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God Squad: Christmas joy unites us all

Last week, I continued an annual God Squad holiday tradition by offering remembrances of Father Tom Hartman's Hanukkah greetings. I remember vividly how my friend and former writing partner loved Hanukkah, and this week I joyously share with you why I love Christmas.

I cannot and I do not love Christmas because I believe in Christ. I don't believe that Jesus was the Christ, and I understand that there's a danger in loving Christmas for any reason other than the Christian belief that it marks the birth of the Messiah.

I understand that loving Christmas because of its bedecked trees, twinkly lights and terrific songs risks trivializing its religious significance. So let me begin with an outsider's admiration for the story of the birth of God's son and redeemer.

That good news/Gospel gives Christianity the power and hope of all great beginnings. At his birth, unlike at his crucifixion, Jesus' life was still innocent, unbroken and unbowed. I admire, respect and love the way the Christian story begins.

Although the particularly Christian message of Christmas does not belong to me as a Jew, there is a part of Christmas that does belong to me as an American, because Christmas is a fundamental and foundational element of American culture. So is Thanksgiving with its message of giving thanks, unencumbered by sectarian religious beliefs. However, Christmas is clearly better than Thanksgiving. There are no serious Thanksgiving songs and, except for the turkey and the football games, no specific Thanksgiving rituals, while Christmas is one great songfest, with tunes written by churchmen, as well as by Jews like Irving Berlin ("White Christmas") and Mel Torme ("The Christmas Song").

Christmas songs are part of our cultural glue; Christmas sticks us together while Thanksgiving just fills us up. Christmas also carries with it myriad beloved myths and secular rituals from decorated trees and windows, to parties and presents, from Santa and Rudolph, to Frosty, the Grinch, Scrooge and mistletoe. All of this forms a rich and thick national cultural patois that has room in it for everyone who still has room in his or her heart for a little ho ho ho.

The non-Christian elements of Christmas culture not only unify our nation but also our world, because they've been adopted in every Western country, each having enriched Christmas with their own stories, songs, food and rituals. Christmas may well be the only world holiday. Its greatness is that it doesn't glorify any state, nation or political leader.

Christmas transcends them all. It glorifies hope, joy, family and giving to others in the spirit of love -- accompanied by chestnuts roasting on an open fire. Nothing other than Christmas comes close to achieving this transcendental unity of the spirit.

Even bah humbug nonbelievers can still embrace the Christmas message of joy and hope without endorsing the story so central for Christians. Those who bemoan the commercialization of Christmas can still embrace our ability to transcend the hype and connect to the simple joy of giving from the heart.

I grew up in a working-class home, and my Christian friends had no more money than our family. They didn't get big gifts, but they all had big Christmases.

I also love Christmas because it brings out the best in all of us. I'm thinking about my dear friend Jean Kelly, who directs the Mary Brennan Inn, a collection of 14 soup kitchens and four shelters on Long Island.

I'm thinking about the monks at the Franciscan Friary on West 31st Street near Penn Station in Manhattan who've arisen before dawn every day of every week of every year since 1924 to serve breakfast outside the church to those who call the street their home.

Christmas is the time of great need, but also the time of the greatest contributions from people who understand that everything we have is a gift, and that we owe some of it back to those who possess nothing but the truth that they, too, are made in the image of God. The Gospel of Matthew records (25:45) that Jesus said, "What you do for the least of them, you do for me." Let me say again that I believe you must be Christian to celebrate Christmas, but you don't need to be Christian to love Christmas.

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