core function of a library.

I cannot understand the attitude of people like the mayor that portrays libraries as practically pointless to a community but I will be only too happy to correct that wrong-headed notion whenever I come across it.