Christmas

Holiday mystery to ponder -- Where are all the Hanukkah movies?

Holiday mystery to ponder -- Where are all the Hanukkah movies?

In the last decade or two, cable television's holiday-movie season has expanded to the point that it starts soon after Labor Day and weeks before Thanksgiving arrives.

Many titles are classics: "White Christmas," "A Christmas Story," "Miracle on 34th Street," "Home Alone" and the grandfather of them all, near the end of the season, "It's a Wonderful Life."

Alas, then there's "Bad Santa," "The 12 Dogs of Christmas," "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation," "Silent Night, Deadly Night," "Jingle All the Way" and way, way too many others to count.

Occasionally, TV executives add something strange -- like "The Nativity Story."

Consumers who pay attention may note an intriguing gap in this "holiday" entertainment blitz. To be blunt: Where are the Hanukkah movies?

Yes, there is comedian Adam Sandler's "Eight Crazy Nights," which critic Michael Arbeiter once called "a travesty." Writing at Bustle.com, Arbeiter stretched to create a holidays essentials list for Jewish viewers with titles such as "The Producers," "Barton Fink," "Annie Hall," "An American Tail" or even -- "bite the bullet," he said -- "Scrooged," "Muppet Christmas Carol" or another take on "A Christmas Carol" by Charles Dickens.

Part of the problem is that many American Jews -- secular and religious -- have a complex relationship with Hanukkah, the eight-day "Festival of Lights" which this year begins at sundown on Sunday, Dec. 2. For starters, many are offended by all efforts to turn this relatively minor holiday into a "Jewish Christmas." Is it really necessary to create copycat "carols" like "On the First Day of Hanukkah," "I'm Dreaming of a Bright Menorah" and "Maccabees are Coming to Town"?

Meanwhile, some rabbis are not all that comfortable with some "militaristic" themes woven into the Hanukkah story, said veteran religion writer Mark Pinsky of Orlando, Fla., author of "The Gospel According to The Simpsons" and "A Jew among the Evangelicals: A Guide for the Perplexed." Hanukkah isn't a season that leads to easy sermons, he said.

Hanukkah centers on events in 165 B.C., when Jewish rebels led by a family known as the Maccabees defeated their Greek and Syrian rulers. The familiar rite of lighting menorah candles – one on the first night, increasing to eight – is based on a miracle linked with this victory. According to tradition, when the defiled temple was recaptured it contained only one container of pure lamp oil. This one-day supply is said to have burned for eight days.

A December dilemma: Why turn this holiday into a big deal?

Chrismukkah is the reality in modern America: It is what it is ...

Chrismukkah is the reality in modern America: It is what it is ...

It's a question that may pop into the minds of Jewish children at some point when they are little: Does Santa Claus deliver their Hanukkah presents?

The answer must be "no," according to shopping-mall orthodoxy, since the cultural icon called Santa does his thing on Christmas Eve.

Hanukkah gifts have to come from somewhere else and, according to a daring new book for children, that pre-dawn work is done by a Steampunk-styled Jewish hero named Hanukkah Harvie, who flies out of the Statue of Liberty in his Hanukkopter.

But that solution to the presents puzzle raises another tricky question: What happens when Christmas falls during Hanukkah and Santa Claus and Harvie show up at the same house? After all, a 2013 study by the Pew Forum Religion & Public Life found that the intermarriage rate has hit 58 percent for all American Jews, and 71 percent for non-Orthodox Jews. Lots of children are growing up in homes that, to one degree or another, are interfaith.

"The reality, like it or not, is that there are a million-plus children that are doing this, who are trying to make sense out of Christmas and Hanukkah at the same time," asked David Michael Slater, author of "Hanukkah Harvie vs. Santa Claus."

"Do they have a story? What's that like? … I was trying to walk a fine line, while avoiding having to take a stand on all of these hot-button issues. I guess this book's message isn't really religious at all, but it's about people who are trying to live together with some kind of tolerance."

Hanukkah is already a complex and ironic holiday. This year's eight-day "Festival of Lights" began at sundown on Dec. 12th. The season's symbol is a menorah with nine candles symbolizing a miracle -- tradition says that a one-day supply of pure oil burned for eight days after Jewish rebels liberated their temple from Greek oppressors. The center candle is used to light the other candles, with one new candle on each night.

This was once a simple season with simple pleasures.

Christmas in America 2017: The season may be huuuuge, but it's not all that sacred

Christmas in America 2017: The season may be huuuuge, but it's not all that sacred

The way President Donald Trump sees things, his big tax-bill win on Capitol Hill was a giant -- maybe even huuuuge -- Christmas present for America.

"Remember I said we're bringing Christmas back? Christmas is back, bigger and better than ever before," he said, speaking in Utah earlier this week. "We're bringing Christmas back and we say it now with pride. Let me just say, to those here today and all across the country: Merry Christmas to everybody."

That's good rhetoric for a political rally, as long as most of the cheering people think of Christmas as a cultural season built on gifts, travel, fun, food, festivities and activities with friends and family. And that turns out to be true for 43.1 percent of those polled in a new survey by the Saint Leo University Polling Institute. Only 3.9 percent viewed Christmas exclusively in religious terms and another 11.4 percent as "mostly religious."

"It's important to realize that the commercialization of the season doesn't appear to be the driving factor in what's creating the cultural Christmas we see today," said Marc Pugliese, who teaches religion and theology at Saint Leo University in central Florida.

Many Americans, in fact, are "tired or fed up" with the tsunami of advertising and materialism they see every December, he added. "So you can't just say that the shopping mall has won. … But the reality is that almost everything that's going on is defined by the culture's secular calendar -- what's happening at school, at work and in the media."

The bottom line, he said, is clear: "Christmas is about parties and get-togethers with family and friends."

On the other side of the equation, 42.4 percent of those surveyed picked the "commercialization of the season" as the most annoying American Christmas "tradition," with 38.3 percent saying that the "early start for the Christmas season" got the nod in that department.

Conspiring to keep some Advent spirit alive, while waiting for the real Christmas

Conspiring to keep some Advent spirit alive, while waiting for the real Christmas

The children kept asking a logical question in Sunday school, one linked to those "Whose birthday is it?" appeals voiced by "Put Christ back in Christmas" activists.

Leaders of Ecclesia Church in Houston were trying to find ways to encourage members to observe the four solemn weeks of Advent (Latin for "toward the coming"), which precede the Christmas season, which begins on Dec. 25 and then lasts for 12 days.

"The children pushed this thing to another level," said the Rev. Chris Seay, pastor of this nondenominational flock in the trendy Montrose neighborhood near downtown. The church, which draws around 3,000 each weekend, was created by a coalition of Baptists, Presbyterians and others.

The question the children asked, he said, was this: " 'If Christmas is Jesus' birthday, then he should get the best gifts. Right?' … Once you ask that, it has to affect what we do as a church and what we do as families. If you start thinking that way, it changes just about everything we do at Christmas."

That shift led to efforts -- part of a national "Advent Conspiracy" campaign -- to raise money to provide safe water for suffering people around the world. The basic equation: If Americans spent $450 billion a year on Christmas, then why can't believers funnel some of this gift-giving into efforts to save others?

Ecclesia, an urban flock that includes poor and rich, is trying to raise about $1 million. That would be 30 percent of its annual budget, noted Seay, a total that will require major changes for many church members. The bottom line: "Advent Conspiracy" pastors are asking people to find ways to use the four weeks of Advent to prepare for Christmas as a holy day, rather than queuing up for America's blitz of holiday shopping, partying and decorating -- starting around Halloween.

This also means paying attention to ancient traditions that have shaped the church calendar, if not the shopping mall calendar.

After 70 years, It's (still) a Wonderful (Catholic) Life in Frank Capra's epic

After receiving 30 pieces of silver for betraying Jesus, Judas Iscariot repented, threw the money away and hanged himself.

Religious authorities used the money, according to St. Matthew's Gospel, to buy the "potter's field, to bury strangers in," which became known as the "field of blood."

Anyone who thinks it was a coincidence that the slums owned by bitter banker Henry F. Potter in "It's a Wonderful Life" were called "Potter's Field" isn't paying attention to the gospel according to Frank Capra.

"There's no question that Capra's great enough" to be listed among Hollywood's greatest Catholic filmmakers, said critic Steven D. Greydanus of DecentFilms.com and The National Catholic Register. He also serves as a permanent deacon in the Catholic Archdiocese of Newark.

"It's a Wonderful Life," he stressed, is also Capra's greatest film and the one that best captures his Catholic view of life. Capra directed, co-wrote and produced the film, which was released on Christmas Day in 1946. The movie's 70th anniversary will be celebrated Dec. 9-11 in Seneca Falls, N.Y., the model for the fictional Bedford Falls.

"Capra worked harder on this film than any other," said Greydanus. "He was passionate about it and the themes in it. …  I think his worldview was shaped by his Catholic upbringing and, whatever idiosyncrasies he added as an adult, that faith shaped this movie."

Bright bonfires to mark end of the 12 days of Christmas season

Bright bonfires to mark end of the 12 days of Christmas season

The same thing happens to Father Kendall Harmon every year during the 12 days after the Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

It happens with newcomers at his home parish, Christ-St. Paul's in Yonges Island, S.C., near Charleston. It often happens when, as Canon Theologian, he visits other parishes in the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina.

"I greet people and say 'Merry Christmas!' all the way through the 12 days" of the season, he said, laughing. "They look at me like I'm a Martian or I'm someone who is lost. … So many people just don't know there's more Christmas after Christmas Day."

To shine a light on this problem, some churches have embraced an tradition -- primarily among Anglicans and other Protestants -- that provides a spectacular answer to an old question: When do you take down that Christmas tree? The answer: The faithful take their Christmas trees to church and build a bonfire as part of the "Epiphany Service of Lights" on January 6th.

As always, in a rite framed by liturgy, there is a special prayer: "Almighty God our Heavenly Father, whose only Son came down at Christmas to be the light of the world, grant as we burn these trees this Epiphany night, that we, inspired by your Holy Spirit, would follow his example and bear witness to His light throughout the world, through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit, live and reign in glory everlasting. Amen."

The struggle to observe the 12 days of Christmas is similar to other trials for those who strive to follow the teachings of their faith during the crush of daily life, said Harmon.

Making the case for a great Christmas comet over Bethlehem

It's hard to imagine Christmas without images of a giant star in the night sky over Bethlehem, with one supernaturally bright beam pointing toward a stable.

For carolers, the key words are in "We Three Kings of Orient Are" where everyone sings: "Star of wonder, star of light, star with royal beauty bright. Westward leading, still proceeding, guide us to thy perfect light."

"The Christmas carols are surprisingly accurate when it comes to the details of what we know" from scripture, said New Testament scholar Colin Nicholl of Coleraine, Northern Ireland. "In many cases where they fill gaps in the biblical narratives, they end up including material that is pretty sound -- at least based on my research."

The problem is that this heavenly object simply does not behave like a star. Thus, in his new book "The Great Christ Comet: Revealing the True Star of Bethlehem," Nicholl blends material from history and science to argue that this phenomenon can best be explained by charting the path of what he calls "undeniably the single greatest comet in recorded history."

The language familiar to most readers is found in Matthew's Gospel, which states: "Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, saying, 'Where is he that is born King of the Jews?' for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him."

Lyle Schaller, the church fix-it man in rapidly changing times

All pastors know that there are legions of "Easter Christians" who make it their tradition to dress up once a year and touch base with God.

What can pastors do? Not much, said the late, great church-management guru Lyle Schaller, while discussing these red-letter days on the calendar. Rather than worrying about that Easter crowd, he urged church leaders to look for new faces at Christmas.

The research he was reading said Christmas was when "people are in pain and may walk through your doors after years on the outside," he said, in a mid-1980s interview. Maybe they don't know, after a divorce, what to do with their kids on Christmas Eve. Maybe Christmas once had great meaning, but that got lost somehow. The big question: Would church regulars welcome these people?

"Most congregations say they want to reach out to new people, but don't act like it," said Schaller. Instead, church people see days like Easter and Christmas as "intimate, family affairs … for the folks who are already" there, he said, sadly. "They don't want to dilute the mood with strangers."

It was classic Schaller advice, the kind he offered to thousands of congregations during his decades as a physician willing to work with bodies of believers -- if they were willing to admit they had problems. Ask him about Easter and he would talk about Christmas, if his research pointed him in that direction.

Facing the Hanukkah-Holidays puzzle, one American family at a time

Anyone passing the Hoffman home in the Cincinnati suburbs during the holidays will see festive blue and white lights and an inflatable bear in the front yard -- a bear wearing a Santa cap and holding a candy cane.

 This is where things got complicated, with a typically blunt question from a child: Should Jews have a bear in the yard during Hanukkah?

 "I said it was a Jewish bear," said Neal Hoffman, a marketing executive. "One of our boys came right back with: 'What about the candy cane? Don't candy canes have something to do with Christmas?' I said I didn't think there was anything specifically Christian about a candy cane. Is there?"

 Well, that's complicated, too, since the candy cane often shown with Santa Claus is a symbol that links the shopping-mall superstar back through the mists of history to the 4th Century St. Nicholas of Myra, in Asia Minor. The saint was a bishop and, thus, this spiritual shepherd carried a crook staff -- which in Western church tradition is shaped like a large candy cane.