Why the Taliban gave me a Christmas tree

Political correctness, under the guise of tolerance, tells us not to say, "Merry Christmas." But I've seen that the spirit of Christmas is transcendent – across cultures, nations, and even religions.

Walking my cat (no leash) and viewing Christmas decorations in my neighborhood last year, I came to a house bedecked with evergreen boughs, red ribbons, and strings of colored lights. I was taken aback. I knew the woman who lives there is an Iranian, a Shiite Muslim. “Strange,” I thought.

When her husband appeared in the yard, I commented on the oddity of Christmas decorations at a Shiite household. He shot back, “I’m Jewish.”

“Whoa! You’re Jewish, your wife is an Iranian Muslim, and you decorate your house for Christmas?” He shrugged and said, “Hey, we see Christmas as an international holiday.”

“Only in America,” I muttered, following my cat.

IN PICTURES: White House Christmas

Except that’s not true. My neighbor was right: Christmas is international – secular and religious.

Christmas Eve in the Holy Land

At this time of year, I often recall the Christmas Eves I spent in the Holy Land, while on assignment for CNN. The night before Christmas, my TV crew and I would make the annual pilgrimage to Palestinian Bethlehem to broadcast church services and celebrations – live from Manger Square. It was wall-to-wall celebrants. Many were Muslims who just wanted a good party. In a land where Palestinians have little to celebrate, Muslims had no guilt about making merry over Christianity’s central holiday.

My Palestinian producer, Sausanne Ghosheh, bubbled as she sang and danced in the wintry high desert night under Christmas lights strung above Manger Square. A Sunni Muslim, she made a point of telling me how much she loved Christmas and how she and her Palestinian friends always celebrated it as children.

IN PICTURES: Got your red hat?

I will always remember my hefty sabra cameraman, Yehuda Chemel, singing “Jingle Bells/ Jingle Bells/ Jingle all the way” in a very pronounced Israeli accent, whenever we drove through Israel during the two weeks before Christmas. It was a rite of the season. Sure, it wasn’t as reverent as “The First Noel,” but it suggested Christmas is infectious.

Not just a religious holiday

Christmas is not just a religious holiday. It’s a power. It transcends cultures, politics, and religion. At the height of the cold war in the officially godless Soviet Union, the atheistic Russian Communists never failed to provide free Christmas trees to their perceived adversaries in the Western news media.

The Jewish state of Israel always did the same, delivering free Christmas trees from kibbutzim to the goys. Once, while living in Jerusalem, I recall a Jewish friend asking if he could bring his three children to our apartment to see our Christmas tree after it was decorated. They had never seen one before.

Here in northern Virginia, my neighbors – the Jewish husband and the Iranian Shiite wife – clearly understood that Christmas belongs to whomever wants to partake of it to the degree they wish to celebrate.

IN PICTURES: Presidential Christmas

One thing you can take to the bank, this Christmas, as in all the others, my Jewish friends in Israel will telephone and e-mail to wish my wife and me a Merry Christmas.

It doesn’t make them less Jewish any more than my Shiite neighbor becomes less Muslim because she decorates her house at Christmas.

Cultural cowardice

So why do Americans who love Christmas shudder at the thought of buying and sending seasonal cards reading “Merry Christmas?”

IN PICTURES: Animals ready for the holidays

What is it about uttering those words that produces guilt among some Americans? It is cultural cowardice. But there can be no true religious coexistence within a culture as long as one sect feels duty bound to cower.

My wife once chanced upon a greeting card store with a sign in the window that read in effect, “In order not to offend our non-Christian customers, our cards this year will not say Merry Christmas.”

To say 'Merry Christmas'

Mine is not a call for mangers to spring up in government buildings or for public school children to be forced to observe a religious holiday. That’s the tyranny of the majority over the minority. But discouraging a verbal greeting of “Merry Christmas” is also tyranny. It’s oppressive and discriminatory. It gags free speech and curtails religious freedom.

If our marshmallow American apostles of political correctness tried to pressure millions of Hispanic Americans to forgo saying “Feliz Navidad,” there would be thunderous cries of “Kill the gringos.” So why does the English-speaking world quake and quail at the words “Merry Christmas”?

It is inane to discourage Americans from mentioning “Christmas” in holiday greetings. During the Eid al-Adha, Muslims aren’t expected to apologize for cutting a sheep’s throat when they commemorate Abraham’s near sacrifice of his son, even though many of us find animal sacrifice offensive in the extreme.

I’ve even seen the Taliban catch the Christmas spirit. In Afghanistan in December 2001, a bearded gang of Taliban fighters, all devout Muslims, emerged from Al Qaeda’s lair in the Tora Bora Mountains. They were dragging a Christmas tree for us journalists. If these Kalashnikov-toting Afghan fighters could bring us a Christmas tree, why can’t I wish you a Merry Christmas?

Walter Rodgers, a former senior international correspondent for CNN, writes a biweekly column.

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