It's Christmas Day: So what's the story?

Bethlehem_church_of_the_nativity_2Pick up the newspaper on a typical Christmas morning and you know that certain items are sure to be inside.

The local copy desk will have managed to get an early dateline story out of Rome, complete with whatever quotations the pope’s sermon included that have anything to do with politics or the peace process in the Middle East. It’s usually best to just read the sermon for yourself.

You also know that there will be a report and a photo about conditions in Bethlehem. Conditions there are almost always somewhat more bleak, or somewhat less bleak than the year before. Bleak is measured in terms of police and-or tourists.

This is particularly interesting to me, since I attend an Eastern Orthodox parish that is about 70 percent Arab. Our church has members from Bethlehem and Jerusalem, part of the great exodus of Christians out of the Holy Land. I was particularly struck, this year, by the Los Angeles Times report by Laura King. It had all of the usual political themes that one expects to see in a religion story from that part of the world. Here is a sample:

Most of the celebrants were local Palestinians, including throngs of young Muslim men and boys seeking any excuse for a night out from one of the city’s grim Palestinian refugee camps. The few foreign tourists were mostly organized church groups, rather than the travelers who could commonly be found venturing to the West Bank on their own in the years before the second intifada, or uprising, broke out in September 2000.

Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestine Liberation Organization chief who is favored to win the Palestinian Authority’s Jan. 9 presidential election, attended midnight Mass in the chapel adjoining the nearly 1,500-year-old Church of the Nativity, in what aides said was a message of interfaith solidarity.

Now note, if you will, an interesting point in that last paragraph. The story covers the politically colored events in the chapel next door to the ancient church. If you have been to Bethlehem, then you know that this means that the reporter covered the Roman Catholic services in the rather modern Franciscan sanctuary that adjoins the ancient sanctuary of the Church of the Nativity (shown in photo). Let’s hope that when Christmas arrives on the Julian calendar on Jan. 7, at least a few reporters visit the ancient church for the Orthodox rites there — even if those rites are not as politically symbolic. We’ll have to see. Or perhaps we will not see, if major U.S. media fail to cover it.

Meanwhile, back to the main theme of this post. Another staple of Christmas Day newspapers is the glowing human interest story about nice people doing nice things. There will be photo packages on volunteer Santas and short accounts of volunteers helping people out in a wide variety of ways. These are the "good news" stories that consultants tell news executives that readers what to see and, every now and then, editors assign them and get them into the main pages. If GetReligion readers see any fine examples of this genre today, please leave us a comment or two.

One of my local newspapers — the South Florida Sun-Sentinel — led page one with a nice-people story of this kind, only with a twist.

Veteran religion reporter James D. Davis (a friend of this blog), came up with a Christmas feature that I have to admit I have never seen before. He focused his feature story — entitled "A Newly Found Faith" — on individuals who are seeing Christmas 2004 through a unique lens. He found people who had been converted to Christian faith in the previous year and asked them how this affected the Christmas season. The stories of these converts are not spectacular. Most, it seems, are built on quiet changes over time. But it is still clear that these lives changed and, thus, in subtle ways, Christmas changed.

However, the copy desk at the Sun-Sentinel appears to have made one major online mistake. They misplaced Davis’ prologue — which explains what the these stories are all about. Imagine that. They forgot to include his lead on the body text of his story.

So here it is. Read the lead and then you can go read this rather unique set of Christmas stories:

In a way, Christmas is always the same: a bright, joyous tide of gifts, colors, carols, festive foods. And also, of course, a rushed, stressful time; a commercial polyglot; a TV season of black and white feel-good movies from yesteryear. Yet today, it will be different for some people in South Florida: new Christians.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Huw Raphael

    The Jerusalem Patriarchate is on the Julian dating system. So – except for a loan of the space – there wouldn’t have been anything going on in the Orthodox Church next door… unless they were celebrating a vigil for St Spyridon the Wonderworker and/or St Herman of Alaska. Certainly nothing else at night since very few Orthodox Churches (none, outside the USA, as far as I know) allow for evening liturgies at all.

  • tmatt

    Now that is something that requires the whole post to change! I did not know that about the Christmas date there. When I was visiting, I asked and I thought they said we were on the same calendar. I knew the RUSSIAN churches there were on the old calendar. Let me try to verify this information! I will gladly correct this if I am wrong. I wonder why the churches in the ancient Jerusalem patriarchate would be on the old calendar, while the Phanar in Istanbul is on the new.

  • tmatt

    Looking at last year’s coverage, it appears that Raphael is right.

    I will edit the piece immediately. Thank you.

  • Huw Raphael

    I’m not sure what the patriarchal politics are but the Calendar issue is odd… if you’ll forgive the understatement!

  • JoyPople

    I liked James D. Davis’ angle on the Christmas story. It’s a switch from the following really-old-guy-with-a-lot-of-descendants story:

    105-year-old Iowa man celebrates with family

    VILLISCA, Iowa, Dec. 25 (UPI) — An Iowa man celebrated his 105th birthday Saturday with his family at Good Samaritan Center nursing home in Villisca.

    John Baker still enjoys spending time with family — including nine grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren, his son, Larry Baker, told the Des Moines (Iowa) Register.

    The elder Baker is hard of hearing but can still deliver a flow of detailed memories of a childhood spent ice-skating on local rivers and ponds. Later he made his living as a farmer and running a combine.

    He still lived at home until few years ago and shot his last deer at age 92, the newspaper said.

    As a child, his family celebrated Christmas with up to 80 family members, Baker said.

    “It was a lot of work for the women and the men all had big arguments on everything from soup to politics,” he said. “We kids had to wait for our dinners while they argued, and we thought we were going to starve to death.”

  • Brant

    This is fascinating — what happened to the Sun-Sentinel lede, I mean.

    In early December, for the Jewish holiday, the Palm Beach Post gave us a great article, of 20-or-so “Reasons why it’s Great to be Jewish in South Florida!”

    This apparently includes the great rabbis in the area. That’s no doubt true. But we’re not holding our breath for a list of why it’s great to be a Christian here.

    Perhaps there are no good reasons, given what our pastors are apparently up to. A couple weeks before, we were given a page one Sunday story in the PBP telling us, “Why AIDS still spreading in South Florida”. Turns out it’s because of poverty, and the lack of Haitian translators, and, in bulleted, bold type on page one:

    SoFla pastors still don’t hand out condoms.

  • James Davis

    Hi, Terry. Thanks for the kind words about my Christmas story. But I was puzzled about your saying it lacked my lede. Here’s the story as it appears in Lexis-Nexis, and as it ran in the print version:

    Copyright 2004 Sun-Sentinel Company

    Sun-Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, FL)

    December 25, 2004 Saturday Palm Beach Edition


    LENGTH: 1458 words


    BYLINE: James D. Davis Religion Editor


    In a way, Christmas is always the same: a bright, joyous tide of gifts, colors, carols, festive foods. And also, of course, a rushed, stressful time; a commercial polyglot; a TV season of black-and-white feel-good movies from yesteryear.Yet today, it will be very different for some people in South Florida: new Christians, those who have embraced the spiritual meaning of the day for the first time.From Lantana and West Palm Beach to Weston, the faithful talked of new peace and fulfillment.

    Daniela Lazzarotto had been dating Crystian for a month, but he surprised her on one Sunday in April by ending up at a church.

    “I was surprised — I was thinking, ‘What, are we going to get married right now?’” Lazzarotto laughed. “But when I went, it was so comfortable. Like I fit. Amazing.”

    Especially for someone who was raised in a spiritist household in Porto Alegre, Brazil, where family members called on spirits to inhabit and guide them. Lazzarotto went through traditional Catholic baptism and attended a Catholic school.

    “But just because it was a good school,” said Lazzarotto, who works at a children’s store in West Palm Beach. “I didn’t go to church or read the Bible. I believed in God, but not Catholicism.”

    Christmas for the Lazzarottos was family: about 20 aunts, uncles and cousins gathering. They partied and opened gifts at midnight. “But we didn’t think of what it was for,” Daniela said.

    She moved with her family to South Carolina 12 years ago, then to homes in Boca Raton and Lantana starting in 2001. She met Crystian Barerra at her former job, a department store in Wellington.

    Barerra, a lifelong Catholic born in Ecuador, brought her to St. Juliana parish in West Palm Beach, and she fell in love with it. Especially the pastor, the Rev. Alfredo Hernandez. “He makes you feel very welcome. Like coming to someone’s house. You feel like part of the family.”

    In September she decided to commit. She enrolled in a preparation class for the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults — and says she actually needs Mass nowadays.

    “Every time I go, all the stress and craziness of the week, I don’t think about it,” she said. “I leave more grateful for my life.”

    Crystian, now her fiance, has noticed the change too. “She’s excited to go to church and RCIA. And when she gets tense at work, church helps her become calmer.”

    Now that they’re engaged, Christmas will still be family: the small, embryonic family of each other, and the extended family of St. Juliana.

    “It will be just him and me, going to church, but this Christmas will be happier,” she said.

    Filling the void

    Like many in the Nashville suburb where he grew up, Tom Harper attended a Baptist church. But his real religion was hunting, fishing, cars, motorcycles. He found his fellow congregants “self-righteous and hypocritical.”

    “I was never baptized and left at 12 or 13,” said Harper, a mechanical engineer with an aerospace firm, who lives in Stuart and works in Jupiter. “Christmas for me was the traditions, the trees and gifts. Always important to children. But I didn’t focus much on the meaning.”

    When he moved to South Florida in 1995, he spent Sundays fishing and sailing; yet he started feeling a lack in his life. “I achieved things, but always felt something was missing. I started reading the Bible out of curiosity.”

    His interest kicked into high gear three years ago when he met Dorothy Ragozzino, a cradle Catholic who attends St. Juliana Catholic Church in West Palm Beach.

    “She was a catalyst for me,” he said. “She has a kind and gentle heart. She’s always been a devout Catholic, but not overbearing. She teaches by example. I found that very attractive.”

    He accompanied her to a few Masses and came to appreciate the faith. The “practical view of humanity, and how they can guide you to be a better person.” The saints, whom he saw as “remarkable people.” And the “colorful history, both good and bad. The modern church doesn’t try to hide the bad, but to learn from it.”

    It was a gradual evolution, but he finally took the plunge: enrolling in class for the Rite of Christian Initiation this fall, a few months after he and Dorothy were engaged. He expects to become a full-fledged Catholic at the traditional Easter Vigil Mass.

    Christmas this year is more tradition for Harper — gathering with Dorothy’s family in West Palm Beach — yet different. This time, it will mean something for him.

    “It’s Christ’s Mass,” he said, using the original name for Christmas. “It’s about Jesus and about his birth and life, and ultimately, his death and resurrection.

    “I feel my life is moving toward something more fulfilling. And there will never be an end to that.”

    Deeper understanding

    Christmas and Easter were big times for Sandy Cadet Avril. Mainly for the parties.

    “We used to go to another family’s house for Christmas, then party ’till no one could take it anymore,” said Avril, raised in Plainfield, N.J. by her Haitian-American parents. “I believed in Jesus in a vague way: God’s son, the only way to heaven. But I didn’t know what it meant.”

    Although she attended Catholic schools, the teachings somehow never took root. Nor did she attend church after she moved to South Florida in 2001 and married her husband, Edward, a bakery manager.

    But a change came when the Sunrise resident watched a preacher on TBN this past June.

    “He said it wasn’t enough just to know about Jesus; you had to know him at a personal level,” said Avril, a nursing student at Miami-Dade College. “It was scary. I thought I’d known Jesus, but I didn’t.”

    She repeated the prayer prescribed on the air and noted a change when she read a Bible: “I went deeper into it. Before, it was words. Now, I understood more.”

    The experience sent her on a church hunt, looking through the phonebook and visiting local congregations. In September she found Living Word Fellowship, a nondenominational church in Lauderhill.

    She was struck by the many kinds of people there: Haitian, Barbadian, Jamaican, white.

    “Everybody was able to worship together,” she said with surprise. “They had different types of music, and people all worshipped the same way. Even the musicians were multicultural.”

    She was also startled at the tidal wave of people greeting her, hugging her and shaking her hand. “I was late, and people were still nice,” she said with a laugh. “I’m not used to that.”

    Although Sandy wants to gather with relatives today, she doesn’t plan a party, which she says doesn’t fit the real meaning of the day. Not any more.

    “It’s deeper for me now,” she said. “Not about partying.”

    A noticeable change

    Liz Moore loved Christmas. The family gatherings and the presents — Giftmas, she used to call it. And the parties and flirting and drinking. “A woman of appetites,” by her own winking description.

    Moore attended a Methodist church as a girl in Miami. “I saw the business, the money side,” Moore, a Weston resident, recalls of her church years. “I came away with less feeling for religion, not more.”

    She got into broadcasting, first in TV news, then HBO Latin America. But she says she felt an emptiness, which her pot consumption could not fill. Nor did her New Age reading.

    “If you’d asked me, I’d say I was doing great,” she said. “But I’d always been searching for something. I never felt I was contributing to humanity.”

    Dinner with a friend started a new quest. “What do you think is your purpose for life?” Moore asked the friend. The reply — “the glorification of God” — stuck with her.

    One thing after another made her aware of a need for God, she said. She saw a skywriter spelling out “LOVE GOD.” She read a religious book, The Purpose-Driven Life by Rick Warren, along with her sister. And sitting on her patio one weekend, she said, she heard an inner voice: “I’m here. Won’t you come to me?”

    A Christian friend recommended she visit Calvary Chapel of Fort Lauderdale. She remembers the date — July 21 — when she answered the altar call and prayed to become a Christian.

    The next few weeks brought a shedding of old habits, she said. Her taste for pot withered. Her taste for church grew. She now attends Calvary Chapel Wednesdays and Sundays.

    Others noticed her change as well.

    “I tell her that she looks beautiful, like she’s just back from a spa,” said friend and fellow worker Christina Barquero — a new Christian herself, since April. “You can see a glow, a joy. When she said she’d become a Christian, we both started weeping. I’d been praying for her.”

    Moore said she would spend Christmas with her mother and sister in Port Charlotte. “They’re happy for me, because now I understand what they’ve understood.”

    James D. Davis can be reached at or 954-356-4730.

    GRAPHIC: PHOTO; UNITED BY BELIEF: Daniela Lazzarotto and her fiance Crystian Barerra, at CityPlace in downtown West Palm Beach, say they will celebrate Christmas with each other and their extended family at St. Juliana Catholic Church in West Palm Beach. Staff photo, John L. White