It's Christmas time again and my kids are running around the house like madmen singing, "Jingle Bells, Batman smells, Robin laid an egg..." Do I object to their changing some old, time-honored lyrics to fit their mood and culture? Probably not. Who cares, really? But there is something else I have noticed, this year in particular, perhaps more than usual. And I have to admit it bugs me.
I was just in India directing a Christmas television special which, among other things, explains to the Indian people the meaning of Christmas. India is, of course, largely Hindu with a strong Muslim minority, leaving a balance of only about 3% Christian.
After over 20 years of doing this program one of the things I decided to do this year was use fresh new Christmas images and by that I mean the whole megillah; prophets first hearing word that a virgin shall conceive a child, to be born in Bethlehem, to the Annunciation, followed by angels appearing to shepherds in their fields, Mary and Joseph and the Baby in a manger, and later on, Wise Men bringing gifts.
My Indian producer, after years of hearing me complain about our tired, old footage, finally agreed with me and planned the whole shooting match. He cast actors, hired a Bollywood lighting crew, rented three camels, a herd of sheep, and built a village compete with manger. I had everything. A star was even constructed to appear in the Eastern sky, a little awkward at 6 feet with no way to suspend it.
So, for a short but intense part of November, I was in 90-degree heat directing the entire Christmas story, soup to nuts. And it was just before the last day of night shooting, when we were finally getting around doing the manger scene, that my producer told me over breakfast, "By the way, Michael, we don't have a baby Jesus." My cameraman still likes to describe the look on my face as it took a moment for me to process this.
"Well, then, it'll be just like an American Christmas...without Jesus." I eventually said.
Now, why didn't we have a baby Jesus? The producer tried to tell me as best he could that the Indian people do not like their babies to be seen by strangers. He went on to explain that the suspicion, or concern, is that if a stranger looks upon your baby they could give it the "bad eye." He was searching for the right words. It took me a second to think about that and I said, "Do you mean the Evil Eye?" He said yes. "Even Christians are concerned with the evil eye?" He nodded again. I had to ask, thinking that perhaps we could at least get a baby from a Christian couple. If we could find one with a baby.
I'd only heard or read about the evil eye on a few occasions and apparently it's a big deal in some countries and in certain cultures. I heard from my brother that in Turkey you can even buy jewelry to ward off the evil eye. Anyway, I had to come up with a plan B fast and thought that I could use footage of a baby that I had shot years earlier and just insert it into the show.
So, aside from not having the central character in the story, the very essence and meaning of Christmas, the shoot went well. It went really well. Evil eye or not.
Back stateside, while editing the show, I starting to get Christmas greetings from friends in every form: letters, cards, emails, Facebook messages. And I began to notice something. Perhaps it's been going on for years and I just hadn't noticed it. But this year it jumped out at me a little more than usual. And that is that certain people, not everyone but an alarming number, when they wrote about Christmas, instead of writing out the entire word, used an x and then a dash followed by "mas." X-MAS. An abbreviation for Christmas.
Now I understand a lot of people use shorthand in their daily lives, like when they're jotting personal notes, memos and so forth. I have a dear friend who while in med school came to incorporate every known abbreviation in her class notes, as evidenced when she wrote to me. It was rare she spelled out any word over 4 letters. Even her "with" was turned into w/.
And of course corporate America has to be relieved that they don't appear to be promoting any particular faith or creed when they abbreviate the holiday. Heck, not just corporate America, the world. One of my favorite duty free pit stops, Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam, this year imprinted one side of their ubiquitous yellow SEE BUY FLY shopping bags with, "Schiphol wishes you a Magic X-Mas."
Then I noticed that the people with whom I was communicating, those whose writing I was reading, were also using other long words in their writing, and by long words I mean words with many letters, and when it came to those words they spelled them out in their entirety. Yet when it came to this one word - Christmas - it's the only word they seemed to feel the need to abbreviate.
I further observed, and this is again based on my limited experience and knowledge, is that many of those who were selectively using this abbreviation were themselves Christians. They are Believers. They are people who celebrate Jesus as the main focus in their lives as a matter of personal redemption.
Do many people now simply prefer to use X-MAS instead of Christmas? Are they just in the habit? No harm, no foul? Go with the flow? I even had one well-intentioned person, a follower of Jesus, try to explain to me that the X actually means Jesus. It's His cross, turned sideways.
Now I don't want to sit in judgment of my neighbor who has a sign in his front yard proclaiming, "Keep Christ in Christmas," and by writing this I may be doing the equivalent, but is this something that is standing out to only me? And why exactly am I not comfortable with it? Am I maybe just being overly paranoid about this? Are those black helicopters I hear on the horizon?
Then I recalled another show I did a few years ago. I was in Israel and was privileged to visit the ancient Herodian hilltop fortress of Masada. Masada, of course, is the well-known 1st century stronghold where a group of stubborn Jews took their own lives instead of becoming captive to the advancing Roman, or, at the time, pagan army.
Well, like any guy who loves stories of forts, armies, battles and sieges, I started reading everything I could on Masada. Along the way I picked up an extremely comprehensive account of the first archaeological dig of Masada, right after it was, shall we say, rediscovered. And something immediately caught my attention and it was the use of the initials B.C.E. Of course, I didn't know what BCE meant. I looked it up, and saw that it meant "Before (the) Common Era." The initials were obviously being used as a substitute for BC, widely known and accepted as "Before Christ."
Having grown up with what's been used for centuries, BC that is, I became a little agitated. Again, I don't see myself as a raging lunatic or religious fanatic or anything of the sort, but I just hate seeing history - the writing of history - changed to accommodate modern culture. I certainly felt that this represented a full frontal attack not just on my beliefs, but on established history. It was an attempt to secularize history.
An attempt that worked, apparently. Since that time in the early 90's I've read and heard that BCE can also stand for Before (the) Christian Era. I personally think some apologists are a little too hard at work there. I really believe that over time you'll find the definition of BCE settling into "Before (the) Common Era." Call it a hunch.
And then it struck me. The Essenes who held out at Masada chose to take their own lives instead of allowing themselves to be defeated by a pagan culture. They sacrificed everything for what they believed in, instead of being compromised.
Now jump ahead 2000 years to this "holiday season," where Christians are voluntarily taking Christ out of the word Christmas.
Which brings me back to India. I shot my very first television special there some 21 years ago. At the time (as with the present), my Indian producer really had some nerve to tell the Indian culture about Jesus Christ. Millions. On television! And before we even broadcast the show it first had to face the scrutiny of Hindu censors, not known for their diversity.
And when I did that first show we engaged a well-known preacher, world renown, to give the Christmas message. And being culturally sensitive he thought that he would soften it just a touch. Make it acceptable to the Hindu audience. Just, you know, nibble around the edges a bit. Not really say what he really believed, but allude to it. So his sermon went something like this: "What is it about a baby? What is it about a baby being born? A baby, of course, is innocent." And he went on.
You can't win 'em all, I remember thinking in the editing room.
Our show was shipped off to the National Channel and they took a look at it and word came back that they loved it. It was well done, they said. High quality - we had flying angels - and everything was acceptable to them.
But then they said something else.
As one would expect, they particularly scrutinized our message, 5 minutes max of our 30 minute program, and had a question. The Hindu government, the Hindu sensors - one in the same - got back to us and asked, "Hey, you guys, don't let us intrude into your world or anything, but if you really believe that God came down to earth in the form of a baby and you believe that He truly was God, and that's what your holiday is all about...why don't you just say so? Why are you trying to hide it?"
I'll tell you how we're trying to hide it. We're going to start by omitting the central character. We're going to change the words. Only slightly. Jingle Bells, Batman smells... Everyone will still get the original meaning, won't they? It's only an abbreviation, after all. It still means the same thing. Doesn't it?
We must be worried about the evil eye.