Tuesday, December 20, 2011
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This subject needs no background explanation. News of the Freedom From Religion group's effort to take down the historic banner over Broadway in Pitman has reached every corner of our country. This writer first learned about it on a television news broadcast all the way south in the Florida Keys. And we really don't get a lot of national news down here unless it involves fishing or hurricanes.
Yet at this time of the year, considered Holy by believers, this type of story spreads quickly.
This particular group has no links to Pitman. But they feel a need to dictate the atmosphere of those who live there. Neither do they have links to Santa Monica, CA, Athens, TX, or Warren, MI. Yet they've raised a ruckus in those towns as well.
They bear no hard feelings against the towns themselves. It's Christianity they don't agree with.
In the spirit of true disclosure, I must confess that the notion of a Supreme Being sounded pretty outlandish to me at one time. It wasn't a matter of having no physical proof, it was just that the very idea sounded like a fairy tale. I understand both sides of this debate.
But no matter what anybody holds as truth, it's never proper to disrespect the rights of those who choose to believe. Especially at a time they consider Holy.
According to a Pew Forum report on Major Religious Traditions in the U.S., 78.4 percent of Americans describe themselves as Christian. Those describing themselves as Atheist totaled 1.6 percent, with 2.4 percent of the respondents labeling themselves as Agnostic.
We'll combine them for the purpose of this article and refer to them as 4 percent non-believers.
Those 4 percent have the same right to voice their opinion as do the 78 percent majority. They believe in their position as firmly as the other 78 percent of our population. And they deserve a platform to make themselves heard.
The Jewish population accounts for 1.7 percent of U.S. citizens according to this same survey. Hanukkah begins today at sundown. Menorah candles are lit, grocery stores advertise special deals on food common for the celebration.
A mere 1.7 percent of Americans celebrate Hanukkah. But we all respect its significance to our Jewish neighbors.
If the 4 percent describing themselves as non-believers had a designated holiday of their own, they should be free to express it in whatever way they consider tradition. A significant event in the history of any culture should be honored. It's the core of their identity. It's the basis of their foundation.
Should it be honoring a particular position our planet reaches in its annual orbit around the sun, such as the solstices or equinoxes, I say they should go for it. They just shouldn't stomp on the beliefs of 78 percent of Americans in the process.
How did we ever become so intolerant of each other's beliefs? Our country was formed as a blending pot of other cultures. We've somehow morphed into a centrifuge.
Separation of church and state sits at the core of this problem. Here's how Merriam-Webster.com defined separation:
Separation: 1. the act or process of separating: the state of being separated. 2. a point, line, or means of division; an intervening space.
The state cannot dictate what religion its citizens must follow. Our government cannot institute a national religion as does Britain with the Church of England. We cannot abolish religion as do communist nations. The American people are free to follow whatever path they hold in their heart.
But communities do have the right, and the responsibility, to reflect the views of their constituents. A display depicting the beliefs of their citizens is an honor to those who hold them as truth.
The Freedom From Religion group, and others like them, do not want separation of church and state. They want all references eliminated. And that's against everything this country stands for.
Happy Hanukkah, Merry Christmas, wonderful winter solstice, happy holidays. May whatever event you celebrate be joyful. Just show respect for those you don't.
Around the World
Christmas is celebrated on December 25th here in the U.S. Snow covered trees are cut and brought inside to be decorated. Children must be asleep before Santa comes or he'll skip their house.
Such is the common vision of Christmas. In truth, it isn't like that at all in much of the United States much less around the world.
In Florida, lights are strung on palm trees. It's dolphins - not reindeer - that pull Santa's sleigh. And the sleigh skips across the water with a hull like a boat. Poinsettias are planted in the ground where they bloom every year.
Temperatures are expected to be in the low 80s, a bit above average this year. We won't even have to pull out a sweater much less heavy coats and mittens.
If it can differ so much in our own country, imagine how different it can be around the world. Here are traditional customs, some may be historical rather than as they're currently celebrated. But they're all amusing.
December falls during the summer in Australia. The school year is just ending so kids are finishing their final exams in time to relax for the holiday. Like America, Australia is a land of immigrants. Their customs reflect the diversity of the culture.
Christians in Iraq gather together on Christmas Eve. One of the children read about the birth of Jesus while other family members hold lighted candles. Afterward, a bonfire of thorn bushes is set and everyone sings. If the thorns burn to ashes, good luck will be theirs for the coming year. Once the fire dies, each person jumps over the ashes three times and makes a wish.
The Chinese celebrate by lighting their houses with ornate paper lanterns. Trees are decorated with paper chains, paper flowers and paper lanterns. Children hang stockings and wait for a visit from Dun Che Lao Ren, which means "Christmas Old Man."
Their main winter festival is the Chinese New Year, which takes place near the end of January. Children receive new clothing and toys, luxurious feasts are enjoyed. Fireworks fill the sky. Portraits of ancestors are brought out for worship.
The popular nativity scene originated in Italy. St. Francis of Assisi asked a man from the village of Greccio to create a manger scene for him as a backdrop to perform Christmas Mass. All who saw it were so inspired it became an enduring symbol of the season.
Italian children wait for a visit from La Befana. According to legend, the three wise men stopped during their journey and asked an old woman for food and shelter. She refused them and they continued on their way. She shortly had a change of heart, but the Magi were long gone. La Befana still wanders the earth today in search of the Christ Child.
Sinterklass visits children in the Netherlands. They fill their shoes with hay and sugar for his horse. They wake the next morning to find them filled with nuts and candy.
Mango or banana trees are decorated by Christians in India. Some use small clay oil-burning lamps as decorations. Churches are decorated with poinsettias and lit with candles for Christmas Evening service. After attending the Christmas mass, the families cut a traditional Christmas cake. The cake is usually a plum cake rich in taste consisting of nuts, raisins, almonds, etc.
The Church of the Nativity is filled with visitors in the little town of Bethlehem. The church is adorned with flags and decorations. A dramatic procession begins the Christmas Eve commemoration every year. Leading the pageantry are galloping horsemen and police mounted on Arabian horses. They're followed by a solitary horseman carrying a cross, sitting astride a coal-black steed. Then follow the churchmen and government officials. The procession enters the church doors where a statue of the Baby Jesus is placed. A silver star marks a grotto believed to be the site of the birth of Jesus.
Jewish people celebrate for eight days. Hanukkah commemorates the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem during the second century B.C., after Jews rose up against their Greek-Syrian oppressor in the Maccabean Revolt. Called the Festival of Lights, Hanukkah is celebrated with the lighting of the menorah, traditional foods, games and gifts.
The staff of GCFlash wishes all our readers a very happy holiday season.
Payroll Tax Cuts:
The U.S. Congress is bickering about the horrid thought of working through the holidays to deal with the imminent expiration of the payroll tax cuts. More specifically, the House of Representatives voted 229-193 along partisan lines to call for a conference to blend the House version of the bill with the Senate version of the bill - which passed almost unanimously over the weekend. Senate Majority Leader Reid says he won't bargain further until the House passes the Senate's two month extension to the payroll tax cut. So, it would seem, the two legislative bodies are at an impasse, which is hardly rare.
Sometimes in the hoopla it is difficult to determine who is for what. Senate Majority Leader Reid and the Democrats want a quick fix, a simple two month extension with no provision to pay for it - and let's head home for the holidays. The Republicans, led by Speaker Boehner on the other hand, want a much more comprehensive one year extension and an actual plan to pay for the benefits which likely can't be accomplished without working through the holiday season.
Let's start with the merits of payroll tax cuts in general. The Tax Relief, Unemployment Reauthorization and Job Creation Act of 2010 passed in December of that year was, most notably, a two percent reduction in the amount wage earners pay into Federal Insurance Contributions Act (known more commonly as FICA). Prior to the 2010 enacted tax cut, wage earners paid 6.2 percent of FICA taxes that were matched by their employer. The "payroll tax cut" reduced the wage earner's portion of the rate to 4.2 percent (the employer portion remained unchanged). For many wage earners, this amounted to a 2 percent increase in their take home pay, no small matter to most. The original bill also included (among other things) a 13 month extension to unemployment benefits. Both are due to expire on January 1st unless extended. Generally, it would seem that keeping two percent of wage earners hard earned money in their own pockets would be good for the economy. Or probably more accurately, abruptly removing the aforementioned two percent could further stall an already abysmal economy.
So I like payroll tax cuts AS LONG AS THEY ARE PAID FOR. Proponents of the original bill argued strenuously that the payroll tax cuts would not undermine Social Security because the missing two percent would come from some other place in the budget. The problem is that nobody got around to finding from where such funding would actually come, and to date, the original cuts have remained largely unfunded. This is a disaster, and if left uncorrected, would cause Social Security to become insolvent far sooner than would otherwise be the case. Unemployment benefits should also be paid for, but I'll address that in a future article.
Back to Congress. So both sides agree that not extending the tax cuts could have serious repercussions for the economy. The only real difference is whether or not the benefits should be paid for or alternatively - can the can be kicked down the road so Congress can get home in time for the holidays.
One final comment: On another level, it is insulting to the American taxpayer that Congress is averse to working through the holidays. Who among us can afford to "recess" from our jobs for the entire holiday season? Scant few to be sure. We have allowed our Members of Congress (regardless of party) to become royalty in this country, voting themselves special perks, ridiculous pay and pension packages, special health care plans, etc. All while the American people struggle in the worst economy since the Great Depression.
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