tampabay.com

Where's the spirit of Christmas?

As generic "holidays" usurp Christmas in many largely Christian nations, the holiday finds a warm welcome in some Muslim countries.

By SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN
Published December 23, 2005


Does "seasons greetings" leave you cold? Is it bah, humbug to "holiday trees?"

If you think there's a "war" against Christmas, as some in the United States and other Western countries say, take heart: Christmas is alive and well in surprising places - among them several Muslim nations.

Like Bahrain, where the sweet sounds of caroling mix with traditional Arab music. And the United Arab Emirates, whose vast shopping malls display Christmas trees and cards. Or Syria, where Christmas is a national holiday and the neon sign on one church proclaims "Jesus - Light of the World."

As for Egypt, where the Holy family found a haven from King Herod's persecution, "we celebrate in big hotels and with families," says Ayden Nour, director of the Egyptian Tourist Authority in New York. No generic cards for him - he sends out ones that say, "Merry Christmas."

By contrast, the governors of 36 states decided to play it safe this year with cards offering good wishes for a nameless happy holiday, according to a survey by Stateline.org. It's the kind of nod to political correctness that even some non-Christians find dismaying.

"Because so much attention is given to not offending minority groups, what we've done is often offend the majority group," says Liz Chappel, executive director of the Toronto-based Ontario Multifaith Council.

"North America is overwhelmingly Christian, and even though I'm not a Christian I say, "Merry Christmas' to all kinds of people. And if a Christian says, "Merry Christmas' to me, he's sharing the joy of his season and why would I not be grateful to be included in that joy?"

Like the United States, Canada is an increasingly diverse nation that has seen its share of controversies stemming from attempts to be all-inclusive. Earlier this month, a flap erupted when an aide to the governor general - Queen Elizabeth's top representative to Canada - publicly referred to the evergreen in the official residence as a "holiday" tree.

"It reflects the traditions of many cultures," the aide told Canadian TV. But while "well-intentioned," it was wrong to call it anything other than a Christmas tree, another staffer quickly countered.

A Nova Scotia tree grower was even more emphatic when he heard that Boston also used the term "holiday tree" for the 36-foot spruce he had donated. (Each year, the Canadian province gives Boston a tree in thanks for the city's help during a disastrous 1917 explosion in Halifax.)

"I think it's a bunch of bullc---," Donnie Hill said of the "holiday" term. "Ever since I was born, a tree was put up for Christmas, not for holidays, because if you're going to do that you might as well put a tree up for Easter."

In Britain, which also has a large immigrant population, some schools and local governments have stopped using the word "Christmas" and eliminated nativity scenes and other symbols. Prime Minister Tony Blair sent out two sets of cards this year: one that reads, "With best wishes for Christmas and the New Year" while the other omits Christmas to avoid offending non-Christians.

That's an example of "too tender a sensitivity" to the feelings of minority groups, says an expert on British culture.

Blair "is a believing Christian, his wife similarly is an observant Roman Catholic, they brought their children up as Christians - why should they feel it is necessary to hide this?" asks Lawrence Goldman, editor of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

"I'm Jewish and I'd only be too pleased if Great Britain celebrated (Christmas) in a traditional way because it's a civilization largely formed by Christianity. I'm rather dismayed that people should feel that members of minorities are somehow alienated or otherwise downgraded if the majority community celebrates Christmas."

One Christian country that still revels unabashedly in Christmas is Germany, even though it now has millions of Muslim residents. It was Germany where the first Christmas trees appeared in 1521 and where millions annually flock to the Christkindl (Christ child) Markets with their vast array of handicrafts and edible treats.

"We usually say, "Merry Christmas,"' notes Martina Nibbeling-Wriessnig, spokesperson for the German Embassy in Washington, D.C. "Maybe not everybody celebrates this as an entirely religious holiday, but it is part of our culture and along with the culture goes the greeting."

Many Germans and other Europeans now escape frigid winters by heading to the Mideast, where moderate Muslin countries welcome them with Christmas trees, decorations and activities that rival anything back home.

In Bahrain, a small island nation in the Persian Gulf, the list of Christmas-related events this year includes caroling by several choirs, a huge children's Christmas party and appearances by Santa and his reindeer.

Far more extravagant is Dubai, the booming city in the United Arab Emirates that celebrates Christmas in all its glitzy commercial glory. At the Burj Al Arab, billed as the world's most luxurious hotel, guests can enjoy old-fashioned mulled wine at the rooftop lounge or a five-course Christmas feast for $188.

Not every Muslim nation is so tolerant. Saudi Arabia, home of the extremist Wahhabi form of Islam, does not allow the practice of other religions and even confiscates CDs of Christmas music from Western visitors.

But Islam recognizes Jesus Christ, and Christians are considered "people of the book." Several Muslim nations have sizable Christian populations, including Egypt, Syria and Jordan, where thousands of Iraqi Christians have sought refuge from the turmoil in their own country.

Richard Nimijean, a professor at Canada's Carleton University, finds it ironic that some non-Christians are more likely to say "Merry Christmas" these days than Christians are.

"We look at what's going on elsewhere, and Canada is no different in trying to negotiate how we live the ideals of multiculturalism. On the one hand, people don't want to offend other people, but then they turn around and say, "The majority are Christian, so why why can't we say "Merry Christmas?"'

Information from the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. was used in this report. Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at susan@sptmes.com