Keeping Christ in Christmas

Posted: Dec 20, 2004 12:00 AM

I would like to open today's sermon, I mean column, with a newsflash out of Vatican City, courtesy Reuters: "Pope John Paul, battling to keep Christ in Christmas, has defended nativity scenes that are being stripped from holiday celebrations in some Italian schools to avoid offending non-Christians."

This could be a farcical joke, but the trite wire copy is pathetically true. For starters, it seems that a school in Como has edited out the name "Gesu" (Jesus) and replaced it with the word "virtu" (virtue) in its choir's renditions of Christmas hymns. Which rhymes and everything, but falls flat. Also, the province of Vicenza has canceled its annual contest for the best nativity scene in the schools of the province. Then there's the elementary school in the northern Italian city of Treviso that has decided to nix its traditional Christmas pageant depicting the birth of Christ in order to present a dramatic, um, Virtumas presentation of the adventures of Little Red Riding Hood.

Substituting Li'l Red's fairy-tale trip to Grandma's house for Mary and Joseph's biblical trip to Bethlehem may sound like something that happens down the rabbit hole, but Reuters reports that things are on the level: "The teachers said the famous tale was a fitting representation of good and evil and would not offend Muslim children." And Muslim children, it turns out, are the only "non-Christians" in the Reuters story. Not Jews, not atheists, not whatever other minorities are content to live in a historically Roman Catholic country and just walk on by the old creche without "taking offense," that traumatic postmodern condition more damaging and contagious than any plague or pestilence.

But why does a seasonal depiction marking the anniversary of the single-most significant religious, historic and cultural event in the Western world -- of which Italy remains a part -- offend anyone in the first place?

I don't get it -- and I'm Jewish. If "taking offense" is the issue, isn't eradicating the commemoration of Christ's birth -- and the universal ideal of peace on earth -- equally as likely to make Italian Catholics take offense? Of course, ruffled feelings, either on the part of Italy's 1 million-plus Muslims or 50 million-plus Catholics, are not the issue. Power is.

I recently came across something Eric Hoffer, the man known as the "longshoreman-philosopher," wrote 30 years ago about dissent and power:

It is maintained that a society is free only when dissenting minorities have room to throw their weight around ... As a matter of fact, a dissenting minority feels free only when it can impose its will on the majority: what it abominates most is the dissent of the majority.

I don't know if the Muslims in Italy's nativity-cleansed zones feel qualitatively more "free" for having thrown their weight around, but as a minority they have certainly imposed their will on the majority.

But is it really the will of Italian Muslims? Certainly, Italian-Muslim activist Abdel Smith has called for the removal of crucifixes and Dante in Italian classrooms, and even a Giovanni di Modena fresco from the 15th-century Bologna cathedral that "offensively" depicts a Dante-inspired image of Mohammed in hell. He's likened the annual Christmas pageant to "forced indoctrination."

But Reuters did find an Islamic leader of a Milanese cultural institute who said it was "senseless" to change the words of Christmas songs. (No word on what he thought about nativity plays.) The main point is it was the local Italian schools and councils that made the decision to remove the Christ from Christmas in the first place.

Maybe they were attempting to circumvent local "non-Christian" (read: Muslim) protest, and therefore canceled their traditional celebrations out of a basic kind of fear. Or maybe they were acting out of a desire to curtail or de-emphasize their own religious and cultural expression, which is also a kind of fear. Either way, it hardly reflects a robust sense of what could be called self-esteem.

"It is the perfect example of how not to respect the presence of different people, in this case our Muslim brothers, by annihilating our own identity," said Bishop Agostino Marchetto, head of the Vatican's department for migrants. "Are we losing our minds?" asked government Reforms Minister Roberto Calderoli. "Do we want to erase our identity for the love of Allah?"

Annihilating identity. Erasing identity. When the pope has to remind his Catholics that celebrating the birth of Christ is "an element of our culture and of art, but above all a sign of faith in God," isn't it pretty much gone?