Religion, Lately: Christmas, Hanukkah,Yule, and Kwanzaa

By Kenny Smith & Heather Abraham

So Now It’s Christmas… 

But things went terribly wrong at a live nativity play in West Palm Beach, Florida. The camel, Lula Bell, was supposed to approach to the manger and lower herself into a sitting position on stage. Instead, whether due to stage fright or “a bum front right knee that… had been bothering her… Lula Bell balked, then stumbled and fell… knocking the third wise man into the horrified audience,” and throwing her rider into the pews. Apparently, the church involved rented Lula Bell from Animals in Motion, a Florida-based company that provides animals for films, TV shows, and (somewhat dubiously) “private parties.” Indeed, it’s owner has a somewhat shady animal past, so to speak, convicted in 2002 for selling federally protected black leopards, and charged with animal cruelty in the late 1990s for a high-diving mules act” which State Rep. Suzanne Jacobs described as deeply troubling: “The animals in the acts would balk, they would defecate, they would surely show stress and pain.”  

For those who wish to avoid the dangers of real-life nativity encounters, the drive-through nativity is recommended, where the Christmas faithful may gaze serenely upon the biblical panorama “from the comfort of their own vehicles.” In York, Maine, nativity drive-bys have become a yearly tradition, with “elaborate sets and designs… that include depictions of Caesar’s Palace, travelers on the road to Bethlehem, the wise men, the overcrowded inn, the shepherds and angels in the field and the manger,” hundreds of candles, and the tolling of church bells. “Last year,” event coordinators say, some 500 cars drove by; “people were in tears… It is so moving.”  

The personalization and commodification of nativity displays, and the controversies and legal cases in which they inevitably result, are also in ample supply this year. As ABC news reports, in some California retail stores, sexy nativity window displays [video link] incite “total rage” among some local Christians. 

Elsewhere, groups such the Freedom From Religion Foundation have fought for their right to set up atheist Christmas displays sporting such cheerful holiday jingles as, “Religion is but myth and superstition” and “There is not God!”  In Springfield, Illinois, devotees of the 1990s sit-com Seinfeld hope to erect a “Festivus Pole celebrating the fictional holiday from the television show.”

In Loudon, Virginia, nativity wars seem to have given way to Star Wars. In Loudon’s public space, where “traditional Christian symbols have been joined by displays of symbols from the Jewish, Muslim and Sikh faiths,” this holiday season ten different displays are on view: “a Christmas tree, a manger scene, five atheist displays, and a mannequin arrangement featuring ‘the chosen one,’ Luke Skywalker, from the Star Wars films.  

Nativity scene vandalism is itself becoming a holiday tradition. In St. Louis, Missouri, nativity thieves did not merely arrange the sheep and wise men in an objectionable manner, nor make away with a baby Jesus, but absconded with the entire arrangement. [Video Link] In response to this emerging tradition, the New York state legislature has made it a felony to deface religious displays.  More, professional security firms are now offering private surveillance and tracking technologies–such as BrickHouse Security’s GPS Jesus Program–in order to protect nativities from would-be despoilers [Link to ABC video].   In what some see as a Nativity miracle, a fire that utterly gutted an Alabama church did no harm to the nativity next door, nor the Bible within it.   

It’s also Hannukah, Yule, and Kwanza….

Hanukkah, the Jewish Festival of Lights commemorating the rededication of the Second Temple of Jerusalem, traditionally begins on the 25th of the Hebrew month of Kislev and concludes on the second or third day of Tevet. For some Jews, this year’s celebration (December 1-9), included concern that this minor Jewish holiday maybe outgrowing its traditional roots—becoming too much like the American Christmas celebration.  According to Rabbi David Booth, as reported by the Kansas City Star, “Even the practice of gifting associated with Hanukkah is a post-World War II tradition created here in the United States as American Jews became more integrated into the culture.  It’s not really a practice outside of the U.S.”  

While some worry about the blending of religious holidays and the adoption of traditions borrowed from the Christian American Majority, other Jews are reconnecting with previous generations by resurrecting Eastern European recipes from the Shtetl.   Recipes for Ashkenazic stews, pickles, and pastries have found fertile ground in American Jewish kitchens, connecting generations through traditional comfort foods that transcend time.  However, let’s not forget that the Hanukkah story began with Jews who were concerned about the loss of religious tradition and a blending of cultures.  In his article, This Muslim Says, Give Me that Ol’ Time Judaism, Dr. Hesham A. Hassaballa, explores the history of the Hanukkah story and explains how its narrative speaks to adherents of other Abrahamic traditions.   

Yule or Winter Solstice

“Last year saw a large number of people (including Druids) turn up at Stonehenge on the wrong day in 2009”, squeals the official Stonehenge Visitor website!  Wanting to avoid a repeat of last year’s mix up, the site published the proper date notification under the unambiguous title, Stonehenge Winter Solstice – 22nd December 2010 Stonehenge is a famous pilgrimage destination for the many Pagans, Wiccans, and Druids who journey there to witness and commemorate the Yule Festival (Winter Solstice), which marks the end of the long dark nights and proclaims the gradual lengthening of days, the return of the sun.  Yule, historically celebrated by many cultures, includes many traditions and rituals that are easily recognizable to Christians who are often unaware of the many Christmas traditions borrowed from their Pagan neighbors.   

In 2011, according to the Daily Mail, Yule and seven other Pagan holidays will be recognized as official religious holidays in the UK.  This recognition includes holiday time for working Pagan prisoners who will be allowed to choose, according to their specific tradition, four holidays each year in which to celebrate their religion.

Kwanzaa

Kwanzaa, the most recent addition to the annual end of year Holiday season, is an African American holiday with a strong focus on faith, community, family, and creativity.  First celebrated in 1966, Kwanzaa is fast becoming a vibrant American Holiday involving a full week of celebrations beginning on the 26th of December.  Each day of the Kwanzaa week is associated with one of the Seven Kwanza Principles.  Kwanzaa is not a religious holiday but a cultural one and is often celebrated in conjunction with religious holidays.  In her article, Old Customs Meet New Celebrations, Abiola Abrams talks about Kwanzaa as an important addition to her family’s Christmas celebrations.  A gala event, at the New York Museum of Natural History, will mark the “44 years Kwanzaa has celebrated African-American life and heritage.  The Legacy Continues…KWANZAA 2010! is a vibrant all-day event that honors the seven African-based principles of Kwanzaa, called Nguzo Saba in Swahili, with performances of song, dance, and spoken word.”  Each of the Seven Principles will be represented at events throughout the day.

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