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Dec. 24, 2002. 07:27 AM

The case for Merry Christmas

KEVIN FRAYER/CP
Many religious leaders question the value of using the neutral "Happy Holidays" wish in order to avoid offending people who are not of the Christian faith. Above, a stainglass scene of the birth of Baby Jesus is seen at St. Michael's Cathedral in Toronto.
`Accept it in a good spirit,' rabbi says of expression

LESLIE SCRIVENER
FAITH AND ETHICS REPORTER

In the spirit of offending no one, the words "Merry Christmas" are banned on corporate Christmas cards and discouraged in some stores, but they are perfectly fine with Rabbi Baruch Frydman-Kohl and Imam Ahmad Kutty.

Being greeted with Merry Christmas doesn't distress Ph.D. student Cheshmak Farhoumand-Sims, who is Baha'i, either.

"I'm not offended when someone says `Merry Christmas.' I say `Merry Christmas' back," she says. "I just recognize we're living in a multicultural society that's predominately Christian."

Religious leaders are happy to see expressions of faith even if not their own in a secular world. They do not buy political correctness and efforts to erase Christmas from public discourse.

It is, after all, Christmas.

Clothing retailer Gap Inc. found itself in trouble recently when it was reported that it encouraged employees to wish customers "Happy Holidays."

It has since retracted its policy and says it's perfectly acceptable to say "Merry Christmas."

People may say "Happy Holidays" in an effort to be sensitive to those who aren't celebrating Christmas. But most of those people aren't celebrating anything at all.

"It matters little to me if someone says `Merry Christmas' or `Happy Holidays,'" says Rabbi Wayne Allen of Beth Tikvah synagogue on Bayview Ave.

"It's not my holiday anyway. The last day of Chanukah was Dec. 7."

Frydman-Kohl is the rabbi at Beth Tzedec, a large conservative synagogue on Bathurst St.

"If someone doesn't know I'm Jewish and says `Merry Christmas' to me, it's not time for a lesson on how one might greet people," he says. "It's time to accept it in a good spirit and wish someone well. I don't want to be the Grinch who stole Christmas."

He remembers walking one night years ago with his son, who was 6, past houses decorated with Christmas lights.

"I said how beautiful they were and my son said he didn't like it."

"I said, `You can appreciate something even if it's not yours. You can say you like it, even if it's not yours.'"

Kutty, a scholar with the Islamic Institute of Toronto, says that in Qu'ranic teaching, Muslims should reciprocate when someone wishes them "Merry Christmas." They might reply, he said, "Happiness to you."

He points out that celebrations of Christmas were not handed down by Jesus, but were a compromise with pagan traditions.

"Actions are judged by intentions," says Kutty, who is a mufti, one who issues religious rulings (his appear on scholarly Web sites). "When someone wishes `Merry Christmas,' I don't think he wishes to impose his beliefs. We are not talking theology."



`In a time of rapid change, people crave some stability and tradition.'

Bruce Clemenger, Evangelical Fellowship


School boards continue to look for ways to recognize Christmas without trampling on the sensitivities of non-Christian families.

"All the schools are grappling with how much faith-based Christmas do we represent along with a secular Christmas," says Suzanne Muir, diversity consultant for the Halton District School Board.

It's all right to address religious concepts as long as they are presented in an educational way and not as indoctrination, she says. "And not one faith is to be given primacy over another."

Children can sing "Silent Night," as long as the teacher explains that it is a song from the Christian tradition, one of many religious traditions observed in the school.

"Some teachers opt for the safe side and sing only Santa Claus songs, but if they only do Santa Claus songs, that means they won't do a Chanukah song or a Ramadan song, either, and everyone feels a little dissatisfied," Muir says. "If we go for the authentic faith-based experience with the secular, kids come away with a richer experience."

Hilary Kristal, who works with the Afghan Women's Organization, doesn't object to personal Christmas greetings and decorations on houses, but Christmas trees in public squares and Christmas themes in public institutions are another matter.

When she sent out Chanukah cards, the stamps she was given at the post office said "Noel" and had images of Mary and Jesus. "Why do stamps have to be religious specific? The post office is a federal organization.

"That's wrong. Not everyone celebrates the holiday."

At the U.S.-Canada border crossing, Kristal says she noticed Christmas decorations. "Isn't there a separation between church and state in this country? Everyone is allowed to practise religion freely, but there's Christian symbolism everywhere and that's contradictory."

Some 80 per cent of Canadians identify themselves as Christians and about 4 per cent claim other religions, says John Bowen, assistant professor of evangelism at Wycliffe College, the Anglican college at the University of Toronto.

He was referring to statistics reported in 1995 by University of Lethbridge sociologist Reginald Bibby.

"So who exactly are we trying to please by dropping `Merry Christmas'?" Bowen asks.

"Who do we think will heave a sigh of relief? Who exactly will feel less oppressed? I would not be offended by being wished a Happy Chanukah by a Jewish friend or Merry Kwanzaa by a Canadian-African friend. I would feel honoured and intrigued."

If he were a minority in a Muslim country, for example, Bowen says, "I would be astounded if they offered to change their seasonal greetings out of respect for Christians in their country."

The key, he says, is to celebrate diversity "and not reduce the whole thing to a bland, wishy-washy, meaningless, secular, lowest-common denominator."

"I'm sensing a reaction against `Happy Holidays,'" says Bruce Clemenger from Ottawa, where he directs the Centre for Faith and Public Life for the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada.

"In a time of rapid change, people crave some stability and tradition. Christmas is one of those traditions and Canadians are reacting against attempts to marginalize or deny a tradition they hold dear," he says.

"People want to be sensitive in a pluralistic society and recognize minorities, but that doesn't require denial of the majority view."

Recently, a Vancouver coalition of 40 faith leaders joined together to form Clergy for Compassion and Harmony. They wrote to the Vancouver Sun newspaper to say they rejoice with the Christian majority who celebrate Christmas. "May Christians receive special blessings and renewal in their faith and life...." their letter read.

And Zafar Bangash, who publishes Crescent International, a bi-weekly that focuses on Muslim issues, wishes we would all focus on more serious issues. Nonetheless, Bangash says: "Happy Christmas to you."

©Copyright 2002, Toronto Star (Canada)


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