Not very long ago, and not very far away, in a one-bedroom apartment of a ramshackle building at the corner of Jerome and East Tremont Avenues, there lived a little boy and his sickly mother. His father had since long died of abdominal cancer and his mother had single-handedly raised him since he was two years old. His name was Avram Hirsch, fondly known as Avi, and he was one of the poor Jews who remained in the Bronx when all the others had migrated to Brooklyn to make room for the contingent from Puerto Rico and the West Indies.
Avram attended elementary school with the Hispanic and Black children and immediately found himself in a place of privilege among his peers. With light skin, blonde hair and blue eyes, and a good command of the English language, he was accorded special and preferential treatment, and everyone, especially the blacks, wanted to be seen with him, and better still, be listed among his friends. That is, until the day of his Bar Mitzvah, when he became a young man and proudly wore a yarmulka to school the next day.
The little round skull-cap not only revealed his Jewish identity but also precipitated a barrage of insults and threats to his person, so serious, that his friends began to drift away from him, one by one, as if they had seen a horrible apparition hovering over his head.
Within days of the revelation of his Jewish identity they changed his name from Avi to Yamaca Boy. They told him that the Holocaust was a lie, that so many people were not killed, and that the Jews just wanted pity along with a reason to justify their hatred of the Germans and Christians. They said the Jews were stupid murderers, having killed the Christ, the very person who came to bring them salvation, and that like Judas, they would commit the most horrible of crimes for a few pieces of silver. They said the Jews were racists who thought that God had chosen them alone to be his people and that all others were gentiles and barbarians who will eventually be sent to hell. And so, on account of a little piece of cloth on his head, he moved overnight from friend most sought after to foe most despised, from being always at the hub of the wheel to being the dirt under the wheel, and from boy most likely to succeed to boy who must struggle to survive.
Left without the insulation of friends, and bereft of a father on whom to lean for support, and fearful that bad news might kill his sickly mother, he chose to face the verbal ammunition alone. But, being yet unlearned in such matters, he was unable to respond to the charges and inevitably became a recluse in the very community in which perhaps he alone could claim a legitimate birthright.
As the verbal and physical threats increased his mother decided that it was in the best interest of his safety that she remove him from the school and, on recommendation of a rabbi who was a close family friend, she sent him off to a synagogue in Yonkers.
For the first few days he refused to eat or even to speak, afraid that the anger that boiled within him like a volcano might erupt into something regrettable; and as if to avoid such possibilities he took refuge in the sanctuary of the musty old synagogue, as though he had been sentenced to solitary confinement for some misdeed. But he had done nothing wrong and still found it difficult to accept the fact that a little yarmulka had the power to transform him from friend to foe, from innocence to guilt, from leader to castaway, from one most loved to one most despised. When he broached the question to the old rabbi he was told that he was too young, too innocent, too naïve, too unlearned in history, theology and philosophy, to know the answers to such deep and enduring questions.
And so, in the absence of a logical explanation for the reaction he received after his Bar Mitzvah, he set his mind, heart and soul in a diligent, systematic and relentless study of the Torah and Jewish history, in order that he might find answers. He studied fervently both day and night, and by the age of twenty, on the advice of the aging Rabbi who had become to him a father, mentor and spiritual advisor, he studied for the Rabbinical office and was ordained one of the youngest rabbis in New York. Soon his fame spread throughout the Jewish community in the Tri-State area and within months he was seen hobnobbing with city officials and high churchmen in Bensonhurst and Newark.
Preoccupied with his newfound celebrity role and the demands of a hectic itinerary that had him speaking at Jewish schools, conferences, and synagogues seven days a week, he had all but forgotten about the hatred and rejection he experienced as a little boy. That is, until the day he returned to his home synagogue for Sabbath services and saw the building defaced with crudely painted swastikas and read the life threatening notes the perpetrators left in the mailbox. They identified themselves as true Christians who were instructed by God to eliminate all blacks and Jews from America in order to purify the land.
As he read the notes his hands and lips trembled with anger, magnified by an involuntary regression to his childhood experiences, and that very night he purposed that if he and his people were to survive he must bring the fight to the Christians. And so, within months of his twenty-first birthday, he launched a personal campaign to avenge himself for being driven out of his neighborhood and for being threatened with annihilation by impious hypocrites who called themselves Christians.
His campaign strategy took dead aim at the two major events in the Christian calendar. He took notice of the fact that the Christians had two great celebrations, Christmas and Easter, and that their movement was built upon these two events, and he reasoned that if he was able to prove that these events never took place or that the Christians were misled by non-Biblical traditions, he would strike a mortal blow on his enemies. But he was immediately confronted with a problem concerning the Easter event. A celebrated 1st century secular Jewish historian named Josephus had recorded the existence and works of a man named Jesus and how he preached righteousness and then was put to death by the Roman governor at the insistence of the Jewish Sanhedrin. Wisely so, he decided to avoid Easter and focus his energies instead on the demolition of the Christmas event. Besides, he reasoned, the Christians celebrated Christmas with joy and merriment, and if he could dismantle the truth of the Christian claim he would surely steal Christmas, and for him that would be an even more satisfying victory.
And so, with due diligence, he applied himself to the task of debunking Christmas. Like a worker ant he labored, moving inexorably between libraries and bookstores, spending hundreds of hours thumbing through encyclopedias and Christian publications, and perusing other reference books for facts to disprove what he believed was a Christian myth. Three months later, he walked out of the campus of the Bronx Community College with a satchel full of documents, papers and periodicals cradled to his chest, confident that he had built up enough ammunition to bring the Christian community to its knees.
In the weeks leading up to Christmas, even as some radio stations began to air Christmas carols, he embarked on a mission to disseminate his findings to as many people as possible, in a tract he wrote entitled The Truth about Christmas. As the days went by he single-handedly distributed thousands of fliers, leaflets and tracts on the streets of New York and in the subways, undaunted by the frigid air and slippery sidewalks, and indifferent to threats and stares from angry Christians. When he was convinced he had saturated the city with his Christmas-busting revelation, he grew even bolder and turned his attention to the Churches. His first target was the church in the neighborhood where he was raised and which most of his classmates attended as children, including him, though less frequently, located some four blocks away from his mothers home. So as not to raise suspicion in the Christian community he exchanged his rabbinical vestments for a vintage Wallach's black 3-piece suit and presented himself as a Messianic Jew. In this way the artful young rabbi managed to obtain access to many pulpits in South Bronx and used those opportunities to disseminate The Truth About Christmas. Mostly, he took great delight in showing the Christians how they were deceived, and even greater delight in watching the joy of the festive season vaporize from their faces.
The first Sunday in December of that year he attended the English service at a small Spanish-speaking church just off the Grand Concourse and immediately launched into his sermon. As usual his first salvo was aimed at debunking the accuracy of the date that Christians celebrate as the birthday of Jesus Christ.
"Let me assure you, my brothers and sisters, he said with the passion of an evangelist, we must know the truth because the truth will set us free!"
"Yes, brother," they replied, "give the truth to us."
"The truth is that Jesus was not born on the 25th of December! Then he paused for what seemed like minutes, just to watch the dismay and shock on the faces of the congregants and to see them writhe in their seats and fiddle nervously with their thumbs and pens. He continued, "And you ask: How I know this? Well, here is how! First, when Jesus was born there were shepherds in the fields watching their flocks? But if you have been to Judea, as I have, you would know that the shepherds corralled their sheep from the fields and mountainsides by October 15th and did not leave them out in the winter. Even Adam Clarke, in his Commentary on Luke 2:8, notes that, "It was a custom among the Jews to send out their sheep to the deserts, about the Passover, and bring them home at the commencement of the first rain: during the time they were out, the shepherds watched them night and day. As the Passover occurred in the spring, and the first rain began early in the month of Marchesvan, which answers to part of our October and November, we find that the sheep were kept out in the open country during the whole of the summer. And as these shepherds had not yet brought home their flocks, it is a presumptive argument that October had not yet commenced, and that, consequently, our Lord was not born on the 25th of December, when no flocks were out in the fields; nor could he have been born later than September, as the flocks were still in the fields by night. On this very ground the nativity in December should be given up." He paused again, deliberately, sensing their nervousness and taking delight in their querulous expressions.
But that is not all, he continued, The birth of Jesus took place during a time of taxation, when citizens were to return to their native cities. A winter-time tax, demanding such long and difficult travel would be most unlikely. December, the Jewish month of Tebeth, is a winter month in Judea. So, if we want the truth, my brothers and sisters, we must give up the December 25th nativity. Besides, my friends, if God wanted us to celebrate Jesus' birthday, wouldn't he have given that date to us?"
"The brother is speaking the truth. I read my Bible plenty times and I never see Jesus birthday as December 25," sister Carmen whispered to the shell-shocked woman seated beside her who had turned pale with disbelief.
"So, what is the origin of all this Christmas celebration, you ask? he proceeded, Well, let me tell you. It came from emperor Constantine who took away the pagan festival that celebrated the Sun-God and replaced it with the celebration of the Son of God. And, let me tell you something even more strange. The pagans celebrated December 25 as the birthday of Nimrod, you know that wicked man who married his mother Semiramis and became the father of the Babylonish spirit that continues to grip this world in greed and rebellion against God? Well, when that man died his mother-wife claimed that a full-grown evergreen tree sprang up overnight from a dead tree stump, meaning that Nimrod was still alive as a spirit being. Semiramis also claimed that on the anniversary of Nimrod's birthday he would visit the tree and leave gifts on it, and that, my little children, is the origin of the Christmas tree and the ornaments that you hang on them and the gifts you leave beneath them. It is from Babylon!"
Babylon? Is that same thing Bob Marley sing about. Them is wicked people, sister Mavis, a Jamaican woman mumbled.
"And I know some of you still believe in Santa Claus and some of you think the fat man in red suit is just harmless fun. But let me lead you to the truth about him. You all ready for the truth?
Yes, a fragmented few muttered, we ready, brother.
There is no Santa! In fact, if you look closely at the name you will see that the name Santa is really Satan in disguise."
Satan? marveled Mavis as she scribbled the word on her sermon notes pad and tried to unjumble it, Santa is Satan? Oh, my! Look here Carmen, the brother is right!
But let us continue on in the truth, my friends. We are taught, and our nativity scenes display it, that when Jesus was born "three wise men" came to the stable. But the number "three" is a figment of someones imagination as nowhere in the Bible can we find a reference to three wise men. And not only that, but we are also told that their names were Melchior, Gaspar, and Baltasar. Where did these names originate? I don't see them in the Bible. Do you?"
You see how the devil does add things to the Bible? Carmen stuttered to her ashen face Jamaican neighbor, that is why you have to come to Bible study and study for yourself.
Also, Avi continued, we are told by the myth-makers that the wise men came to Jesus and found him in the manger in a stable. Remember the nativity scene with Jesus in the manger and standing about are the shepherds and wise men? The truth is, these shepherds and wise men were guided to Judea, and when they arrived they still did not know precisely where to find the baby. So they went into Jerusalem and conferred with the king, that is king Herod. Then when they left for Bethlehem, the star led them to the house where the baby lay.
Is what he talking about, now? someone grumbled, why he telling us all these Christmas stories? Why he just dont preach the Word?
"And what about the mistletoe and yule log? Avi pressed on, You guessed it, my friends! These are also from pagan customs, mostly from cults that worshipped the sun. Even the word "Yule" means "wheel," and is a pagan symbol of the sun."
Why do I preach about these things, my friends? Because, at the end of the day, if we do what God has not directed us to do, even though we express in so many ways that we intend to honor Him, we just worship Him in vain.
As he concluded his polemic against Christmas he noted how the glee on their expectant faces had turned into dismay, and how the faces of the innocent children had turned ashen with disappointment, and how the pastor was moved to the edge of his seat as one who was fearful of losing his congregation. Then he shook a few hands and left the building, satisfied that he had accomplished his mission, and he set his face towards another congregation further down the street.
Within two weeks of Christmas he had succeeded in casting a gloom over the south Bronx neighborhood. The stores on 170th Street and Fordham Road, jam-packed this time of year, were literally empty save for a few shoppers who scurried about their business, their faces hooded by parkas as though they were afraid of being recognized by the growing group of anti-Christmas demonstrators. Proprietors stood at the entrance of their empty shops and stared in bewilderment at the empty streets and some of them had already posted sale signs normally reserved for Christmas Eve clearance event. Even Santa, normally omnipresent during Christmas, was notably absent, being now viewed with suspicion, either as an impostor who was trying to wrest Christmas away from Jesus, or as Satan in disguise. On subway platforms and in the trains commuters kept their eyes glued on the pamphlets that were literally stuffed into their pockets and while some were vocal enough to debate the merits of the Jewish brothers claims, others simply accepted it as divine revelation. But the majority of the people were unsure how they should react as they were accustomed to this celebration since childhood, and they looked forward to meeting with their loved ones and going to church and singing carols and eating cakes and turkeys and exchanging gifts.
Still, as Christmas day approached many of them began pulling down the ornaments from the trees. Others refused to buy gifts for their children and others made it clear they were not attending any Christmas day services in honor of Babylon.
From his elevated office in the synagogue Avi watched the gloom descend upon the neighborhood and snickered fiendishly at the men who were dragging pine trees back unto the curb and at the women who were returning gifts to the stores. He even took delight at the distraught children who tugged at their mothers dresses, imploring them with loud crying not to return the toys and gifts. It did not matter to him that the Jewish community was the one that stood to lose the most from the decommercialization of the Christmas event, or that many shopkeepers depended on this time of year for survival, or that many poor people would be deprived of a much needed bowl of soup. The only thing that mattered to him was that he had stolen Christmas.
But the battle for Christmas was not yet over. The Christian churches, suffering the most from this Yuletide fallout, decided to fight back to stem the tide of melancholy and to boost the morale of the people. On the recommendation of Pastor Alonzo, a presbyter of the Spanish churches in the Bronx, the ministers in the evangelical fellowship resolved to call an emergency meeting. The meeting was convened in the park across from the Mount Lebanon hospital just three days before Christmas and, as expected, was well attended, especially by the Christian community whose most festive holiday faced extinction. As soon as a decent crowd had formed Pastor Alonzo Rivera took the microphone, marshaled workers from his church to serve the people with coffee and donuts, tapped twice to sound-check the microphone and then cleared his throat.
"Brother and sisters," he began, "two weeks ago I opened my pulpit to a man I hardly knew but who came to me with high recommendations. I never expected him to say what he did, and truth be told, much, if not all of what he said, is perhaps true. That man left us and took with him, well, Christmas. In the light of the impact his doctrine has had upon our community the presbytery decided to meet, first, to consider the claims of this man, and, two, to frame a response for the Christian community, many of whom are here tonight, no doubt confused and angry. I am here tonight to share with you our response to the charge that Christmas is a myth that is both offensive and unbiblical and that it should not be observed by true Christians."
"Go on, pastor, let us hear what you have to say," encouraged sister Carmen.
"Does it really matter if Jesus was born on December 25th or 26th or February 29th? No! The celebration of the 25th of December is arbitrarily chosen. Historically, men have claimed the birthday of Jesus in every month of the year. For example, the Egyptians placed it in January; Wagenseil in February; Bochart in March; Clemens Alexandrinus mentions some who did so in April, and others in May; Epiphanius refers to some who placed it in June or July; and so on in every month of the year. The Romans selected December, the very day the ancient Romans celebrated the Feast of Saturn, which was a time of goodwill, when no war could be declared and when people sought instead to give each other presents. So we find celebrations of Jesus birthday at every time of the year. Besides, let us face the facts. We don't all celebrate our birthdays on the very day we were born. People born on February 29th, or on April Fools Day, or on Friday the 13th invariably have their births registered on a more auspicious date. So what is important is not the date but the fact that God in his mercy sent his Son into this world to save us from sin, and for that we are grateful and it is that fact that we celebrate on December 25th. Furthermore, my brothers and sisters, is it really sacrilegious to superimpose this great event over a baseless pagan celebration that honored an incestuous union of an evil man and his mother? I think not! True, we have absorbed ancient pagan practice into our rites, but so have other religious communities, many of whom have co-opted Christmas into their rites as well, some choosing to find new meaning or to attach greater significance to holidays that approximate to Christmas. So, my friends, rather than condemning Emperor Constantine for effacing an immoral tradition and preventing its propagation, we ought instead to laud him, for in so doing he has struck a debilitating blow on the scourge of Babylon.
Is ze same thing I was saying, Carmen shook her head and replied, undaunted by Mavis Yes-Fool over-the-rim-of-her-glasses stare.
And does it really matter whether or not there were three or thirty or three thousand wise men or that their names were contrived? Alonzo continued, I think not! The fact is that wise men came from the east with gifts to honor the birth of Christ, leaving us an example that Christ is worthy of worship with the best gifts we have to offer ourselves.
Yes, brother, Carmen encouraged, you preach it!
This is a time of peace and goodwill towards all humanity, not just Christians. Remember, when the angels appeared to the shepherds in the fields they said, "Peace on earth and goodwill toward all men?" How can that be something evil? The brother also condemned the giving of gifts but let me point out that though some of us are profligate in our spending at this time of year, the fact is that most of you buy gifts of necessity for your children. You buy them things that they need and which you wisely deferred unto this time of year, as it were, killing two birds with one stone. Is there any harm in that? Besides, many of you buy gifts for charitable causes and many of you take time to volunteer in soup kitchens and shelters so that the poor can have some food and warmth, not only in their bodies but in their hearts as well; and isnt that what the spirit of Christmas is all about? Did not Jesus say that when we visit the sick in hospital, and the prisoner in jail, and when we feed the hungry and clothe the naked, and give a cup of cold water to the thirsty, that we are in fact doing it unto him?"
Yes, brother, but what about Santa? shouted a man from the back of the burgeoning crowd," is he really the devil and should I take my children to see him?"
What the brother said about Santa being Satan in disguise is not true. Santa is a corruption of the name St. Nicholas, a Roman Catholic bishop who lived in the 15th century. This bishop of Myra was a good man and he was honored by his friends, and on December 6 it is said that he used to give gifts to the poor. The only difference today is that we pay the stores for the gift that Santa gives our children. Is that evil? I am sure we all visited Santa when we were children, and we took pictures with him, and though some of us cried, the majority of us cherished the experience and looked forward to it year after year, even when we grew older and knew the truth about the fat man in red suit. Did it harm us spiritually, or mentally, or psychologically? I think not! I agree that our society had muddied the meaning of Christmas through consumerism, myths and empty traditions, but we should not let these things distract us from appreciating the real message of Christmas. The birth of Jesus is cause for celebration because it reminds us that to be human is good and not evil, that God is not totally transcendent but One who can be known and who can identify with our circumstances because he once lived on earth and walked among us, and that there is hope for the poor and lowly of heart in the program of God. So, I say unto you, Joy to the world, the Lord is come, let earth receive her King and let every heart rejoice! Celebrate in whatever way makes you happy! Merry Christmas!
The crowd cheered, cried, laughed and hugged each other as they commenced a chorus of Christmas carols. They sang into the morning hours, kept warm by animated clapping and dancing, and sustained by coffee and donuts and, of course, by the overwhelming news that they had found Christmas.
The next day they resumed their hustle and bustle, shopping for toys and gifts and food and decorations. The men were once again atop ladders and fire escapes, framing their windows and gutters with multi-colored lights while the women cranked up their stoves and ovens to prepare their favorite Christmas dishes. Shopkeepers hurriedly removed their sale signs but perhaps grateful that Christmas was back they were willing to reduce prices. Santa also was back on the streets and in the stores and so were the Salvation Army soldiers with their kettles. Even old man winter seemed happy enough to withhold a forecasted snowstorm and give them instead a light dusting of snowflakes. But perhaps none were as relieved the children. They wiped their tears and once again jammed the parks, sidewalks and rinks, their high-pitched sounds of laughter and gaiety rising above the din of the traffic.
The only person who was insulated from the merriment was Avram Hirsch. He locked himself in his office in the synagogue and stared out of the window at the men hauling pine trees back to their homes, at the children playing in the snow, at the animated shopkeepers, and at the skies that once again had been cleared of gloom and dejection. Strangely, however, he was not angry, but almost happy that the people had found Christmas. In his anger to avenge himself for the hurts he experienced he had engaged himself in a war, the consequences of which he never considered, and now, hearing the sound of laughter and watching the joy in peoples lives, regardless of their religious orientation, he realized that it was a terrible mistake to try and steal Christmas. And so, feeling somewhat ashamed of what he had done, and concluding that he would no longer be accepted in South Bronx community, he packed his accoutrements and made arrangements to be transferred to a synagogue in Newark.
On Christmas Eve, at about 7:30 p.m., he turned off the lights in the building and just as he was about to lock the door he felt a hand resting lightly upon his arm. It was the leader of a group of Messianic Jews who, upon hearing of the events that had transpired and reasoning that he would need some comfort and support, decided to pay him a visit.
"Brother Hirsch, I am Rabbi Gottlieb. These are some members of my group. Can we come in for a few minutes?" asked Rabbi Gottlieb politely.
At first Avram was reluctant but they insisted and he figured he had nothing to lose. "Okay, just ten minutes, I have a train to catch!" he replied.
The ten minutes turned into hours when Avram confessed that he was not a Messianic Jew and did not even know what that was all about. Seizing the opportunity Rabbi Gottlieb began to teach him about the Jewish Messiah, pointing him to the Old Testament predictions and their fulfillment in the New Testament.
"This Jesus was a Jew? The apostles were Jews? The church was started by Jews?" he kept asking, seemingly shocked at the revelation.
Three hours later, at the invitation of Rabbi Gottlieb, he knelt and prayed that this Jewish Messiah might forgive him and take up residence in his heart. And on Christmas morning he joined the Messianic congregation at Rabbi Gottlieb's church in Brooklyn for breakfast and their Christmas cantata. As he sang along with them, tears flowed from his eyes as if a duct had been torn. For the first time in his life he was truly happy.
And that, dear friends, is how Aviram stole Christmas. Almost!
Richard Rupnarain lives in Toronto, Canada