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Christmas can still be for everybody

Between the Lines / By Peter McDermott





My father would tell us kids about Christmastime in his small town in the West of Ireland. He'd build the scene: the narrow bustling streets filling up with shoppers; the churches making their preparations; the excitement of the children, which inevitably lifted the adults' mood. There was mention of holly, I think, and if not quite snow then severe frost to add more seasonal color. The detail I do remember clearly: geese hanging by their necks in butchers' windows.


Cut to two old timers sitting in a bar. One bitterly shakes his head at his drink and exhales: "Ah, it's not a bit like Christmas."

Christmas is, at least in part, a state of mind. It is what you make of it yourself. Still, people who came to America in recent decades have often felt: "This is not a bit like Christmas." Only last week, one of my Irish-born colleagues declared the American Christmas "horrible."

We were spoiled, I guess. The Irish and British channels would put on a feast of television that coincided with the two-week break from school and then college. You got to see, for example, lots of old Hollywood films in a short few days, some even about Christmas. And nothing sold that like the movies; but occasionally there'd be hint of what it was really like in America. In "The Apartment," for one, Jack Lemmon character's turned up in bad shape at his office on Dec. 26. "What?" we'd say in amazement, "He's going to work on St. Stephen's Day?"

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Irish people were raised to believe that sacred days went hand in hand with a certain slowing down of commercial activity, and sometimes it came to a near halt. Try finding somewhere open on Christmas Day if you forgot something important beforehand. St. Patrick's Day (until quite recently, bars were closed in Ireland), Easter and Christmas had certain rituals attached to them.

So, one might have a certain respect for Bill O'Reilly's notion of a "war on Christmas" if it were accompanied by an appeal to a return to a sense of the sacred, or for department stores to close down for 48 hours, or for things to slow down generally, or for people to get into a more meditative and reflective mood. One might respect it, too, if it were informed by the historical complexities, not a frozen moment in the 1950s. It could acknowledge, for example, that Irish Catholics were attacked, and some killed, by American Protestants for celebrating the birth of Christ in too ostentatious a manner (which is what happened 200 years ago in St. Peter's parish, still located at the site we call Ground Zero).

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There is no reason why Christmas can't be both a secular and a religious holiday, which I believe is what O'Reilly argues for. It is a Christmas tree, not a "holiday" tree and that's not imposing one faith on others. However, the idea that there is a great secularist plot to undermine the season is absurd. The politeness about "holidays," even if it goes too far, is about respecting cultural and religious differences.

Not every non-Christian agrees entirely with that approach. I remember a conversation with a Jewish senior who told me he'd raised his half-Jewish children to love Christmas. "Now, everybody is gone so [expletive] ethnic," he said. A Guyanese man in our office building said he's looking forward to his first Christmas at home in 30 years. He's a Hindu. It's a holiday for every religion and none, according to him.

One would have thought with the emphasis on "holidays," both Catholics and Protestants would have welcomed the opportunity to put Christ back into Christmas. O'Reilly, though, seems instead to be appealing to the miserable sort who moaned into their drinks back in my dad's Roscommon long ago.

Frazier Moore of the Associated Press is one who is unimpressed with the Fox News man's rallying of his troops. "It makes Christmas a political wedge issue," Moore said in an essay last week. "It's a celebration that, under the pretense of peace and goodwill, is ripe for fighting about on his show.

"Call it what you like," the AP writer added, "Christmas waged like that is just an annual observance of Us vs. Them."