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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.

Zombies are US, 2013 edition

It seems to happen whenever Steve Beard hangs out with friends -- especially folks who don't go to church -- talking about movies, television and whatever else is on their minds. "It may take five minutes or it may take as long as 10, but sooner or later you're going to run into some kind zombie comment," said Beard, editor of Good News, a magazine for United Methodist evangelicals. He is also known for writing about faith and popular culture.

"Someone will say something like, 'When the zombie apocalypse occurs, we need to make sure we're all at so-and-so's house so we can stick together.' It's all a wink and a nod kind of deal, but the point is that this whole zombie thing has become a part of the language of our time."

Tales of the living dead began in Western Africa and Haiti and these movies have been around as long as Hollywood has been making B-grade flicks. However, the modern zombie era began with filmmaker George A. Romero's classic "Night of the Living Dead" in 1968, which led to his "Dawn of the Dead" and "Day of the Dead." Other directors followed suit, with hits such as "28 Days Later," "Zombieland," "The Evil Dead" and "Shaun of the Dead." Next up, Brad Pitt in the $170 million-dollar epic "World War Z," due June 21, which could turn into a multi-movie franchise.

In bookstores, classic literature lovers will encounter a series of postmodern volumes clustered under the title "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies." Also, videogame fans have purchased more than 50 million copies of the Resident Evil series and these games have inspired countless others.

But anyone who is interested in the worldview -- if not the theology -- of zombie life must come to grips with the cable-television parables offered in the AMC series "The Walking Dead." This phenomenon, said Beard, has become so influential that it cannot be ignored by clergy, especially those interested in the kinds of spiritual questions that haunt people who avoid church pews.

Truth is, "The Walking Dead" is not "about zombies. It's a show about people who are trying to figure out the difference between mere survival and truly living," he stressed, in a telephone interview. "How do you decide what is right and what is wrong? How do you stay sane, in a world that has gone crazy? ...

"Where is God in all of this? That's the unspoken question."

In his classic book "Gospel of the Living Dead," religious studies scholar Kim Paffenroth of Iona College argued that Romero's zombie movies borrowed from one of the key insights found in Dante's "Inferno" -- that hell's worst torments are those humanity creates on its own, such as boredom, loneliness, materialism and, ultimately, separation from God.

As a final touch of primal spirituality, Romero -- who was raised Catholic -- added cannibalism to the zombie myth.

"Zombies partially eat the living. But they actually only eat a small amount, thereby leaving the rest of the person intact to become a zombie, get up, and attack and kill more people, who then likewise become zombies," argued Paffenroth. Thus, the "whole theme of cannibalism seems added for its symbolism, showing what humans would degenerate into in their more primitive, zombie state."

The point, he added, is that "we, humans, not just zombies, prey on each other, depend on each other for our pathetic and parasitic existence, and thrive on each others' misery."

This is why, said Beard, far too many women and men seem to be staggering through life today like listless shoppers wandering in shopping malls, their eyes locked on their smartphones instead of the faces of loved ones. Far too often their lives are packed with stuff, but empty of meaning.

Romero and his artistic disciples keep asking a brutal question: This is living?

"One of the big questions in zombie stories is the whole 'Do zombies have souls?' thing," said Beard. "But that kind of question only leads to more and more questions, which is what we keep seeing in 'The Walking Dead' and other zombie stories. ...

"If zombies no longer have souls, what does it mean for a human being to be soul-less? If you have a soul, how do you hang on to it? Why does it seem that so many people today seem to have lost their souls?"

Occupy Advent 2012 (Let's ask Siri)

The first question was simple: "Siri, when is Christmas?" After the two-tone "BEED-EEP" chime, the voice of the Apple iPhone responded: "Christmas is on Tuesday, December 25, 2012. I hope I have the day off."

Then matters got complicated: "When is Advent?"

Siri searched her memory and said: "I didn't find any events about 'Ed Fant.' "

Trying again: "When is the Advent season?"

Siri cheerfully responded: "I am not aware of any events about 'advent season.' "

After several more "BEED-EEP" chimes the Apple cloud ultimately drew a blank when asked, "When does the Christmas season end?" Alas, Siri didn't understand the term "Christmas season."

That's understandable, since it's clear that millions of Americans are either confused about these questions or they disagree with answers rooted in centuries of Christian life, noted Jimmy Akin, senior apologist at Catholic Answers (Catholic.com).

The problem isn't just that the secular marketplace celebrates a different season -- "The Holidays" -- which runs from the shopping day previously known as Thanksgiving through Dec. 25th, which precedes several days in which gifts are returned, leftovers consumed, trees discarded and decorations jammed into garages.

The problem, said Akin, is that many Christian institutions have surrendered and no longer observe the four quiet weeks of Advent (Latin for "toward the coming") and then the 12-day Christmas season, which begins with the Dec. 25 feast and continues through Jan. 6, the Feast of the Epiphany. The Advent and Christmas seasons have for centuries been celebrated in many different Christian traditions.

"There is just so much noise out there in the culture this time of year, so many signals clashing with the church's traditions," said Akin. "The key to all this is that our culture treats Christmas Day as the climax of a giant holiday season, not as the day that -- after the preparations of Advent -- kicks off the 12 days of Christmas."

The bottom line: Most Americans, believers and nonbelievers alike, "frontload" Christmas celebrations into the weeks before Christmas, trample Advent and then ignore the traditional season of Christmas. The question for church leaders is how to serve as winsome advocates for Christian traditions without adopting an "Advent Grinch" attitude -- the term used at the Occupy Advent website -- that turns off people seeking alternatives to the modern Christmas crush.

Some church leaders are convinced that it's time to throw in the towel, noted Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, in an online commentary about what he called "The Annual Advent Argument."

A traditionalist, he said, may proclaim, "Yeah, remember 50 years ago when we were kids? The tree would not go up until Christmas Eve; carols would never be heard till real close to Christmas; there were some added days of fast and abstinence during Advent; even Christmas Eve was a day of penance! Wasn't that better? We so looked forward to Christmas because we waited!"

Then somebody else will respond, "But there's nothing we can do about it! Society begins the Christmas season on Thanksgiving, and ends it on December 25. ... The Church is out of it and will just have to change."

Meanwhile, Catholic instructions for bishops continue to urge clergy -- on the crucial issue of decorations in Advent -- to proceed "in a moderate manner, as is consonant with the character of the season, without anticipating the full joy of Christmas." The same general rule applies to Christmas music.

"The question everyone asks," noted Akin, "is, 'Why don't we do Christmas songs in church during Advent?' The answer is pretty simple: 'Because it isn't Christmas yet.' ... And it's one thing to put up a tree, but it's something else to completely decorate it weeks before Christmas. It's one thing to put up your Christmas creche. It's something else to go ahead and put the baby Jesus in the manger."

The goal is for churches to take symbolic actions that help people reclaim the full Christmas season. The most important move most churches could make, he said, would be to put their Christmas parties, festivals, caroling events and other celebrations during the traditional 12 days of Christmas.

"It would be pretty radical to pull some of those frontloaded celebrations out of Advent and back into the Christmas season itself. If we did that it might get some people's attention," said Akin. "The point we need to make is this: Christmas belongs in Christmas."

When is Christmas, anyway?

For those who follow Christian traditions, Christmas begins when the darkness of Christmas Eve yields to bright midnight candles and the Mass of the Angels or the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. The Christmas season then lasts 12 days, ending with Epiphany on Jan. 6.

But things aren't that simple in modern America, the land of the free and the home of the malls. For millions of us, today's Christmas begins when "Feliz Navidad" beer ads start interrupting National Football League broadcasts and Holiday movies surge into cable-TV schedules previously crowded with Halloween zombie marathons.

Or perhaps the season begins with those Christmas church bazaars around Thanksgiving. Then again, many begin saluting friends with "Merry Christmas!" about the time public institutions start holding Holiday parties and seasonal concerts -- in the early days of December.

In other words, it's getting harder and harder for Christians who try to practice their faith to answer what was once a simple question: When is Christmas?

"Unfortunately, most Americans -- especially evangelical Protestants -- have so distanced themselves from any awareness of the Christian calendar that their decisions about that kind of question have been handed over to the culture," said the Rev. Russell D. Moore, dean of the School of Theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.

Many evangelicals fear the "cold formalism" that they associate with churches that follow the liturgical calendar and the end result, he said, is "no sense of what happens when in the Christian year, at all." Thus, instead of celebrating ancient feasts such as Epiphany, Pentecost and the Transfiguration, far too many American church calendars are limited to Christmas and Easter, along with cultural festivities such as Mother's Day, the Fourth of July, Halloween, Thanksgiving and the Super Bowl.

In Baptist life, the faithful once knew that Christmas was near when their church choirs pulled out all the stops, hired some outside musicians and performed a semi-classical "Christmas cantata" or a few selections from G.F. Handel's "Messiah." As recently as the 1960s, these cantatas were usually staged the Sunday before Christmas. These days, the Christmas concerts are creeping forward in December church bulletins, closer and closer to Thanksgiving. Ditto for all of those special children's programs and official church Christmas parties.

"I've been watching to see when pastors schedule their Christmas sermon series and when music directors start inserting Christmas songs into their services," said Moore. "The question these days is whether Christmas will even last until Christmas. ...

"All of this is being driven by travel, family events and what's happening all around us. Right now, our churches are running about two weeks behind the culture."

If that's the case, then church leaders who truly want to get in sync need to pay closer attention to our culture's highest Christmas authority -- the National Retail Federation. It's press release projecting holiday sales numbers is "the official starter's gun" that unleashes the madness, said Washington Post reporter Hank Stuever, author of "Tinsel: A Search for America's Christmas Present." This year, that statement was released on Oct. 6 and the official verdict was "average," or about $465.6 billion in sales.

"Once those numbers come out, that's when you know -- there's no stopping it. Here comes Christmas, whether you're ready or not," he said.

Stuever said that from his outsider perspective, as a lapsed Catholic, it's obvious that many clergy are "still paying a lot of lot of lip service" to Jesus being the "reason for the season and all that. I understand what they're saying, but surely they can see all of the materialism that's on display out in their parking lots and in their pews. ... Once Christmas gets rolling, everyone just goes bonkers and it's hard to claim otherwise."

This year, he added, it will be especially interesting to see how many leaders in "all of those big-box churches" cancel their Sunday morning services instead of daring to clash with family Christmas tree rites in American homes.

Moore stressed that he will be in his Highview Baptist pulpit on Christmas morning and, here's the key, his children know why.

"To even think that we have come to the point where we do not worship on the Lord's Day because it is Christmas is, to me, absolutely absurd. Where's the logic in that? What are people thinking?"

Hallelujah, saith the masses

As millions of YouTube viewers know, the "Hallelujah Chorus" is even hotter than usual this year. The wave started with a flash-mob performance by the Opera Company of Philadelphia and hundreds of local choristers. Dressed as shoppers, they sang the best-known anthem from George F. Handel's "Messiah" oratorio at noon in the downtown Philadelphia Macy's, which was already decked out for the holidays on Oct. 30th.

Then came the Nov. 13th performance that sent this viral-video trend into overdrive, when 100 vocalists -- led by a young woman singing the opening hallelujahs into her cellphone -- shocked a food-court crowd in a Welland, Ontario, shopping mall.

There are online reports and rumors about similar "Hallelujah Chorus" sneak attacks in the marketplace. The key is that many onlookers know this classic by heart and can sing along without missing many beats.

These are strange scenes, but they would not surprise anyone who has studied the history of Handel's masterwork and its stunning popularity, especially among American believers, said Calvin R. Stapert, a retired music professor at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich. He is the author of the new book, "Handel's Messiah: Comfort for God's People."

The Macy's performance was spectacular and the food-court performance was just as fascinating in its own way, he said.

"One part of me says, 'Wonderful!' It's thrilling. ... Then I look at the comments that people keep writing" at YouTube.com as they respond to the videos, said Stapert. "Some of them are so deeply moved that this anthem to their Savior is being sung in such a secular environment. Then there are others who make it clear that, for them, this is nothing more than ... a novel way of saluting a cornerstone of Western musical culture."

No one knows why "Messiah" has become so popular, noted Stapert, in his book. The work's omnipresence -- with performances in churches, civic centers and elite concert halls -- is probably the result of "musical, textual, social, religious and psychological factors that will never be completely unraveled." There is no precedent in music history for this phenomenon.

For starters, Handel is an unlikely hero for today's musical masses. He was a "reluctant eighteenth-century German Lutheran composer who would have preferred to continue writing Italian operas in Protestant England, a country that had no oratorio tradition until he 'invented' it. The rest, as they say, is history," wrote Stapert.

This musical form -- the oratorio -- was also a unique and at times controversial kind of art. Handel composed "Messiah" and many of his greatest works in a cultural no man's land between the music common in sacred sanctuaries and the lively, entertaining, operatic works that were popular in theaters and concert halls. Nevertheless, most oratorios were based on the lives of biblical heroes and early Christian saints.

Then there was "Messiah: A Sacred Oratorio," which was composed in 24 days and performed for the first time in Dublin in 1742 and a year later in London. The libretto covered the drama of the full Christian liturgical year, yet the work was never intended for church performances. Handel originally composed the work for approximately 24 skilled singers and 24 instrumentalists.

Today, "Messiah" is often performed with choruses consisting of 100 singers or more and orchestras of every imaginable size and composition. In many performances, amateur performers are forced to cut the tempos of Handel's mercurial, dancing choruses until they resemble lumbering musical stampedes.

To state the matter bluntly, noted Stapert, no complex work of classical music "has survived, let alone thrived, on so many performances, good, bad, and indifferent, by and for so many people year after year for such a long time."

Now, the most famous anthem from this Christian masterpiece has reached the true public square of our age, in the same mix as "Jingle Bells" and "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer."

"You have to ask," noted Stapert, "if many people are really listening to the words. After all, who is this 'King of Kinds and Lord of Lords'? ... You have to think that the cultural police would be out in a matter of minutes to shut this down if people were paying attention to this profoundly Christian work that is being sung right out in the open, in a mall. Has the 'Hallelujah Chorus' become so familiar that people cannot hear what it's saying?"

Celebrate Christmas -- gasp! -- in Christmas?

Father Dino Bottino didn't expect to spark a firestorm several years ago when he delivered his sermon about the true meaning of Christmas. Still, it didn't take long for outraged parents to leak one crucial statement -- that Father Christmas, also known as Santa Claus, isn't real -- to the Italian press. Headline writers around the world immediately felt a great disturbance in the Holiday Force, as if millions of tiny nonsectarian voices had cried out in terror.

Clearly, this priest had committed blasphemy.

Now, the Catholic shepherd of Salt Lake City has bravely ventured into similar territory. Bishop John C. Wester has asked those in his flock to observe the Advent season during the four weeks before Christmas and then -- readers may need to sit down -- to celebrate Christmas on Dec. 25th and during the season that follows.

"Few would disagree that we live in a busy and rushed society. ... You may have noticed that in our hurried society many stores have already decorated for Christmas, radio stations are sneaking in a Christmas song here and there and even some of our own parishes have begun preparing for Christmas parties for early December," noted Wester, in a pastoral letter (.pdf) released on Nov. 24.

"What is the rush? ... Advent is a season of preparation, although it has come to be neglected in many places. Too often, the season of Advent is overshadowed by the 'holiday season' as we move too quickly into celebrating Christmas. By the time that the actual solemnity of Christmas arrives, many of us are burned out."

To be perfectly blunt about it, he added, the secular season called "The Holidays" has been hyped to the point that, in the end, "Christmas has become anticlimactic."

The bishop's letter has generated a surprising amount of buzz in a short time, said Deacon Greg Kandra, a veteran journalist who directs the online news programming (NetNY.net) for the Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn. In effect, Wester has issued a call for countercultural revolt against the principalities and powers that shape the American calendar, he said.

For starters, the bishop is trying "to remind people -- through the pulpit and through education -- that just because they are hearing Christmas music doesn't mean that it's really Christmas," said Kandra, a 26-year CBS News veteran who has won two Emmys and two Peabody Awards.

"As everyone knows, most of this is rooted in commercialism. But just because we have Black Friday and people are stampeding through the malls doesn't mean that is what Christmas is really about."

After throwing down his gauntlet, Wester offered practical examples of what he would like to see in the parishes and schools of his diocese.

Rather than leap straight to Christmas trees early in December, the bishop urged Catholic families to embrace Advent prayer wreathes -- with candles marking the Sundays leading up to Christmas. Families could have "Jesse Trees" that are decorated in Advent purple and symbols of the ancestors of Jesus, before adding Christmas decorations at the proper time.

Rather than hold premature Christmas parties, the bishop suggested that Catholic schools plan "Gaudete" parties -- Latin for "rejoice" -- that are linked to the third Sunday in Advent. Facilities could be decorated with simple wreaths and greenery, with the full Christmas decorations in place as students return after New Year's Day. Full Christmas decor should remain in place in churches, schools and homes through the feast of the Baptism of Our Lord on the 9th of January.

By all means, said Wester, Catholics should hold parties throughout this entire Christmas season, which begins -- following centuries of tradition -- with Christmas Day.

The goal is for Advent to be a period of "waiting in joyful hope," a time of preparation, reflection and prayer. At least, that's what the church's calendar says.

"It is so easy to ... decorate our churches and houses for Christmas, to spend more time shopping than in prayer and to host Christmas parties before the season has arrived," said Wester. "I know it is an enormous challenge to remain faithful to the Advent season when we are surrounded by a society which, while claiming to be Christian, does not take the time to reflect and prepare as the church calls us to do."

However, he added, "As Catholics, we must celebrate Advent differently."

The 30-something days of Xmas

There was a time when Christians did not celebrate a season that could be called the 30-something days of Christmas.

In the year of our Lord 1939, the National Retail Dry Goods Association asked President Franklin D. Roosevelt to move Thanksgiving to the next-to-last Thursday in November. This was strategic, since President Abraham Lincoln had proclaimed the last Thursday of the month as the official holiday. This meant that Thanksgiving was occasionally delayed until a fifth Thursday -- a cruel blow to merchants.

Confusion reigned until Congress reached a compromise and, since 1942, Thanksgiving has been observed on the fourth Thursday in November.

And thus was born America's most powerful and all-consuming season. This later evolved into the shopping festival called "The Holidays," which in the past generation has started creeping into stores days or weeks before Turkey Day.

"None of this, of course, has anything to do with the Christmas traditions that Christians have been observing through the ages," said Teresa Berger, professor of liturgical studies at Yale Divinity School.

To be candid, she said, it does "help to remember that celebrations of Christmas and other holy seasons have always been affected by what happens in the marketplace and the surrounding culture. ... But that isn't what we are seeing, today. The question now is whether or not the shopping mall will define what is Christmas for most Christians."

Here's the bottom line. For centuries, Christmas was a 12-day season that began on Dec. 25th and ended on Jan. 6th with the celebration of the Feast of the Epiphany. Thus, the season of Christmas followed Christmas Day, with most people preparing for the holy day in a festive blitz during the final days or even hours, with many stores staying open until midnight on Christmas Eve.

Today, everything has been flipped around, with the Christmas or Holiday season preceding Dec. 25.

For most Americans, this season begins with an explosion of shopping on Black Friday after Thanksgiving, followed by a flurry of office parties and school events packed into early December. The goal is to hold as many of these events as possible long before the onset of the complicated travel schedules that shape the lives of many individuals and families.

Meanwhile, television networks, radio stations and newspapers have created their own versions of the "12 days of Christmas," inserting them before -- often long before -- Dec. 25 as a secular framework for advertising campaigns, civic charity projects, holiday music marathons, parades, house-decorating competitions and waves of mushy movies, old and new.

Needless to say, this is not the Christmas that Berger knew as she grew up in Germany in the post-World War II era. As a Catholic, the days between Christmas and Epiphany were marked by a series of events -- such as the feasts of St. Stephen and St. John the Evangelist -- that were accompanied by their own rites and customs. Lutherans and other Christians had their own traditions for marking this time.

"When people talk about a season called the 'Twelve Days of Christmas,' they are primarily talking about something that was much more common in England," said Berger. "There are many reasons for that, not the least of which was the popularity of the song by that name."

While these traditions took various forms, the key was that the religious elements of the season remained intact. Christians celebrated Christmas during Christmas.

Berger said that it still makes her a bit uncomfortable when she sees families putting up and decorating their Christmas trees before they are even finished using the candles and green wreathes associated with the penitential season of Advent, which begins on the fourth Sunday before Christmas. There are many more people, of course, who do not observe Advent, which is called Nativity Lent in Orthodox churches.

"Today, people believe they can have whatever they want, when they want it, and Christmas becomes whatever the culture says that it is," she said. "We can, however, revolt against this. We can choose, for example, not to send out 1,000 mindless Christmas cards. We can sit down and write our own cards and even breathe a prayer for the people we love while we do that.

"No one can force us to live according to the laws of the new Christmas. We can make our own choices."

A Caroling We (Don't) Go

Sometime just before Christmas, maestro Patrick Kavanaugh will gather a few friends to take part in a quietly subversive public rite.

Slipping from house to house under cover of darkness, it is their intention to sing pieces of explicit, doctrinal religious music to family, neighbors and even strangers. They do this every year, even if it is snowing.

Historians refer to this rare activity as "Christmas caroling."

"People really do love it," said Kavanaugh, conductor for the Christian Performing Artists Fellowship in Haymarket, Va. "Wherever you go, people hear the singing and they meet you at the door and they're just glowing. I guess it's like a form of Americana for some people, like a glimpse of the past."

Kavanaugh paused for a second and laughed. It was a sad laugh.

"People love it, but I have to admit that I don't know many others who are still out there doing this. ... What are you supposed to do with a carol like 'Away in a Manger' if people think you're celebrating something called the Winter Festival?"

Christmas carols have not vanished.

People still sing them at family reunions, in church services and at safe, private parties. Churches may also send cars full of carolers to nursing homes or jails as a form of community service.

What is fading is the tradition of singers caroling in neighborhoods or shopping districts as part of their Christmas festivities. Of course, it's hard to imagine carolers mingling with shoppers and singing "Lo, How A Rose 'Er Blooming" outside Abercrombie & Fitch. Also, the odds are good that the local shopping mall will have adopted a code limiting religious activities on the premises.

Caroling in the black hole of the parking lot is not a lovely option. It's hard to sing to passing cars.

The result is what Southern Baptist scholar Hugh T. McElrath called "Frosty the Snowman" syndrome, a culture in which people sing secular songs at public celebrations and hymns and carols in worship services.

"What we've lost is the whole sense of a complete Christmas season, one that really gets started on Christmas Eve and then lasts for those 12 days and includes all kinds of parties and festivities and, yes, going out caroling," said McElrath, author of "The History of Our Christian Faith In Hymns."

"You lose the season and you lose the context for the carols themselves."

The traditional 12-day Christmas season begins -- not ends -- on Dec. 25th. Not that long ago, the faithful held parties throughout this season in different homes, with participants singing carols as they walked to the next round of festivities. This would build in intensity through the 12th night, "Three Kings Day" or the Epiphany celebration.

Traditions would vary from church to church and culture to culture, with the carols themselves emerging as true folk songs. Thus, carolers in different places would sing many different songs, with unique carols from Latin America, Africa, Russia and around the globe.

Most carols sung in North America can be traced to England and elsewhere in Europe. Still, it would seem logical that as America grows more diverse, the modern church's repertoire of Christmas carols would keep growing. If the Latin Grammy Awards are here, can true Spanish Christmas carols be far behind? Apparently not.

Instead, a blanket of sanitized holiday music -- spread through media, commerce and a highly mobile population -- covers the land. Christmas in Miami sounds the same as Minneapolis and Seattle tends to sound like Savannah. Steel-drum bands play "White Christmas" in the Bahamas.

This trend affects churches as well as shopping malls.

What is at stake are centuries of lovely Christmas music, said McElrath. Carols are supposed to be the songs of the people, binding one generation to the next. Is the very act of going Christmas caroling out of date?

"I guess that it's hard to go Christmas caroling when it's hard to even talk about Christmas in public," he said. "You end up with people sitting in church singing a few Christmas carols one or two days out of the year. That's lovely, but it's not what Christmas carols are about."

NEXT WEEK: What is a Christmas "carol" anyway?