Welcome to THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English. I'm Barbara Klein. This week on our program, our subject is Christmas in America.
This Friday, millions of American Christians will celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, their lord. Many families will sing traditional Christmas carols and exchange gifts around decorated trees. And many will attend special church services on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.
Reporter Jerilyn Watson spoke with David Denoon, senior minister at the First Congregational Church of Evanston, Illinois, near Chicago. This is his second year there.
He says that at the early service on Christmas Eve, he will begin with a question for the children. What might Jesus want for his birthday? Then he will turn his talk toward the adults.
DAVID DENOON: "My intention is to spin that for the adults as well, to be talking about our relationship with God and that we find that relationship most special in our relationship with Jesus."
Reverend Denoon will also lead a second service on the night before Christmas.
DAVID DENOON: "One of the great traditions that I really appreciate here at First Congregational is that we do an annual service of 'Nine Lessons and Carols,' which is in the old King's College tradition from England. And the ending of the service is, everyone has just sung 'Silent Night.' We've lit candles, we've turned off the lights, everyone is sitting in darkness except for the lights of their candles as the final reading is read. And at the conclusion of the reading the bell is tolled at midnight and we then sing "Joy to the World."
Major holidays are often when houses of religious worship are most busy. And that means extra work for members of the clergy.
Frank Kurimsky is the priest at a Roman Catholic church in Oakmont, Pennsylvania, near Pittsburgh. Saint Irenaeus Parish is celebrating one hundred one years in existence. Between Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, Father Kurimsky will be busy with four services, and another priest will lead a fifth.
Orthodox Christmas is observed on January seventh, based on the Julian calendar. However, the Orthodox Church in America says most of its members follow the revised Julian calendar and celebrate on December twenty-fifth.
"Merry Christmas" is the traditional holiday greeting used by millions of Americans. But these days a great many say "Happy Holidays."
Some people are happy about the change. But others are not, including this woman in the state of Mississippi named Merry.
MERRY TIGERT: "Not everyone is Christian. But I would hope that most people who celebrate Christmas in any form understand its origins. And even though historically there's no indication that Jesus Christ was born in December, that's just the day that has traditionally been used to celebrate the birth of the Son of God on Earth. Other people may choose to say 'Happy Holidays,' but to me that just doesn't say enough."
Merry Tigert says people like to have fun with her name at Christmastime. But her name also causes misunderstandings. Many people hear it and think it is Mary, M-A-R-Y, instead of M-E-R-R-Y. We asked how she got her unusual name.
MERRY TIGERT: "When my mother was expecting me, she was expecting a boy to come along in January. And instead a little girl came along in December, oh, about a week before Christmas. So she didn't have a girl's name picked out. She had been addressing Christmas cards, and the only thing that came to her mind was 'Merry' as in Merry Christmas."
So is Merry merry?
MERRY TIGERT: "For the most part, yes. We all have our times, but I do tend to have an optimistic attitude."
Merry arrived seven years after her mother had her first child -- and she was quite a Christmas gift. You see, the doctor had told her mother that she could not have any more children.
That was Merry Tigert's favorite Christmas song. But adults are not the only ones who have something to say about the holiday season.
HANNAH:"My name is Hannah"
REPORTER: And what's your favorite thing about Christmas?"
HANNAH: "That we get to spend time with our family."
Reporter June Simms talked to some schoolchildren.
CHILDREN: "We get to open presents." "Getting to see my family." "Celebrating with our family." "Presents!" "I usually get presents that say Santa Claus on them but I'm not really sure if they're from him."
Now, about Santa Claus ...
CHILDREN: "He has a sleigh with flying reindeer. Kids go tell him what they want for Christmas and then he's kind of like the spirit who brings you presents."
"On Christmas Eve we lay out cookies and milk and carrots. The carrots are for the reindeer, and the cookies and milk for Santa Claus." "We put out some vegetables for Santa Claus and a glass of water, and then when we woke up there was a note from Santa Claus."
"He gives presents that children want for Christmas, and give it to them under their tree."
REPORTER: "How does he know what they want?"
CHILD: "Well he lives in the North Pole, I don't know if there's like a speaker or anything, for them to hear what children want."
The children are all fourth-graders at a Washington-area elementary school.
CHILDREN: "My name is Seth Montuori. I was adopted. I usually go up to my grandpa's and my grandma's house. It's one of my best holidays, and, because you get lots of presents and stuff. I'm just really glad that I could be with my family."
"Well, first we go to church, then we come home on Christmas Eve and then we open our presents. And then the next morning our stockings are full and we wake up, go downstairs and empty our socks. And that's the German way. My mom's German."
"Christmas was when Jesus was born, his birthday. They have Christmas trees, and you put ornaments. And it usually snows, and we also have like lots of lights."
Not all the children celebrate Christmas, though.
CHILD: "I celebrate Hanukkah. Well, you have to light candles every night. And you get presents for eight days because -- I mean seven days, because God made the, created the earth in seven days and on the seventh day he rested."
Well, sort of. Hanukkah -- the Jewish Festival of Lights -- really is eight days. But the history goes back more than two thousand years. Jewish rebels defeated a Greek-Syrian army and reclaimed their temple in Jerusalem. The first night this year was December eleventh.
After Christmas, black families in the United States might also celebrate Kwanzaa, which means "first fruits" in Swahili. This modern festival of African-American culture includes lighting candles each night from December twenty-sixth through New Year's Day.
By now, the severe recession that began in December of two thousand seven may be technically over. But millions of American families are still hurting. For many, the best gift would be a job and freedom from worry about losing their home.
Other families have different worries. For military families, the best gift would be a way to protect loved ones getting ready to be sent to war, or already serving in Afghanistan and Iraq.
In the United States, holiday gift giving is important not only for the usual reasons, like showing friendship and love. It also represents an important part of a national economy driven mainly by consumer spending.
Last December, as the recession hit hard, Americans held on to their money. This year, stores and online sellers are seeing a little more willingness to spend.
Reporter Caty Weaver talked to shoppers in the Tysons Corner area of Northern Virginia, outside Washington.
TINA: "My name's Tina. I have two girl and one boy."
Tina is shopping with Kevin, and they say the difficult economy forced them to Christmas shop a little differently this year, to save money.
KEVIN: "Instead of shopping in just the regular shopping mall we were kind of forced to go to these bargain type shops."
And by the look of their shopping cart, overflowing with boxes and bags, they must be finished.
KEVIN:"We're pretty much done."
TINA: "For everybody. [Laughter]"
But they still have one more purchase to make: their Christmas tree.
TINA: "We're gonna put it up tonight."
Another couple out shopping, Duncan and Alexandra, look happy with their results.
DUNCAN: "This year a lot of stores are trying to reduce prices to help bring customers in during this time of recession. And we've had tremendous success in getting different things that we wanted for the holidays."
We asked Alexandra her favorite Christmas song.
ALEXANDRA: "'It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas.'"
Johnnie Truesdale is shopping with two other women -- who point to her to be the one to talk on the radio. She has a thing or two to say about the prices.
JOHNNIE TRUESDALE: "Still high. Could be better."
And the shopping conditions.
JOHNNIE TRUESDALE: "The stores are very crowded. And I'm glad I'm finished shopping."
But she has praise for the people who work at the stores.
JOHNNIE TRUESDALE: "The lines were moving pretty fast. The salespersons were doing a good job."
And her favorite Christmas song?
JOHNNIE TRUESDALE: "'Silent Night.' It's the Temptations."
Finally, there is Vincente Carbajal. He is shopping with his wife and little girl. But not Christmas shopping. He says his family does not celebrate Christmas, although they are Christian.
VINCENTE CARBAJAL: "We think every single day is very valuable. We celebrate every single day with our family, with our community. We don't hate anyone. Every single day can be a Christmas."
Our program was produced by Caty Weaver. I'm Barbara Klein. We hope you join us again next week for THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English.