My Favorite Scene From It’s A Wonderful Life

My favorite scene from It’s A Wonderful Life; a great–but tough and sobering–lesson is taught here:

“Your brother, Harry Bailey, broke through the ice and was drowned at the age of nine.”

“That’s a lie! Harry Bailey went to war! He got the Congressional Medal of Honor! He saved the lives of every man on that transport!”

“Every man on that transport died. Harry wasn’t there to save them, because you weren’t there to save Harry.”

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Good King Wenceslas

Today is the Feast of Stephen, referred to in the beginning of this English Christmas hymn, sung here by the inimitable Loreena McKennit:

Christmas Without Christ

santa-kneeling-to-JesusChristmas without Christ

is like

vacations without work

or

sex without marriage

or

entertainment without edification

or

dessert without nourishment

or

diplomas without learning

or

citizenship without patriotism

or…

 

Well, you get the idea.  There’s nothing wrong with the first part of each pair, but when taken without the second part, we only get a shallower version of it.  These pairs naturally come together, and when they do, the experience is far deeper and richer than when we try to just have the easy, fun stuff.

The tendency to claim the first part without the second is, ultimately, ignoring of the full value of the first part, rejecting the second part entirely, and a sad commentary on the short-sighted immaturity of the world.

Happy (Christian) Holidays

In the ongoing kerfuffle over the use of “Happy Holidays” versus “Merry Christmas,” we seem to be forgetting something: although “Happy Holidays” has, in the last couple of decades, taken on some overtones of being an all-inclusive, even secular, benediction, it is itself originally and historically Christian in character.

What exactly are the “holidays” (holy days) that this allegedly non-denominational salutation honors?  Winter Solstice?  Kwanzaa?  Hardly–the use of “Happy Holidays” precedes the popular recognition of either of those (Kwanzaa, remember, only dates back to the late 1960’s).  Hanukkah?  Perhaps, as Hanukkah has long been recognized on American calendars and on the cultural consciousness, though it is not nearly as publicly visible as the three main holidays that the phrase truly recognizes.  (It should be noted, by the way–as many frustrated, patronized Jews point out each December–that Hanukkah is not a major holiday to them, the way Christmas is to Christians.  It isn’t even one of the high holy days.)

Throughout most of the years it’s been in use, “Happy Holidays” has referred to the entire “holiday season” in general, which has always been understood to start with Thanksgiving and to end with New Year’s. 

As I showed here about a month ago, Thanksgiving is a religious, Christian holiday.  New Year’s, also, is a Christian holiday, as it marks the change in years on the Christian calendar.  In less than two weeks we’ll be moving from 2010 to 2011 A.D., Anno Domini–“in the year of our Lord.”  (It’s interesting that many secularists prefer to label our years as “C.E.”–Common, Current, or Christian Era–but this still admits that the watershed event in Western history, around which our very calendar revolves, is the life of Jesus Christ.)

Finally, if this isn’t enough to demonstrate the special place Christmas and Christianity have had and still have in American society, remember that of the eleven official federal holidays recognized in the United States, three of them are distinctly religious in nature–the three covered by the phrase “Happy Holidays.” 

Christmas has been a national holiday in the United States since 1870.

For Unto Us A Child Is Born

One of my favorite things about Christmas is listening to this song, from Handel’s Messiah.  The video is pretty good, as it reinforces that this isn’t just about the Nativity, but the whole mission of the Savior.  No “Silent Night,” this, but a thunderous, magnificent celebration of a milestone event in God’s conquest over evil. 

It starts earlier every year…

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Merry Pirate Birthday!

One of my kids is lucky enough to have a birthday right before Christmas.  He wanted a pirate-themed party this year, so that combined with our Christmas decorations made for an interesting ambience this year.  Three recent views of our household are below. 

I told some friends who were over that the pirate birthday party decorations were actually for Christmas.  Because, you know, poor Jesus, if you think about it, has to have the same old theme for His birthday year after year: the whole “winter festival / nativity” thing.  It probably gets a little old after a couple of thousand years.  This year, I said, our family decided to jazz it up a bit for Him.  This year, the Savior of the world got a pirate birthday.  Next year, who knows, maybe Transformers. 

Yar, merry Christmas, matey!

Snowman, reindeer, and some Jolly Roger flags

 

Santa on the wall next to some happy little skulls

 

Foreground: treasure chest and pirate ship mobile Background: Christmas tree

“Christ The Savior Is Born!”

My favorite film of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is the 1998 TV version with Patrick Stewart as Scrooge.  Besides being–in my view–the most faithful to the original, there are several little touches about it that I really like. 

Perhaps foremost among these is a brief but stirring inclusion of the song, “Silent Night,” during a series of glimpses showing the Ghost of Christmas Present at work.  After showing Scrooge the condition of the Cratchits, but before visiting his nephew, Fred, the ghost takes Scrooge on a tour of some of his other rounds of blessings, among the poor in general.  Tiny Tim begins the song, and the last of these short scenes is of a group of miners making their way along in the dark, whilst one of them belts out the end of the second verse of the song: “Christ the Savior is born!”

It’s amazing.  I’ve never heard it sung that way before or since, but it seems to me now the only natural way to do so.  After all (in my church’s hymn book, at least), that line ends with an exclamation mark.  We usually sing this song very quietly, but that line really does demand to be declared boldly, announced on the rooftops and by trumpets.  And the way it’s sung in this movie…imagine Pavarotti letting fly with some signature opera in a massive coliseum and you might get the picture. 

Las Vegas used to have an annual live nativity pageant, put on by the Las Vegas stake of the LDS Church, and what I remember of it now is the part near the end where the shepherds have visited the baby in the manger, and then the narrator reads Luke 2:17, “And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child.”  Immediately after this, all the people playing shepherds run out to the bleachers where the audience sit and make a series of impassioned, improvised announcements, to the effect of, “Great news!  The Messiah has been born!” or “Jesus Christ was just born!  The Savior is here!”  The singing of “Silent Night” in that movie reminds me of the joyous enthusiasm of those young actors. 

Shouldn’t that be our attitude?  This holiday commemorates a major milestone in the eternal victory of good over evil, of mercy and salvation over death and sin.  Peaceful reverence certainly has its place, but I do like also seeing some boisterous bravado in our celebration of the Lord’s mortal birth. 

“Silent Night” is sung near the end of the clip below:

A Caution Against Christmas Materialism and Overspending

Despite the recession, I’ve heard too many stories recently of people going overboard with Christmas shopping.  It brought back to mind the following, which I originally posted here over a year and half ago.  Though it’s written with a Latter-day Saint audience in mind, the principles it promotes apply to everybody.

*****

What have been some of the major themes of General Conference talks the last few years? We can easily rattle off a list: morality and pornography, social issues, debt, and raising the bar on missionary work, to name a few. But there is one other theme that is rarely mentioned because, frankly, it makes us uncomfortable. 

Money. We’re being warned about our attitude toward it, and that often makes us defensive. We’re warned, but since the Church can’t simply place a limit on our assets, we may not be sure what the ideal position is. But if our leaders have seen fit to bring it up, we ought to think about it and realize we may need to make some changes. This is a sensitive subject, so let’s be clear on the purpose of this essay: not to accuse anyone of anything, but to serve as a guide for self-analysis in an area that we may often ignore exactly because it is so sensitive.

At the October 2004 General Conference, two general authorities gave consecutive talks denouncing materialism among the Latter-day Saints. Presiding Bishop David H. Burton spoke of restraining our worldly success, concluding by saying, “A prayerful, conservative approach is the key to successfully living in an affluent society and building the qualities that come from waiting, sharing, saving, working hard, and making do with what we have.”1 

Then, Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin said, “We should end our fixation on wealth…. I feel that some are so concerned about the type of car they drive, the expensive clothes they wear, or the size of their house in comparison to others that they lose sight of the weightier matters.”2 More recently, Elder Mervyn B. Arnold of the Seventy has written in the March 2005 Ensign of a concern he shared with a stake president for an “increasing number of Church members who focus their attention” on worldly possessions.3 Indeed, the prophetic warnings on this issue also seem to be increasing, just as they may be increasingly ignored.

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Christmas Is For Christians (And Their Friends)

I just re-read a thundering post I put up a year ago about a major concern of mine this time of year.  The mainstream culture’s war on Christmas has me wanting to mount a backlash.  In light of the economic meltdown and bailouts, a lot has been said this year about Ayn Rand and striking against the system.  I wonder if it’s time for Christians to “strike,” at least in terms of taking back their holiday from the secular mainstream that has watered it down and now wants to deny the validity of the original completely. 

The language in my original may have been a little harsh–I don’t really think that only Christians should celebrate Christmas.  It’s important to be able to share our traditions and beliefs with others, and certainly I don’t mean to deny the celebration of Christmas to anyone just because they may not exactly be devout.  However, yes, it does bother me when that growing body of society that denigrates Christians, that belittles God, and that wants to flout the Western world’s–and especially America’s–Christian heritage, or strip our public realm of it entirely, still wants to put up a tree and get presents. 

If atheist warriors like Christopher Hitchens or Richard Dawkins want to put up lights or a tree this year, they’d better face a huge groundswell of protest from outraged Christians. 

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Fireworks On Christmas Eve?!

As usual, my wife and I stayed up late on Christmas Eve getting everything ready for the kids in the morning. By the time we got to bed, it was a little after midnight.

Almost as soon as we closed our eyes, loud noises outside made our 3-year-old son wake up crying. When I went to investigate, I saw people down the street whispering in Spanish and setting off huge, obnoxious fireworks.

I told them to stop, that people were trying to sleep. One woman protested, “But it’s Christmas Eve!” I said that what they were doing was illegal. They said they would stop.

Soon after, another barrage of fireworks detonated. No more went off after that, either because the neighbors came to their senses, or because by that point I had called the police.

The next day, I looked up “Christmas, fireworks, and midnight” online. Turns out it’s a fairly common practice…in Latin America.

So much for “Silent Night.”

Should Non-Christians Celebrate Christmas?

Non-religious friends and associates often ask me if I’m offended when they express a lack of belief in traditional religion, usually with the tone of an apologizing diplomat. I assure them that such ideas are not inherently offensive. However, ironically, few people seem to worry about something which truly is offensive: the warping of traditional religious belief itself.

We’re trained to resist offense and be as accommodating as necessary so that nobody feels that their toes are stepped on.  To that end, the public celebration of Christmas, enshrined for generations as a bedrock part of American culture, has been quietly stripped of religious significance.  We’re now to the bizarre Orwellian point where we see many voices in the media complaining that the secular holiday of Christmas is being infringed upon by nosy Christians. 

Glancing at the news this morning over my breakfast, I saw a local news channel announcing a contest: they’d be giving away a “holiday tree.”  What?  Why is Christmas picked on like this?  (Have you ever heard of a “holiday menorah?”)  Why are so many in our country desperate to preserve the commercial trappings of Christmas long after they’ve abandoned its spiritual significance?

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