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A Season of Light

In recent weeks, it seems there has been a lot of anger and controversy surrounding the celebration of religious holidays.

In the New York metropolitan area alone, we've seen several stories about public schools "banning" the singing of Christmas carols (search) at holiday concerts. Christmas trees are being referred to as "holiday trees." The public's reaction to these decisions has been — as one would expect — passionate.

But I just can't understand how the holiday season has become such a battleground here in America. When I attended public school — from 1978 through my high school graduation in 1991 — the month of December was filled with Hanukkah (search) songs, Christmas trees, "holiday" parties, Rudolph, Santa, Menorahs and Christmas carols.

I remember spinning dreidels at our school holiday party as Santa gave out candy canes. We ate foods our parents had made representing different cultural aspects of the holidays — we munched on everything from latkes to Italian cookies. Some of our classmates who were Orthodox Christian explained to us that the celebration of the Epiphany (the feast marking the three kings' visit with Jesus in the manger) was a bigger feast for them rather than Christmas Day (search).

Most importantly, the diversity of our holiday celebrations gave us all the opportunity to learn from each other. As a Christian, I learned many lessons from my Jewish friends — and not just that Jewish kids are lucky because they get gifts for eight nights. One of these lessons would not occur to me until much later in my life, and I am thankful that, as a child, I was given the foundation that made it possible for me to "learn" this lesson so many years later.

Simply put, while there are tremendous differences in the scope, size and importance of each of the holidays celebrated by people of faith at this time of year, one common theme is that for all, this season is truly a season of light.

Hanukkah, for example, recalls a difficult period in the history of the Jewish people. The Jews were being oppressed, massacred, marginalized and denied the right to worship Yahweh. The ruler, Antiochus IV, was trying to completely crush the Jewish people and defiled the temple by slaughtering pigs — a non-kosher animal — on the alter of the temple. He knew that such an act would attack the very heart of the Jewish people.

Once the Jews had succeeded in their revolution against the government, they were able to re-dedicate the temple. The Menorah is supposed to burn in the temple through the night, every night, but the oil had been defiled by the Greeks and there was only enough oil to burn for one day. Miraculously, the one-day supply of oil burned for eight, giving the Jews enough time to prepare a fresh supply of oil for the Menorah. An eight-day festival was declared to commemorate this miracle. And so the lights from the menorah to this day recall this miracle.

For the Christian, the image of light is essential to celebrating Christmas. The star that hovers above the manger announces the birth of Emmanuel (God is with us).

In the opening words of the Gospel of John, Jesus is referred to as "the light in the darkness [that] shines and the darkness could not apprehend it."

There is also the significance of the time of year Christians celebrate Jesus' birth in Europe and America. Christians mark Christmas within days of the official beginning of winter, a time of year when there are more hours of darkness than at any other time of year. The winter was selected on purpose, to remind Christians that in the time of deepest darkness, the light of the world was born.

America prohibits the establishment of an official state religion so that the practice of other religions would not be suppressed or inhibited. We have the freedom to choose how we worship God and what God we worship, and that freedom is one of the things that makes our nation great. But it was never the intention of the founders that Americans would be stopped from worshiping or respecting their God, or calling on that God for help in times of crisis.

Wouldn't the holiday season serve us better if we allowed our different celebrations to help us find the common ground we so often speak of wanting to find in America? Because, what we are really celebrating during this annual Season of Light is that, over thousands of years, despite the forces of darkness that have threatened us and continue to frighten, the light can never be extinguished.

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Father Jim Chern is a Roman Catholic priest, ordained in May 1999 with the Archdiocese of Newark, N.J. He is a parish priest at Our Lady of Lourdes Church in West Orange, N.J. He is a 1995 graduate of DeSales University in Center Valley, Pa., and graduated from Arthur L. Johnson Regional High School in Clark, N.J. in 1991.