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Star of Bethlehem

For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.  (Matthew 2:1-4)

If it were not for a miraculous star in the heavens above Bethlehem, which shone upon the stable where the Baby Jesus was born, the Three Wise Men, or Magi, would not have found the Christ Child they had been seeking.  This star, then, more than any of the iconography of Christmas, is the symbol most closely linked to His blessed birth.  And that’s why Christmas trees, including America’s national tree on the White House lawn, the one at Rockefeller Center in Manhattan and the ones in American homes, always have a star at the very top.

  That tradition, however, has been lost on Korean Christians, who wrongly put a cross at the top of Christmas trees.  An egregious example of this is the illuminated white cross atop Korea’s national tree, which appears each year in front of City Hall on the same spot where Buddhists erect an effigy of the Baby Buddha for His blessed birthday.

  That cross is inappropriate and strikes me as triumphant, as if one were planting a flag on top of Mt. Everest or on the Moon.  By putting a cross atop the national tree, Christians are proclaiming that Korea is a Christian country, just as Christopher Columbus claimed the New World for Spain and Christianity by planting crosses on its beaches.
  The Cross, symbol of Christ’s crucifixion on Golgotha, belongs to Easter, not Christmas.

  I’m no raving secularist who wants to remove Christianity from public displays of Christmas, but I do draw the line at religious chauvinism, for which Korean Christians are well known.  Moreover, using the cross chauvinistically lends credence to Buddhist concerns that Christians, especially those influencing President Lee’s administration, are, in fact, proclaiming Korea to be a Christian country.  The illuminated cross atop the national Christmas tree hardly allays their concerns.

  Christmas has become a time when those who believe that Christianity is inextricably intertwined with the fabric of American society are at odds with those who believe in separation of church and state.  Issues of Church v. State are decided by the nine justices of the Supreme Court, which has a solid record of affirming secularism in the public domain, much to the chagrin of American Christians.  After all, it was the Supreme Court that banned prayer and the Bible from public schools, the same book that educated Shakespeare, Milton, Blake and other literary giants.
  Each year at Christmastime, Christians and Secularists face-off at the Nativity scene, or Creche, statuary representing the humble birth of Jesus including Mary and Joseph, the Magi and their camels, stable animals and the Baby Jesus wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.  Some churches use people and animals in their re-enactment of the Nativity.

  The Creche is a common feature of America’s lawns.  It used to be a common scene in front of town halls, public libraries and public schools, as well.  But the Creche became a target of secularists determined to preserve separation of church and state, and, with the help of American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) lawyers, they had it banned from those places despite popular outcry.  This controversy never goes away, though; for a Christmas season does not pass without the news of a fire station or public square having its Creche removed by court order.

  Many people, however, display the Nativity scene incorrectly by including the Three Wise Men -- bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh -- in it on Christmas Eve.  According to the New Testament account of Matthew, those three did not arrive in Bethlehem until 12 days later.  Their arrival is called the Feast of the Epiphany, celebrated on January 6.  The “Twelve Days of Christmas” song celebrates the days between Christmas and Epiphany.

  In between Thanksgiving and Christmas, all of America’s Main Streets are replete with music, light shows and displays depicting the themes and characters of Christmas: Santa Claus and his sleigh, Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman and Nutcracker Soldiers are, along with the Creche, everywhere.  It is a time when even the most sober Americans decorate their homes and lawns with illuminated statues to their hearts’ content.  When it comes to Christmas decorations, there is no excess.

  Given the decorations, music and spirit, anyone visiting America during the Christmas season, always the best time to be in Manhattan, would assume that she is a Christian nation.  And no matter how many Creche are removed from public places, Christmas has become such a commercial boon to toy makers, retailers and the entertainment industry -- with its Christmas music, TV specials and films released for the lucrative Christmas-New Year week -- that they will keep promoting it for evermore.

  Christmas is not without a semantic issue: Merry Christmas vs. Happy Holidays.  It used to be that Merry Christmas and Happy New Year were spoken in tandem: “Have a Merry Christmas! and a Happy New Year!”  But a “Merry Christmas!” leaves politically-correct people grating their teeth, and they are likely to respond with a pointed “Happy Holidays!”

  That’s because the politically correct say that a “Happy Holidays!” includes everyone who enjoys Christmastide be they atheists, agnostics or non-Christians -- especially Jews, whose Chanukah is celebrated around this time.
Christmas is the loneliest time of the year for Jews because it reminds them of being outsiders, Christendom’s permanent minority group.  To assuage their feeling of isolation, Jews turned Chanukah, formerly a mere secular holiday on the Jewish calendar, into a major celebration, the most visible display of Judaism throughout the year.  Chanukah is the Festival of Lights and is symbolized by a menorah, a nine-branched candelabrum, with eight of the branches being lit on consecutive days.

  Not to be outshone by stately Christmas trees, Jews have taken to erecting gigantic menorah in an apparent act of one-upmanship.  Although lighting these menorah is not so easy and can be even comical, as when a rabbi, in signature black hat and long, black coat, is perched high in the basket of a cherry picker while lighting a branch.
This public display of Judaism signifies a new confidence among American Jews, a transparent action on their part to be on equal footing with Christians.  I reckon the Jews just got tired of their minority religious status and, rather than grin and bear the Christmas season, decided to do something about it ? hence, giant menorah.

  If Christmas is too Christian for the Jews, then it is too white for African-Americans.  They wanted their own holiday week and created Kwanzaa (first fruit), a celebration of Africa’s harvest.  Kwanzaa includes the gift giving of Christmas and the Chanukah candle-lighting ceremony.  And if African-Americans want a celebration particularly their own, so be it; but did they have to celebrate Kwanzaa during Christmastide, a week when America is already suffering from holiday fatigue.

  A significant event for American Jewry occurred early in the reign of Bush the Younger, when a group of American Jewish leaders visited the White House and gave him a seven-branched menorah, the symbol of Israel, which remains a visible fixture in the Oval Office.  This visit became an annual event similar to the tradition of Americans of Irish ancestry (read Catholics) coming to the Oval Office to give the American president a bowl of shamrocks on St. Patrick’s Day.  And a seminal event for African-Americans came when Martin Luther King Jr. and eminent members of the Civil Rights Movement were invited to Lyndon Johnson’s White House to witness the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

  Welcoming a minority group to the White House bestows recognition on that group as acceptable members of the American nation, a significant step up from mere toleration.

Sherbo  lillasgo@dongguk.edu

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