Data and the Meaning of Christmas
"Oh dear, not again." Captain Picard sighed looking at the green envelope sitting on his desk in his ready room. He saw his name scrolled in elegant gold lettering. He didn't need to open it to know the author's name.
We just got past his Thanksgiving Day celebration, he thought to himself. Now what?
Picard opened the envelope to find another invitation. This time it read: 'Please join in celebrating a traditional Saturnalia-Koleda- Yule-Winter Solstice-Dies Natalis Solis Invicti- Bodhi Day-Yalda-Kwanza -Pancha Ganapati-Hanukkah Festival of Lights -Christmas Eve party on December 24 at 18:00 in Holodeck 3; Gifts encouraged. RSVP Data.'
Picard scowled and read it again, focusing on the words between traditional and party. He recognized most of them but had never seen them linked together like this. And gifts? What sort of gifts? He rubbed his forehead in annoyance. Data's quest to explore human emotion by examining traditional Earth holidays was growing a bit tedious. The Captain had only himself to blame. It was he who had encouraged Data to pursue this area of study, but after Data's Halloween and Thanksgiving events, Picard was having second thoughts. Data meant well, but he frequently seemed to miss the mark. Picard sighed again. He didn't have the heart to cancel Data's latest party, but perhaps he should at least discourage their frequency.
Geordi buzzed Data's door, holding the invitation he had received.
"Enter," Data called and the door opened.
Geordi walked in to find Data sitting at his desk as usual. "Hey, Data."
"Welcome, Geordi. Ah, I see you have received my invitation."
"Yeah. That's what I wanted to talk to you about. I'm a little confused as to just what kind of party you have in mind. You've got a lot of different names listed here."
"Each title represents a traditional Earthborn midwinter celebration. You may celebrate under whichever of them you find more intriguing and/or representative of your individual cultural heritage."
"Okay." Geordi nodded. "So then I guess for me it would be basically a Christmas party, with a nod to earlier traditions that might have been incorporated into it."
"That would be a reasonable interpretation. Was I ambiguous?"
"Just a little. I'll clear it up with anyone who might be wondering."
"I appreciate your assistance."
"No problem. So were you planning on serving food?"
"And what about these gifts you're encouraging? Any guidelines on those?"
Data cocked his head uncertainly. "Guidelines?"
"Yeah, you know, like how many we should bring, and for whom. Are you thinking big gifts, little gifts? You know, guidelines."
Data pondered for a moment. "No. I have no guidelines. I will leave that up to each individual to decide."
"I'm not sure you should, Data. Not knowing what's expected makes people a little uncomfortable."
"Yes. I have observed that trait in human behavior. I look forward to seeing what each person chooses to bring. Do you have any other questions?"
"I guess not."
"May I count on your attending?"
"Yeah, sure," Geordi replied, knowing there was no easy way out of it. "I'll be there."
That evening in Ten Forward, the topic of discussion revolved around Data's upcoming party.
"I hate this," Worf grumbled to his two drinking companions. "Why do we have to keep going through these ridiculous holiday celebrations?"
"Come on, you didn't mind the last one so much. You ate half your weight in turkey meat," Riker reminded him.
"I admit Data is an excellent Chef. I have no objection to sharing a meal with him, but why must it come with these eccentric trappings. I had to wear a nametag designating me as Uncle Worf. Is he planning on making us into family members again?"
Both Riker and Worf turned to Geordi for an answer. "Hey, don't look at me," Geordi replied. "I have no more information than the rest of you. He's very close-lipped about his holidays."
"Did you at least find out what he means by 'gifts encouraged'?" Riker asked.
"Sorry," Geordi shrugged. "He just said he's looking forward to seeing what people decide to bring."
"Wonderful," Riker said. "Maybe Deanna has some ideas about this." He looked around and spotted her at the bar talking to Guinan. He stared hard at her back, knowing she would feel it. When she turned around with a puzzled look, he waved her over to join them.
"What are the three of you all worked up about?" she asked as soon as she stood beside them.
"Data's holiday party," Worf growled. "He wants us to bring gifts, but refuses to provide any information as to what they should be."
"Maybe he thinks that would be defeating the purpose," she replied. "A gift is supposed to be something that comes from you as an individual. A gift represents caring and thoughtfulness. If the receiver has to tell you what to give, the gift carries no emotional weight. You may have well as told the person to give himself a gift and put your name on it."
"That is an excellent suggestion," Worf replied, nodding. "Thank you, Counselor."
Deanna stared at Worf open mouthed for a moment, then shook her head.
"So do you know what you're going to do?" Riker asked her.
"I think so," she said, "but what I give shouldn't influence what you choose to give. You should each do what feels right for you. This whole thing is about helping Data to learn about human emotions. If you ask yourself what this holiday means to you and what you would like to share about that personal meaning to help further Data's understanding, I'm sure you can each come up with something truly memorable and heartfelt."
A chorus of groans and expletives followed from the three men.
Deanna frowned at them. "If you didn't want my opinion, then you shouldn't have asked for it." She spun on her heels and stalked off.
"Now I'm really not looking forward to this," Worf said and downed his ale in a single gulp.
On the evening of Data's party, Counselor Troi, Commander Riker, Dr. Crusher, Lt. Worf, and Lt. Commander La Forge, all stood in a group near the entrance of the Holodeck waiting for their Captain. When he saw his senior officers huddled there as he approached, he felt mildly irritated at their evident cowardice. He frowned and shook his head at them.
"Hey," Riker said, not the least chagrined, "You started this. We're not going in there until you do."
"For heaven's sake. You're behaving like juveniles. I'm sure Data's planned festivities will be perfectly acceptable," Picard said firmly, though in truth, it was more hope than conviction. He noted that all of them held a package of some sort, with the exception of Mr. Worf. He fingered his own wrapped gift. It still amazed and befuddled him how long it had taken for him to decide on something that seemed even remotely appropriate. He walked up to the doors, intending to announce their arrival without delay. Instead, he found himself taking a deep breath. He really had no idea what to expect once those doors opened. How bad could it be? he asked himself, then stopped his thoughts abruptly before they provided an answer. He pressed the buzzer.
When the doors slid apart, they were greeted by loud jangling music, choral voices and flashing strings of lights that seemed to be going in every direction possible. Oh dear, Picard thought and in he went. The source of the voices became immediately apparent, as a group of Edwardian dressed carolers surrounded them. A smiling woman in a furry hat thrust a sheet of lyrics in front of him singing loudly in his ears and insistently pointing to the words until Picard joined in, "Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way…" Each of his staff was similarly accosted. A red suited man with a long white beard strolled by ringing a bell in his hand, repeating HO! HO! HO! as they sang. Snowflakes drifted through the air and built into a soft layer of white on the ground, allowing a one horse sleigh filled with toys to slide past them with a grinning furry green gargoyle-faced creature holding the reigns.
"You're a mean one," Dr. Crusher called out, "but you'll never steal Christmas."
The creature tipped his white trimmed red hat at them as he zipped on by. Picard looked at Beverly in puzzlement. "That was the Grinch," she informed him, not that it helped. Before he had a chance to inquire further, a group of men in white togas came running up to them, dragging along a white sheep.
"Happy Saturnalia!" they cried. "Come along, come along now. It's time for the sacrifice in the temple. Then we'll have orgies of food and merriment. The masters will become the slaves, the slaves become the masters, and all else will be turned on its head until the morrow."
Counselor Troi looked at the sheep. "I don't think so."
"It's only a hologram," Riker reminded her.
"I don't care. I'm not watching anything get sacrificed. End of discussion."
"Right you are," another newcomer agreed with her. He wore a white smock with a heavily embroidered vest. "We have no need of sacrifice in the time of Koleda. We have sacrificed enough with winter. Now is the time to celebrate the coming of the sun. Let us light the bonfire and dance." He was joined by other men similarly clothed, and women in long white dresses with colorful aprons, who began dancing around them.
"No, No, No," a woman wearing a veil interrupted. "This is the night of Yalda. On this night, family members get together and stay awake all night long. We shall eat dried nuts, watermelon, and pomegranate, then tell the old stories and pray to God for the victory of light over darkness."
"Sol Invictus!" A roman soldier cried out and marched up to them. "It is time to celebrate the birth of the unconquerable sun." He gestured to a bright yellow orb in a blue sky.
"You mean the birth of the Son of God," a man in a long purple robe corrected. He wore a gold crown and was accompanied by two other men of equally impressive stature and ornamentation. "We go in search of the savior by following the star to the east," he said and pointed in the opposite direction to a dark night sky with a star so startling bright that Picard thought it must be a super nova.
"Not yet. Not yet. The time of the messiah has yet to come," another voice replied. A man in a long black coat and hat approached them, carrying a multi-armed candelabra. "This is Hanukkah, my friends. Tonight we light the menorah to celebrate God's miracle of the oil burning for eight days when there was only enough for one."
"Look not to heaven for miracles. One need only look within," a skinny man in a white loin cloth told them. "On Bhodi day, we celebrate the awakening of Buddha. Come sit under the Pipul tree and meditate on the root of all suffering so that you may liberate yourself from it as he did."
Dozens of giggling children ran up to them, carrying a large bronze statue of a man with the head of an elephant with five faces. They set the golden colored elephant man down, surrounded it with presents and sweets then watched as it gradually changed from golden yellow to royal blue, ruby red, emerald green and finally brilliant orange. "Happy Pancha Ganapati!" the children yelled, then ran off again laughing.
A man and woman in long colorful printed African robes put their arms around Geordi. "Happy Kwanzaa, brother," they said.
"Happy what?" Geordi asked.
"Kwanzaa. The American celebration of your African heritage, honoring the core values of unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity, and faith."
"Okay… I guess," Geordi replied diplomatically, but far from convinced. "Except I grew up in Africa, not America."
"Even better," they replied.
"There is no need to celebrate one's earthly heritage," the man in the loin cloth countered. "We are all one with the universe."
"Only by way of the light of the son of God," the royal robed men replied in unison.
"You mean the light of the Sun in the Sky for all to see," the Romans corrected them.
"Ho! Ho! Ho!," the white bearded Santa countered aggressively.
A moment later, all of the holodeck born characters were engaged in a multitude of heated arguing with a great number of fingers being poked in opposing chests. Picard and his fellow officers backed away.
"Data!" Picard called out. A door lit up behind them and they hurried through it.
"Happy Holidays," Data greeted them. "Please join me."
Seeing the comparatively empty and quiet room they now stood in, Picard felt a sense of relief. Data occupied a large leather wingchair in front of a fireplace in which a yule log burned. Empty chairs of the same design were arranged at equal distance from the fire, one for each of them. A tastefully decorated tree stood to one side of the hearth lit with softly twinkling lights and glass ornaments. On the other side sat a table with a lit menorah, a small version of the Hindu elephant god, and a Buddha statue. Picard noticed a book on the table and moved closer. He lifted it to read the title, Qu'ran.
"I did not mean to slight Earth's Islamic heritage," Data informed him, "but since illustrated representations are not appreciated by followers of that faith, I thought it best to honor it in this way."
Picard nodded. "Probably so," he agreed, thinking far worse than arguing and finger pointing would have ensued otherwise, and wished Data had chosen to do the same for the rest of the old faiths as well. He hadn't enjoyed being reminded of how close Earth had come to destroying itself as a result of those conflicting belief systems.
Data's mouth curled up into a semblance of a smile. "I see you have brought a gift, Captain. May I ask who is the intended recipient?"
"Why, you of course. You are our host, after all."
"Oh," Data nodded. "I am honored."
"I think we've all brought you something. Well, nearly all of us," Picard corrected, remembering Worf had not.
Data looked at the others, each of whom held up a wrapped present, excluding Worf, who instead glowered darkly in response.
Deanna stepped forward with her gift. "Mine is actually for all of us. I tried to think of something to share that represented my memories of my father and the holiday traditions he shared with me. I was quite young, of course, but I remember he brought me presents, explained the history of Christmas to me, and made fudge. Whenever I think of Christmas, I think of my father, and the chocolate fudge that he showed me how to make. So I made fudge to share with everyone." She handed the lidded box over to Data, who opened it and sampled a piece. "It is quite delicious," he pronounced. "Thank you, Counselor." Data set the open box down onto an empty table.
"I have a gift too," Dr. Crusher said. "Honestly, Data, I had a hard time coming up with something. My family didn't celebrate Christmas, so I don't have any childhood holiday memories exactly. I usually was studying for some final exam about that time of year. But one year, when I was twelve I got really ill. I couldn't go anywhere, and I didn't feel well enough to study, so I watched old movies for almost a week straight. One of them was this one. I thought you might enjoy it and would understand its significance for me."
Data opened the package to find a movie entitled "Top Hat" starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Data understood the significance immediately and also understood that Beverly had no wish to be called the "Dancing Doctor" again, so he merely nodded. "I understand, Doctor. Thank you."
Riker stepped forward next and handed Data a wrapped parcel without comment. Data unwrapped the item which turned out to be a primitively carved statue. "Commander, is this a Horga'hn from Risa?"
Riker nodded. "Yes, it is."
"My understanding is that such statues are used to solicit sexual experiences on that world," Data said.
"Yes, they are," Riker replied
Deanna rolled her eyes. "That's your idea of a Christmas present?"
"Best one I ever had," he said without apology.
"Thank you, Commander," Data said and set the statue alongside his other presents.
Geordi exchanged glances with the Captain making sure he wasn't stepping ahead of him without permission, but the Captain seemed content to wait. Geordi had wanted to come up with something meaningful, but now he hesitated, hoping his gift would be seen positively, yet worried it might get just the opposite reaction. "This is something I've had for a long time. It was a Christmas gift, a toy, kind of a collectible I got when I was a kid. I'm not even sure why I kept it all this time, but… anyway, now it seems really appropriate for you. I'd like you to have it but I sure hope you don't take it the wrong way."
Data lifted the lid on the box that Geordi handed to him, and peered inside. He tilted his head curiously at the contents then slowly lifted out a wooden doll attached to strings. The doll had a long nose, and a silly smile.
"It's Pinocchio," Geordi explained. "The wooden puppet that wanted to be a real boy."
"I am familiar with the story," Data stated, examining the hanging puppet. "I understand the parallel to my quest for human emotion." He wiggled the puppet making it move. "The puppet dances to its strings the way I dance to my programming," he noted.
"Data, I never meant…" Geordi started to say, but then realized he didn't know what to say.
"Thank you, Geordi," Data said. "Your gesture indicates genuine understanding of my situation and my desire to change. I look forward to displaying this in my quarters as a reminder."
"It appears that it has come to me now," Picard said. "I've always had mixed feelings about this holiday. For me, its spiritual significance was long ago replaced by a mindless tradition and secular interest ruthlessly exploited by less than scrupulous retailers. But still, the underlying manner in which we show appreciation to our family and friends on this day has remained essentially unchanged over the years, and is still of great value. And I must confess, some of my happiest memories as a child, took place around a tree very much like this one. I cannot look upon it without wanting to smile." Picard handed over his present to Data, who took off the wrapping and revealed the book within.
"Ah. It is Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol," Data said.
"Yes, you'll note that it is a first edition signed by the illustrator. One of my fondest memories is my father reading this to my brother and me. It was one of his favorite stories, and mine. I very much enjoyed watching your performance as Scrooge, Data, and I'm not sure I sufficiently expressed my appreciation at the time. I hope this gift corrects that."
"Thank you, Captain. I shall treasure this."
As they turned away, and began to head toward the empty chairs, Worf cleared his throat, obviously for attention seeking purpose. They paused and turned back to him.
"I too have something to share," he said gruffly, and looked not at all pleased by his own announcement. "It is about this Earth holiday called Christmas. For me, it equates with humiliation. "
"Humiliation?" Picard repeated. "Mr. Worf, are you certain this is something you wish to share?"
"I am among trusted colleagues and am willing to do so to further Data's quest."
"Very well," Picard said, then waited for Worf to continue.
"I was a young boy. It was within a few months of my adoption by my human parents. My family was invited to attend a Christmas celebration at the home of a neighbor. I was unfamiliar with the custom. There was a large table filled with sweets- cookies, candies and such- and in the center a small pine tree decorated with strings of popcorn and dried cranberries. The neighbors kept encouraging me to eat something, but I do not particularly care for sugar laden foods, even less so then. So instead, I sampled the tree. I found it delicious. Naturally, I assumed it was part of the offering. So I ate it."
"Wait," Riker said with wide eyes. "You ate their Christmas tree?"
"I did not understand its significance. My parents rushed me out of there and we were never invited back to that home again."
The image of Worf as a young boy wolfing down a Christmas tree came to Riker's mind and he lost it. He started laughing and couldn't stop, doubling over, as tears came to his eyes. "I'm sorry," he kept trying to say. The laughter grew contagious, catching Geordi, Beverly and Deanna up in it as well. Captain Picard covered his mouth and turned away, lest he too laugh at Worf's expense.
Data watched the exchange with great interest. "Thank you for sharing, Mr. Worf. I believe I understand."
"I'm glad someone does," Worf growled.
"Sorry," Riker said again, taking deep breaths and wiping the tears from his eyes. "Really, it's a very touching story." Then he started laughing again, and struggled to pull himself together. "No, really. I'm sorry," he said at last and managed to keep a straight face.
"Let's sit and enjoy Data's setting here," Picard interrupted hoping to change the mood. They each sat in a seat and looked at each other. Again, the Captain took the lead. "Data, I'm curious about that display of all those old Earth winter holidays out there." He gestured toward the doors they had just come through. "What was your purpose in that?"
"I had hoped to put you all in a holiday mood. Was it not successful?"
"You do realize that it's turned into a near riot."
Data rose from his seat. He walked to the doors and opened them allowing a cacophony of yelling voices to reach them. He watched for a moment then closed the doors again, blocking out the sounds. He returned to them and sat again. "I admit I did not expect to see an Imperial Roman soldier trapped in a headlock by Santa Clause," he commented.
"Well. It does serve as an illustration why abandoning much of our religious beliefs was a necessary component in Earth's survival," Picard replied.
Data nodded. "So it would seem. I had hoped to see my holographic creations find commonality since clearly there is a thread of basic belief shared by all of them."
"Yes, there is," Dr. Crusher agreed. "Which is why we survived as a people."
"I'm curious, Data," Picard said. "What do you see as that common thread?"
"The hope for redemption," Data stated.
"Well said," Picard noted and the others nodded solemnly.
"That and food," Worf commented. "They all seem to have the idea of consumption of great quantities of food in common. I understood that we would be having food."
"There's one thing that isn't wise, and that's to deny a hungry Klingon his dinner," Riker said. "Of course, there's always the Christmas tree over there."
Worf growled in response.
"That is true," Data acknowledged. "But we also have more appetizing options." He clapped his hands and the lights in the back of the room came up revealing a long table with a feast laid out upon it. "Please help yourselves."
Worf jumped to his feet and headed for the table. Geordi stood and smiled, "You know, Worf really likes your cooking, Data," he said and followed Worf. Riker stood next and offered his arms to Deanna and Beverly, "Ladies?" The three of them walked together toward the table, leaving Picard and Data still seated.
"Is this anything close to what you expected, Data?" Picard asked.
"I had few expectations, Captain. I did have a hope that the experiment would further my studies and I believe it has. For that reason, I would call this a success. I must thank you for encouraging me to explore this holiday concept."
"I take it you have more of them in mind."
"Yes, sir. In fact, New Year's Eve, is only six days from now. I realize that this is short notice but…"
"Data," Picard cut him off, "I'm sure there will be other New Year's Eve celebrations on board. Why don't you plan on being a guest rather than hosting one."
"Do you really think that would be best?"
"I do. Really," Picard said quite firmly. "I will make sure you receive an invitation."
"Thank you, Captain. I look forward to attending. I am most interested in seeing you taking on the role of host."
"Host? I didn't intend to host one personally," Picard said, but then wondered if he should. At least that way, he could be sure Data wouldn't. "I suppose a New Year's Eve celebration could be arranged."
Riker plopped down in the chair beside him, holding a plateful of food. "You're thinking about hosting a New Year's Eve party, Captain?"
"I wasn't a moment ago," Picard replied, feeling cornered.
"That's a wonderful idea," Beverly said. "I'd be happy to help."
"Me too," Deanna agreed. "I can make more fudge."
"If there is food, I will participate," Worf said with a full mouth.
"There's always food," Geordi confirmed. "It's traditional."
"Oh dear," Picard sighed, wondering how he'd signed up to sponsor the very thing he'd been hoping to discourage.
"Merry Christmas, everyone," he said, resigning himself to it.
"Merry Christmas, Captain," they chorused in return.