Q. I'm a Muslim and a friend from my office has invited me to her house for her annual Christmas party. What do I do once everyone else starts singing Christmas carols?
-- H.C., St. Louis, MO
Obviously, a lot of Christmas songs have nothing to do with religion. "Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer" has about as much to do with Christmas as hip-hop does with Beethoven. It's the more traditional songs that can cause problems. Many of these carols violate Muslim belief that Allah can have a physical form and that Jesus was one of many prophets. But by accepting your friend's invitation, you're implicitly agreeing to be respectful toward the songs and images of her faith--though that doesn't mean you have to sing or even hum. And remember: Your presence at the party will be a sign of your friendship toward your host. You may also think of this as way to show you own respect toward Jesus--as a prophet, not a Son of God.
Q. Could you suggest a non-inflammatory, even polite way to deflect the attention of someone bent on converting you?
-- A.H., Bethesda, MD
Conversion seems to be on the minds of a lot of people these days. Southern Baptists, who've started a campaign to convert Jews, Hindus and Buddhists, also plan to send thousands of missionaries to Chicago next summer. When the Pope was in Asia this fall, he called for greater efforts to spread Catholicism in India, a country already packed with 4,500 foreign missionaries and 120,000 Indian missionaries. So, what to do when evangelists knock on your door and you're really not interested? Take the same "I-gave-at-the-office" approach that works with telephone solicitors. Be civil. When necessary, be adamant. Tell them your heart--and your soul--are already taken. If they persist, tell them (still politely, but maybe more firmly than your previous tone) they're infringing on your right to your faith.
And try to remember: In some ways, the urge to convert others is admirable. It reflects a certainty about truth and a desire to share it.
Q. Can I bring a present to the synagogue for a bar or bat mitzvah?
-- K.O., Dayton, N.J.
It's very rare that gifts are presented in a synagogue to youngsters having a bar or bat mitzvah. Gifts are usually given at the reception that follows the ceremony, or they might be sent to the child's home. By not giving a present in the synagogue, its sanctity is preserved and the distinction is maintained between the religious intent of the ceremony and the more secular aspects of the reception.
One of the few times that it might be permissible to present a gift in a synagogue is if you can't attend the reception and you wish to bestow the gift personally and have a few private words with the child being honored. But even then, the present should be fairly inconspicuous, say a check or a gift certificate or a saving bond.
And please, don't give the kid a fountain pen! (For decades, these were such common gifts that the standard joke was that bar mitzvah boys said, "Today, I am a fountain pen," instead of "Today, I am a man.")
Q. When a Protestant walks to a pew in a Catholic church or a high Episcopal church, is he or she supposed to bow toward the altar or genuflect before taking a seat?
-- B.A., Washington DC
Actually, not even Catholics or high Episcopalians are required to bow or genuflect before taking their seat. This is more of a folk custom than an obligation, one which evolved as a sign of adoration toward the sacrament, usually kept in the tabernacle in the sanctuary. Today, even though the sacrament is sometimes kept in a chapel that is separate from the main sanctuary, many parishioners still genuflect out of habit and tradition. But only genuflect or bow if you feel comfortable doing it, if you think it would be appropriate and if and others are doing it in the church you're visiting. If it feels awkward, don't.