Why One Rabbi Loves Christmas

Rabbi Marc Gelman, famous for his part in TV's "The God Squad," wrote a piece in this week's Newsweek that can serve as a reminder to all of the true meaning of Christmas. That's right, the rabbi gets the last word on Christmas! As this year's December Dilemma Watch draws to a close, Gelman's words are a reminder of our innate ability to rise above the squabbles, the protests, the boycotts, and the lawsuits--and focus on the lovely and varied spiritual aspects of this time of year. In his words:

"I love miracles. I have seen a few and heard of many. None of the miracles I have ever seen involve splitting a sea or feeding a great multitude from a challah bread and some herring. The miracles I mostly see involve the transformation of old enemies into reconciled friends, the transformation of sick marriages into loving ones, the spontaneous remission of diseases, the return of a smile to a face creased with the frowns of grief, the breakthroughs in learning by a child who was deeply challenged the return to mobility of the disabled, the understanding of a new way for prayer or mediation that brought hoped-for serenity to a storm-tossed soul, the commitment to a life of health after a life of tragic self abuse, the way lost people are suddenly found and mostly the way people without hope discover that religion saves them from hell.

All these miracles and more gain new light and luster in this season of miracles. I love that Christmas is a holiday for the celebration of miracles. That is what I love most."

The Renewable War

In this week's New Yorker magazine, writer Hendrik Hertzberg writes that the war on Christmas is neither new nor compelling. But society has made some progress, he intones, in the sense that previous accusations of anti-Christmas activity were cloaked in the language of anti-Semitism. "It is not religious tolerance in the midst of religious difference, but religious attack that they"—the Jews—"preach and practice," wrote Henry Ford in 1920. "The whole record of the Jewish opposition to Christmas, Easter and certain patriotic songs shows that." At least that one aspect, the "war on Christmas," as it is renewed in each generation, has less of a sting than it once did.

Revenge of 'Bad Santa'

Yesterday we reported a story about a "Bad Santa" display that was taken hostage in Manhattan. Turns out the story is bigger than one man's home display. Reuters ran this story today about the worldwide scourge of bad Santas. Drunken Santas on a rampage in New Zealand, armed German robbers wear Santa disguises, a British St. Nick is wanted for flashing, and a Swedish vandal also dons a Santa outfit. Perhaps worst of all, in London, a "foul-mouthed" Santa made some children cry.

Governors: Merry _______ Day

Thirty-six out of the 50 state governors in America wished their constituents a generic "happy holiday" in their 2005 cards, according to a Stateline.org study out today. Those 36 are evenly split down party lines--18 Democrats and 18 Republicans. While some people will continue to object--as they did to President Bush's non-Christian holiday card--to the generic wording, another study, from the Pew Center for People and the Press declares the holiday greeting flap ho, ho, hum. According to that group, far more people are disturbed by the commercialization of Christmas than by the semantics of holiday greetings.

'Bad Santa' Faces the Music

Manhattan resident Joel Krupnik might have thought he was being funny when he erected a "Bad Santa" display in front of his home, but a local group was not amused. The group, calling themselves "The 7th Avenue Boys for a Merry Christmas," has apparently stolen the offending display, which features Santa holding a severed doll's head, and is holding the head for ransom until the owner writes "I am sorry for being a bad boy" 1,000 times. Krupnik said that he put up the display to show his displeasure at the commercialization of Christmas. But the 7th Avenue Boys did not see Krupnik's point. "Although it's technically illegal, sometimes we have to cross the line and sacrifice our possible well-being to protect children's hearts and minds and their innocence," a spokesman for the anonymous group said in a statement.

Katrina Was No Grinch

MSNBC.com has posted this dispatch from the Hurricane Katrina-ravaged town of Bay St. Louis, Miss. After all the pain and suffering that the storm caused the region, home after home in this slowly-recovering town has emerged with Christmas decorations proudly lighting up their trailers and homes. "Katrina took a lot of things, but it can't take Christmas," said Bay St. Louis resident Lance Rihner.

An Inner December Dilemma

Does a woman who is converting from Christianity to Judaism have to say "bah, humbug" to her family's Christmas traditions? This is the question a Beliefnet reader asked relationships columnist Rabbi Shmuley Boteach as December 25, Hanukkah, and Christmas draw near. Balancing her desire to remain close to her family with her commitment to her new religious home is a difficult but important task, Boteach explained. His suggestion? "Attend the family's Christmas celebrations without embracing the religious component of the holiday."

Holiday Peace with the In-Laws

This article in today's Boston Globe goes where few have dared to tread--into the family dynamics that can emerge when an interfaith family is faced with competitive holiday-celebrating. As the first Hanukkah candle is lit this year on Christmas Day, "some grandparents and other relatives may take it as license to engage in one-upmanship, a not-so-subtle way to woo grandchildren into thinking their holiday is better," writes reporter Barbara F. Meltz. There is hope, though. As long as parents are proactive, laying out the holiday plans clearly to both families before the fact, everyone should be able to enjoy eating latkes and candy canes as one big happy family.

Does Santa Have Gas?

Some retail stores that target younger shoppers are skipping the traditional December Dilemma and finding an entirely new way to offend parents. Off-color holiday songs can be heard in stores throughout the mall, featuring lyrics that involve Osama bin Laden getting run over by a reindeer, or Santa Claus struggling with digestive problems. As the author of the article writes, "Welcome to Christmas 2005, a land where Sinatra's sincere shtick has yielded to "South Park" satire."

Don't Wish Me Happy Chrismukkah!

The current issue of InterfaithFamily.com offers a number of articles on how interfaith families are dealing with the unusual phenomenon of the first night of Hanukkah falling on Christmas Day this year. One interesting sidebar are the results of the group's annual "December Dilemma Survey," which found that, among other things, 78 percent of interfaith families feel that "Chrismukkah," or celebrating both Hanukkah and Christmas concurrently, is a bad idea.

Is the Media to Blame for the Christmas Wars?

Fox News Channel host Bill O'Reilly wrote in yesterday's Talking Points Memo that retail stores and government agencies are not to blame for the contentious nature of Christmas in America. Instead, he says, the media is responsible for perpetuating the hostilities. Newspapers across the country--with only one exception, according to O'Reilly--have "distorted the issue," in part by saying "the entire controversy is a work of fanatical Christians." O'Reilly concludes by saying, "Twenty years ago, there was no Christmas controversy. Back then, saying `Merry Christmas' was the accepted greeting of the season. That is not true any longer."

Boycotting Target? Shop Hare Krishna!

The International Society for Krishna Consciousness, better known to most as Hare Krishnas, is advertising its Govinda’s Imports shop in Los Angeles as the best trendy place to shop for Christmas gifts. Celebrities from Pink to Anthony Hopkins to Drew Barrymore have reportedly browsed in the shop, which sells saris, incense, and other spiritual items.

Festivus Goes Commercial

Who needs a Christmas tree when you can buy a Festivus Pole? The website ChosenCulture.com offers a miniature pole that is being marketed as a way to celebrate the fictional holiday that was made famous by Jerry Stiller's character Frank Costanza in a 1997 episode of "Seinfeld." Fed up with the commercialism of Christmas--and the toy store battles he found himself embroiled in--Frank invented what he called "a Festivus for the rest of us." Marked by such rituals as the "Airing of Grievances," in which people tell loved ones how they've disappointed them over the past year, and "Feats of Strength," where the head of the household has to pin the other members of the family, Wikipedia.org explains that Festivus is in fact celebrated "in varying degrees of seriousness" nationwide. Lest you need more information--or even some good Festivus recipes--a new book chronicles the truth and fiction of the holiday.

News Organization: Remind People It's Christmas

The online Christian news organization WorldNetDaily.com is stocking its online store with items that will help its readers share with the world their celebration of Christmas. From Christmas tree-shaped car magnets that say, "It's the Reason for the Season" to wristbands bearing the message, "Just Say Merry Christmas," WorldNet says the merchandise is "the perfect and elegant way to show how you feel about Christmas."

Dear Jerry Falwell,

The Rev. Barry Lynn, head of Americans United for Church and State, has posted an angry open letter to the Rev. Jerry Falwell on his website. In it, he announces to Falwell that "there is no war on Christmas." Criticizing Falwell's "Friend or Foe" campaign, in which Falwell maintains a list of companies that are friendly or antithetical to Christmas, Lynn writes, "I am a friend of the Constitution and a foe of intolerance. You should be too."

Would Jesus Shop at Wal-Mart?

Not every boycott of Wal-Mart is about the company's substitution of "holidays" for "Christmas". The group "Wake Up Wal-Mart" has launched a television ad asking the question, "Should people of faith shop at Wal-Mart?" The ad, which opens with Luke 6:31 ("Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."), mentions the discrimination lawsuit brought against Wal-Mart by more than 1 million women, the lack of health insurance for 600,000 Wal-Mart workers, and the accusations that the company has broken child labor laws.

Is that Paris in a Manger?

Debates over nativity scenes displayed in front yards, public squares, and in front of government buildings are perennial December fare. But a Paris Hilton Christmas display? The Associated Press reports a story from a Cranston, Rhode Island home, where the owners have posted a brightly-lit Christmas display featuring the socialite heiress. Neighbors are up in arms, with one telling the reporter "he would be upset if his young grandchildren came to associate Christmas with a naked woman. He'd prefer the kids to think of Santa Claus. After all, [the neighbor] said, "He's been around longer."

The "Point" of Christmas

Listen to today's episode of NPR's "On Point" to hear a spirited debate over the "Happy Holidays"/"Merry Christmas" wars. Or, for some lighter fare, check out these politically correct Christmas cartoons from newspapers across the country.

What Would the Druids Do?

Boston Globe columnist Ellen Goodman shares in this piece a story about her husband pledging to educate his goddaughter in the ways of the Druid. Today, she says, his comments would be right-on, with Christmas trees, "the sacred and co-opted evergreens of the Druids," being regarded as "the symbols of the purist Christmas Christians." Goodman's column contains interesting historical notes, such as the fact that Christmas was not recognized as a federal holiday until 1870. Oh, and this tidbit to put things in perspective: "The last real war against Christmas was, in fact, a religious war. It was waged in [Boston] by Puritans who banned mince pies and plum puddings and declared that celebrating Christmas was a criminal offense."

Was the President Praising Santa?

Lighting the National Christmas Tree is the pleasure of every president. But at the ceremony last week, President George W. Bush's remarks caught one Christian news organization off guard. WorldNetDaily.com has covered the flap that ensued when the president appeared to equate Jesus and Santa. Bush said, "the lighting of the National Christmas Tree is one of the great traditions in our nation's capital. Each year, we gather here to celebrate the season of hope and joy – and to remember the story of one humble life that lifted the sights of humanity. Santa, thanks for coming. Glad you made it."

A question to White House spokesman Scott McClellan and a later email exchange left WorldNetDaily satisfied that Bush "was not comparing Jesus with Santa Claus in the remarks he made," but that the two comments were part of separate thoughts.

WWJD on 12/25?

In this column on Fox News' website, author Mike Straka emerges from his December Dilemma frustration with one question: What Would Jesus Do? He concludes that in fact, "Jesus wouldn't care about Xmas." After all, Straka writes, "even His most faithful disciple denied Him three times after The Last Supper, so you'd think He'd be kind of immune to U.S. retail outlets denying His name as well."

Also, is Straka taking a not-so-subtle jab at his colleague Bill O'Reilly when he says, "You won't see the guy fostering the Merry Christmas vs. Happy Holidays debate turning down free eggnog at the company holiday party. And indeed, he shouldn't. He needs to lighten up a bit. Have a little holiday cheer!"

The Holy Family on 'The Hill'

Eager to "counteract the secularization of Christmas" by government offices and even the White House holiday card, the conservative Christian organization Faith and Action has launched a new campaign, called "Operation Nativity." A 10-piece nativity scene will be displayed on the front lawn of Faith and Action's "ministry center," which just happens to be located across the street from the U.S. Supreme Court building. "We would hope that no one would object to this very tasteful reminder of the true meaning of the Christmas season," said the Reverend Rob Schenck, president of Faith and Action and missionary to elected and appointed officials. "If we do get resistance, we are prepared to legally defend our Constitutional right o have this display."

Colbert's 'JesusMas' Campaign

Late-night faux newsman Stephen Colbert featured "Xmas" as his nightly "Word" this week, offering his take on the perennial December debates. Declaring a "Blitzen-Krieg" in the war over Christmas, Colbert lamented the "happy holidays" trend and proposed that we put Jesus back in Christmas (creating, of course, JesusMas). Why? "Because if there's one thing Jesus cared about, it's semantics."

Merry Christmas, ACLU

The Christian organization CrossWalk.com has launched a campaign they hope will drive home their continuing objection to those who would substitute "Happy Holidays" for "Merry Christmas." The campaign, which was initiated by Kevin McCullough, the New York-based talk radio host whose "Musclehead" blog appears on CrossWalk, is called "Merry Christmas, ACLU". It urges Christians to "go get as 'Christmas' a Christmas card as you can find... something that says, 'Joy To The World,' 'For Unto Us A Child Is Born,' but at least 'Merry Christmas,' put some of your own thoughts into it, sign it respectfully and zip it off in the mail" to the American Civil Liberties Union. McCullough has also developed an e-card that people can send. But whichever way people choose to participate in this camapign, he reminds them to be kind, "even cheerful" in their greetings. "Trust me--kindness will produce more smoke out of their ears than anything untoward you could think of anyway," he writes.

Putting the 'X' Back in Christmas

Is it the laziness of those who want to avoid writing out a 9-letter word? Or is it discrimination against the word "Christ?" Or the mark of a flip and sarcastic culture that is always looking for a short-cut? All of the above reasons have been cited by people who don't like to see "Xmas" written instead of the word "Christmas." But according to the American Heritage Dictionary, there is religious method to the semantic madness. The "X" in "Xmas" is actually the Greek letter "chi," which is the first letter of "Christ." Read aloud, "Xmas" and "Christmas" are pronounced exactly the same.

A White House 'Holiday'

Conservative Christians who are disappointed in retail stores that wish customers "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas" are equally frustrated with this year's White House Christmas card. Though the White House holiday greeting is always religiously generic because it is sent to people of all faiths, Washington Post reporter Alan Cooperman writes that some conservative Christians feel slighted. Cooperman reports that Joseph Farah, editor of the conservative web site WorldNetDaily.com says that Bush "claims to be a born-again, evangelical Christian. But he sure doesn't act like one. I threw out my White House card as soon as I got it."

Other Christian groups are not bothered by the cards. "I think it's more important to put Christ back into our war planning than into our Christmas cards," said the National Council of Churches' general secretary, the Rev. Bob Edgar, a former Democratic congressman.

Closing the Church Doors...on Christmas?

Christmas is one of the most important religious holidays of the year, but a growing number of churches are closing their doors on Christmas Day, which this year falls on a Sunday. For one central Kentucky mega-church, "family trumps worship" on Christmas, and canceling services allows staff and volunteers to spend more time with their families. Blogger Matt Jones was disappointed by a similar development at his home church in Tacoma, WA. In response, Jones has written the church a letter and urged his readers to do the same to congregations that are not holding services on Christmas day.

The Creche vs. the Condo

The Detroit News reports this story about a family whose condominium association has instructed them to remove a nativity scene from their front lawn. The association says that the display violates the condo's rules about not putting up decorations or statues without first getting permission from the board. The family is claiming that the condo is discriminating against their religious beliefs by asking only that the nativity be removed, while ignoring other, secular, statues that are displayed on the lawn. The association replied that neighbors complained only about the nativity scene, and not about the other statues. The stiuation is at an impasse, with the family refusing to remove the display.

Judge Alito, Christmas Hero?

David Kirkpatrick writes this article in the New York Times about political ads that portray Supreme Court nominee Judge Samuel A. Alito, Jr. as a protector of Christmas. One radio commercial, paid for by the conservative Committee for Justice, denounces "liberal groups like People for the American Way and the ACLU," which they say "have opposed public Christmas and Hanukkah displays and even fought to keep Christmas carols out of school." In contrast, the ad continues, "Throughout his career, Judge Alito has consistently upheld the Constitution's protection of free religious expression." The ad airs in Colorado, Wisconsin, and West Virginia this week.

The Commercial Irony

In an op-ed column that ran in yesterday's New York Times, Adam Cohen writes about what he describes is an irony in this year's battle over Christmas. In the 1920s, when the "Christmas shopping season" first came to be identified by retailers, there was "an inherent tension: merchants tried to make it about buying, while clergymen tried to keep commerce out," he writes. Ironically, he continues, religious conservatives today are making the marketplace--and whether stores wish their customers "Merry Christmas" or "Happy Holidays"--the battleground for the debate. Writes Cohen, "This year's Christmas 'defenders' are not just tolerating commercialization--they're insisting on it."

Ringing in the Boycotts

The American Family Association, a "pro-family" Christian organization, has posted a list of stores that have "banned Christmas" by wishing customers "Happy Holidays." The group is calling for a boycott of Target, which in addition to only using the word "holidays" has banned Salvation Army bell-ringers from stores. Other chains, including Sears, Office Max, Home Depot, and Best Buy, are also listed, with the AFA urging members to write to the companies and express their disappointment.

Words to Heal the Rift

Just in time for the gift-giving season--and the time of year when interfaith families struggle the most--is a new book on Jewish-Christian reconciliation. Healing the Jewish-Christian Rift: Growing Beyond Our Wounded History, just published by Jewish Lights, seizes on the holiday season as a teachable moment where Jews and Christians can do some truly constructive and genuine healing work by learning the history and theology of the other tradition.

Is the Yule-Tide Turning?

Fox News host Bill O'Reilly, who has been outspoken in his criticism of holiday displays that drain the holidays of their religious meaning, writes on his website that the yuletide is turning. Citing retail chains from Macy's to Walgreens to Lowes Home Improvement Centers, plus public displays in Deerfield, New Hampshire and Wichita, Kansas, O'Reilly says that more and more businesses and communities are recognizing that it is insulting and wrong to separate religious holidays from their spiritual meanings. He says, "I am proud to be a part of the pro-Christmas movement. And things are moving our way, but eternal vigilance is the price of liberty."

What Would Jesus Buy?

Blogger Cathy Young caught a moment on Fox News' "The O'Reilly Factor" where the host continued his ongoing critique of those who would dilute religion out of the winter holidays. O'Reilly agreed with his guest, the Rev. Tim Bumgardner, about whether to include religious holiday displays in public areas. Bumgardner said, "I think they should put a Nativity scene -- be American! Hey, celebrate Christmas -- people spend more money! Jesus makes people want to spend money!"

In related Fox news, Young cites the Media Matters blog's report that the Fox News website had advertised "holiday ornaments", switching to "Christmas" merchandise December 1.

The Politics of the Dilemma

In its daily newsletter, the liberal organization American Progress Action Fund offers its take on the annual battle over religious holiday displays in public places: the so-called "war on Christmas" does not exist.

Instead, the newsletter identifies the insistence by conservative groups and media outlets that Christianity is under seige as little more than a "Christmas conspiracy theory" that aims to "falsely portray progressives as anti-religious."

Calling It Like They See It?

Is a 48-foot white spruce a Christmas tree? Yes, said Boston's commissioner of parks and recreation Antonia Pollak. But as Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby writes in this column, Pollak, as well as Boston's mayor, have been oscillating between calling it a Christmas tree and an all-inclusive holiday tree. Jacoby, who as a Jew does not celebrate Christmas, is disappointed by the mixed messages, and urges officials to call a Christmas tree a Christmas tree, allowing Christians to fully enjoy their holiday symbols. Plus, he says, "It isn't only Christians for whom Christmas is a season of joy. And it isn't only Christians who should make a point of saying so."

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