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Spencer Rendahl: Permission To Carol

A West Coast friend – and Presbyterian pastor - blogged a shocking holiday development recently: someone came by his house and asked permission to bring a group of carolers to his front porch to sing the next evening.

That inspired my friend to wonder if our society has gone so downhill that now people need to get permission in advance for caroling. I replied that if that’s indeed the case, I think it’s fantastic.

As my pastor-friend knows, I’m an atheist. And I explained to him that however good intentioned a bunch of carolers might be, I would really prefer for them not to come to my door to rejoice in song about the arrival of the messiah.

My pastor-friend thought the permission in his case was unnecessary. His family’s decorated Christmas tree stood near their entryway, in full view of the street. He thought it was obvious that they would welcome carolers.

I pointed out that my family has a visible Christmas tree, too. My husband and children attend church. The Christmas tree is a compromise. But just because the rest of the family sings about the birth of Jesus doesn’t mean that I do.

Indeed, we’re learning that more and more families who look easy to peg often aren’t. Comedian and self-declared “Celebrity Atheist” Bill Maher grew up attending Catholic Church with his dad and sister. He occasionally wondered why his mother never joined them. Later he learned why: she was Jewish.

Now I’m not a combatant in the “War on Christmas,” as Bill O’Reilly and his friends at Fox News might have it. I just appreciate it when people show sensitivity to each other’s beliefs, because far too often, it doesn’t happen.

Several years ago, my Jewish brother and sister-in-law picked up their daughter at daycare and found that the teacher had given her a new doll. “What’s your doll’s name?” they asked, touched by her teacher’s generosity and thoughtfulness. “Baby Jesus,” she replied. Suddenly, the parents were filled with quite different emotions.

I told this story to my pastor friend who quickly denounced the teacher’s actions. But to me it’s really the same thing as showing up at someone’s door and singing the good news: probably well meaning, yet quite insensitive.

On the other hand, not making assumptions about someone else’s beliefs can save a lot of embarrassment. Just ask CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer.

Last May Blitzer, who is Jewish, learned this while interviewing a tornado survivor in Moore, Oklahoma - live on national TV. Standing amid destroyed houses, a mother held her young son as she described how she had quickly fled her house as the tornado approached. Blitzer high-fived the boy, then turned to the mother and said, “So I guess you got to thank the Lord, right? Do you thank the lord for that split-second decision?” But the mother replied: “I’m…
I’m actually an atheist.”

At that, she and Blitzer could only manage an awkward laugh at the misunderstanding.

Suzanne Spencer Rendahl is a former journalist whose work has appeared in publications including the Boston Globe. She lives with her husband and two children in Plainfield, NH.
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