Readers of this blog may be feeling as if this December has been a month of rancor and divisiveness at a time when unity should be the theme. Lest we sign off on a low note, December Dilemma Watch wants to use this last entry as a reminder that the ever-elusive "holiday spirit" still lives in our world. Like the Massachusetts woman who is donating her kidney to a friend as a Christmas gift. Or the anonymous donor who delivered envelopes containing $100 bills to a mother whose husband is deployed to Iraq. Or the way that Israelis and Palestinians are cooperating for the first time in five years to encourage Christians to visit Bethlehem for Christmas. All stories of sacrifice, cooperation, and giving that carry with them a sense of hope for next December--and all the months before that.
And to all a good night.
Update: Festivus in the Public Square
As we previously reported, today, December 23, is "Festivus," the fictional holiday made famous by "Seinfeld" sitcom character Frank Costanza. The holiday, which consists of spare decorations and secular rituals like "feats of strength," has gained popularity among some who like the message, "A Festivus for the Rest of Us."
In Barlow, Florida, the observance of Festivus hit a December Dilemma snag, however, when a town commission ruled that a Festivus sign placed in the town square next to a nativity scene must be removed. The nativity scene had been erected without permission from the board, and in response the board voted to make the area a "temporary forum for expression." However, the Festivus supporters did not subsequently apply for permission to keep their display up, so it will be removed. A display honoring the ancient sage Zoroaster, however, will be allowed to stay.
With debates raging nationwide about celebrating Christmas in public places like schools and town squares, one Catholic activist is suggesting that atheists join in by establishing their own holiday. William Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, said today that atheists should celebrate "Nothingday, a day on which they could "honor what they believe in, which is absolutely nothing."
Religious v. Secular
Evangelical Christians aren't the only ones who are up in arms about efforts to banish "Merry Christmas" from schools and other public places. Mainline Protestants and even non-Christians are joining in the effort to welcome Christmas in public spaces. The "snowflake that broke the camel's back" for many parents is when schools include Hanukkah songs and other holiday music in concerts but relegate Christmas music to only the "Let It Snow" variety.
Orthodox Rabbi Shmuley Boteach believes that the "Merry Christmas" backlash has gone too far. Boteach believes that fighting over whether to say "Merry Christmas" or "Happy Holidays" is having serious social consequences for our country, including widening the divide between religious and secular Americans.
Last-Minute Interfaith Understanding
It's not too late for interfaith families to work together to come to terms with how to honor multiple faiths in their home during Christmas. This MSNBC article offers some suggestions and some resources for doing just that. A helpful reminder: even with hard work to make children understand their parents' respective traditions, kids will still be confused at times.
Pope Endorses Christmas Trees
The best Christmas gifts are not found in the malls or on e-commerce sites, says Pope John Paul II. In a speech this past weekend to pilgrims gathered at St. Peter's in Rome, the Pope warned that materialism suffocates the spirit of Christmas. He urged Christians to focus not on material gift-giving but on the "religious symbols," especially the nativity crib and the Christmas tree, which represent the true meaning of the holiday.
For the Rest of Us
In this season of multiple celebrations that can lead to holiday confusion, the answer might just be found in that "show about nothing." Festivus, the winter festival invented by Frank Costanza, Jerry Stiller's character on the 1990s sitcom "Seinfeld," included such non-sectarian rituals as "the airing of grievances" and "feats of strength." Frustrated with the dizzying array of holiday pressures, Frank decided there needed to be "A Festivus for the Rest of Us!" Read more about the "tradition," whose only decoration is a bare aluminum pole, on a Seinfeld fan website.
This December 23, which is the chosen day for Festivus, there are those among us who will actually be observing the fictional festival. Yesterday's New York Times included an article about efforts around the country to bring "the rest of us" into the loop on this celebration.
It's a Small World After All
Nativity scenes might be controversial in town squares or public schools, but they are also cultural artifacts that are to be studied and admired. To that end, the University of Dayton has gathered 1,200 nativity scenes from 45 countries into an exhibit that tracks the cultural priorities of German, Mexican, and Native American cultures, among others.
Update: Cuba Retaliates
On Wednesday we reported that U.S. diplomats in Cuba had refused to remove Christmas decorations with the number "75," indicating solidarity with jailed political dissidents, from their office building. Today, the Cuban government retaliated by erecting a billboard linking America and Nazis. The billboard, which faces the office, features images of American soldiers abusing prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison, a Nazi swastika, and a "Made in the U.S.A." stamp. A former U.S. diplomat who worked in Cuba told the Associated Press that the Cubans' actions were an appropriate response, from their perspective, to the criticism the U.S. had made of Cuban prison policies. "If I were in their shoes, this is what I would do--call attention to the fact that the United States is now guilty of torture, of massive violations of human rights," Wayne Smith said. However, he added, the Nazi image went too far.
Chrismukkah in the O.C.
Last year, the popular Fox television show "The O.C." popularized the term Chrismukkah. Simply put, the term melds Christmas and Hanukkah into one big holiday amalgam that incorporates, literally, the best of both worlds. The show is airing a holiday episode tonight in which a main character, the child of an interfaith couple, searches, tongue in cheek, for a Chrismukkah miracle. Boston Globe television critic Matthew Gilbert writes about the phenomenon and explores how the "pop cultural salve" of blended holidays can serve to secularize both to an uncomfortable level for religious people.
No Nativity? No School
Parents in Mustang, Oklahoma, angry after a school superintendent removed a nativity scene from the school's Christmas program, made their displeasure known by voting to deny the district $11 million in funds. Among other projects, the funding would have paid for a new elementary school to be built. The holiday program did include the singing of "Silent Night," but the superintendant had decided that the nativity scene violated the separation of church and state and could not be included. Parents protested outside the program, some holding signs that read, "No Christ. No Christmas. Know Christ. Know Christmas."
Christmas in Cuba
In other countries, the December Dilemma can take different forms from the American "how-do-we-celebrate-inclusively?" debate. In Cuba, a controversy has arisen because U.S. diplomats have refused to remove Christmas decorations from the front of their office building. The decorations consist of Santa Claus, candy canes, and white lights wrapped around palm trees. But indications are that the Cuban government, which has threatened unspecified consequences if the decorations are not removed, would not be as upset if it weren't for a sign that says "75" among the decorations. The sign refers to 75 Cuban dissidents who were jailed last year, and U.S. Interest Chief James Cason told reporters, "Our intent, in the spirit of Christmas, was to call attention to the plight of these 75. We're prepared to pay whatever price for the things we believe in."
A community activist in Terrebonne Parish, Louisiana is waging a campaign to put the "Christ" back in "Christmas" by petitioning the local government to add "Merry Christmas" to its "Season's Greetings" banner. The banner is spread across the government office building. The activist, Joseph Pinero, leads an organization called Citizens for Good Government, which contends that the separation of church and state violates the intentions of our country's founders. The parish's president, however, has indicated that he is not inclined to redecorate the government building. In response, Pinero has ordered 100 lawn signs that read "We Believe in God. Merry Christmas" to distribute to area church members. (Please note: a free username and password are required to read the full Houma Courier article.)
Selling the Holidays
Hanukkah ends Wednesday night, but interfaith families struggle with the December Dilemma right up through December 25. This Philadelphia Intelligencer article describes one family who struggles not with the religious aspects of the dual celebration, but the overwhelming pressure to shower their children with gifts. Sensing a marketing opportunity, companies have started to "Christmatize" Hanukkah by selling all kinds of surprising gifts from Mickey Mouse dreidel games, to Reggae Hanukkah CDs, and even a DVD titled "Chanukkah on Planet Matzah Ball."
Working Through the Dilemma
The December Dilemma doesn't only strike schools and town squares, it also arises in workplaces. To help companies be more understanding to religiously diverse employees, the business consulting company Pro Group publishes an eight-point tipsheet for businesses to use in confronting the December Dilemma. Among the tips: Make workplace holiday celebrations informative rather than religious, and honor any requests or challenges that may come up. Please note, this resource was first published in a past year, so the dates for Hanukkah are incorrect.
Making a List...of Vandalisms
The Catholic League, a Catholic anti-defamation organization, has published a list of nativity scenes that have been vandalized this holiday season. The vandalisms, which mostly involve robbery of the baby Jesus or entire nativity scenes--one weighing 75 pounds--caused League president William Donohue to declare this year "the worst we've seen, and most nativity scenes have yet to be erected."
Update: Not A Very Posh Christmas
We wrote earlier about Christian leaders voicing their dismay at a London wax museum display that cast soccer star David Beckham and his wife, formerly "Posh Spice" of the Spice Girls, as Jesus and Mary. It seems that a protestor took his or her feelings one step further by attacking the museum's nativity scene and knocking over the Beckhams' figures. The attacker escaped after being chased by museum staff. "He pushed Posh and Becks over. It caused some damage but we don't know how much. The baby Jesus is fine," said a museum spokesperson.
A Humanistic Season
You don't have to believe in God to celebrate the December season, say organizers of a humanistic group. HumanLight.org urges humanists to get involved in the happiness of the season without compromising their beliefs--or the absence of religious beliefs. The group has posted a list of December celebrations that will take place with a "vision of a good future" in locations from New York to Nebraska to California.
Christmas Action Alert
RightMarch.com, a conservative Christian website, has posted an extensive list of what they say are anti-Christmas incidents, including the exclusion of the Salvation Army from Target and the banning of "Merry Christmas" signs in Macy's, on an action alert website designed to raise money and inundate offending companies and towns with letters and emails. The campaign is reaching out to anyone "who wants to take a stand to support the Christmas holiday against these latest attacks."
A 'Defiant' Menorah
In Fair Lawn, New Jersey, a local Hasidic rabbi has been trying for years to get permission to light a menorah on Borough Hall grounds, next to the town's Christmas tree. This year, instead of going through the usual process of applying and being turned down for a permit, he lit an eight-foot "defiant" menorah of protest on private property that is just across the street from the Borough Hall. The menorah bore a sign that read, "There will be liberty and justice for all when I am across the street."
The town declared that the tree is not a Christmas tree, but rather a "holiday tree." This added insult to injury for the rabbi, who felt that the tree, which has no association with Hanukkah, does not represent any faith other than Christianity. "There's a double standard," said Rabbi Levi Neubort, "one that pays for a Christmas tree with tax dollars and won't allow us to put up a menorah. They can call it [the menorah] a 'holiday candlestick' if they wish."
A Very Posh Christmas
Christian leaders are up in arms over a nativity display in a London wax museum that casts soccer superstar David Beckham and his Spice Girl wife Victoria (a.k.a. Posh) as Joseph and Mary. The display also casts President George W. Bush as one of the three wise men, and the actors Hugh Grant and Samuel L. Jackson as shepherds. Museum spokespeople are saying that the display was intended to be "fun," but Christian leaders are not amused. "There is a well-understood tradition that each generation interprets and reinterprets the Nativity ... but, oh dear!" said the Rev. Jonathan Jenkins, spokesman for the archbishop of Canterbury, who leads the world's 77 million Anglicans.
Can Jews Have a Merry Christmas?
Members of Aish would not be likely to agree with his answer, but columnist and "Being Jewish" magazine publisher Gil Mann confronts a common question in a new column about the extent to which Jews can "like" Christmas--specifically its social and charitable aspects. He divulges that he personally rates Christmas an 8 or 9 out of ten on the likeability scale, despite incidents of being teased and feeling left out as a child. The best thing about Christmas, according to Mann? Participating in a Christian friend's celebration is the perfect opening to invite that person to a Shabbat dinner or a Jewish holiday celebration. That, he concludes, is a welcome opportunity for tolerance, not pressure to assimilate.
Back to Basics
It's so easy to think of Hanukkah, which began last night, as the "Jewish Christmas," what with the heightened marketing hype that's come to be associated with it. But, as this article from the Orthodox website Aish.com points out, Hanukkah is not a central holiday religiously or spiritually for Jews. Ironically, the article states, one of the themes of Hanukkah is precisely a resistance to cultural assimilation.
"When you live in one of America's 2.5 million Jewish-Christian households, what season is this?" asks writer Terry Mattingly in a provocative column on his site this week. He explores how interfaith families tend to amalgamate holiday celebrations in December, using decorations that symbolize both Christmas and Hanukkah and sending "Chrismukkah" cards. Where's the harm in combining the celebrations? Well, explains Mattingly, besides the fact that the two holidays are "fundamentally incompatible," "The problem with the 'Oy to the World' punch lines is that, for many Jewish and Christian leaders, interfaith marriage isn't funny." It's confusing for kids and those who are searching for a religious anchor in their lives, he says--and combining the holidays only secularizes them further.
An O'Reilly Christmas
In a discussion about Christmas last Friday, radio and television talk show host Bill O'Reilly said this to a Jewish caller who was concerned about Christmas celebrations in public schools:
"You have a predominantly Christian nation. You have a federal holiday based on the philosopher Jesus. And you don't wanna hear about it? Come on, [caller] -- if you are really offended, you gotta go to Israel then. I mean because we live in a country founded on Judeo -- and that's your guys' -- Christian, that's my guys' philosophy. But overwhelmingly, America is Christian. And the holiday is a federal holiday honoring the philosopher Jesus. So, you don't wanna hear about it? Impossible."
Hanukkah Lights Will Shine
In the Boston suburb of Weston, a Hasidic Jewish group has won a compromise on a battle over publicly lighting a Hanukkah menorah on the last night of Hanukkah, Dec. 14. The town said that as a secular entity, it could not allow the menorah to be lit on Town Hall property. But Moshe Yehuda Bleich, a representative of the Chabad organization, threatened to sue. The town agreed to a compromise in which Bleich will light the menorah and recite an invocation in English, but not say any Hebrew prayers.
Letting Christmas Back In
This just in: the mayor of Denver is not opposed to Christmas. Mayor John Hickenlooper had landed himself in hot water for a Thanksgiving comment that suggested he would remove the City Council building's "Merry Christmas" sign next year, replacing it with a "Happy Holidays" sign. But late last week, he retracted the statement, declaring that the "Merry Christmas" sign would remain. "'Hickenlooper' might have two Os, but I am not Scrooge," he told TheDenverChannel.com, "We are happy to keep the 'Merry Christmas' sign, and perhaps we can explore the possibility of also adding a 'Happy Holidays' sign to the display next year."
Meanwhile, a second December Dilemma issue is plaguing Denver. The city's annual Parade of Lights has banned a group from the Faith Bible Chapel from participating, citing concerns over the group's religious Christmas carols and overtly religious holiday message. The group had offered to sponsor its own float, but town officials declined, saying that they have a strict policy of disallowing any religious or political messages from the parade. The group, for its part, says it plans to march the parade route one hour before the parade begins.
A mother in Queens, New York is suing her child's public school for allegedly banning a nativity scene from display but allowing a Hanukkah menorah and Muslim star and crescent to be displayed. School officials say that their policy distinguishes between overtly religious displays, such as the baby Jesus, and more secular holiday decorations. But the mother, Andrea Skoros, disagrees, telling Fox News, "I felt that it is only fair if they are going to display the menorah, which is a religious symbol, that they also display the Nativity scene instead of just snowmen and stockings and Christmas trees."
Don't Hug the Cutout
Facing declining volunteer numbers and non-solicitation policies at stores like Target, The Salvation Army has placed cardboard cutouts of volunteers ringing the Army's famous bell in front of 200 Books-A-Million and Hibbett Sporting Goods stores throughout the South. The cutouts, which ring and say "Merry Christmas, God Bless You" are the next best thing to live volunteers and a great cost-cutting measure, spokespeople say. But the kettles where donations are collected are kept safely inside the stores.
A "Swinging Holiday"
Legal activity, for the moment restricted to a letter-writing campaign to school officials, is gaining steam in Chicago, where parents feel religion is being "cleansed" from the classroom. The last straw? A second-grade classroom where instead of wishing each other "Merry Christmas," students must instead say, "have a swinging holiday."
For their part, the American Civil Liberties Union, which supports only non-religious references to holidays in schools, doesn't see what the fuss is about. "Does anybody really think Christmas is going to be forgotten this time of year? Does anybody actually think that people of faith would not celebrate this holiday?" ACLU Chicago's Ed Yohnka told a local ABC news station.
A Different Kind of Pageant
The Christmas season is rife with things to do, lists to check twice, people to sue. That at least is the premise of The Christmas Project of the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), a Scottsdale, Arizona-based conservative Christian legal organization. Working to combat what it calls "continuing efforts to censor the celebration of Christmas" in schools, the ADF has assembled a team of 700 lawyers who work free of charge, contacting at least 1,000 school districts (so far) this year with a very simple message: "It's OK to say, 'Merry Christmas.'"
There Go the Bells
Shoppers will no longer hear the ringing of bells at Target, Barnes & Noble, Home Depot, Best Buy, Circuit City, Kohl's, Lowe's, and Toys R Us this holiday season. Those stores have adopted a no-solicitation policy that will most notably prohibit the Salvation Army from taking its familiar place in front of high-traffic stores ringing a bell and collecting donations in a signature red kettle.
Retailers are saying that the new prohibition does not change their commitment to community involvement--Target, for example, invests $2 million monthly in community organizations.
But the Salvation Army, which raised $94 million nationwide at 20,000 kettle locations last Christmas season, is saying that despite direct-mail campaigns and other fundraising techniques, it will be difficult if not impossible to match the funds that they would have raised at the high-profile stores.
The Grinch Who Stole "Merry Christmas"
A group calling itself the Committee to Save Merry Christmas has announced a boycott of Federated Department Stores, which includes Bloomingdale's and Macy's, after the company turned down requests to post "Merry Christmas" signs in their stores during the holiday season.
"It's the height of hypocrisy for a corporation to make tens of millions of dollars selling Christmas presents, yet coldly refuse to acknowledge Christmas," said Manuel Zamorano, the chairman of the committee. The group is not only urging people to shop for Christmas gifts elsewhere, it is also inviting them to visit SaveMerryChristmas.org to write a letter to the company expressing their disappointment.