Merry Christmas!
Balint Vazsonyi

Warning to readers with sensitive skins: This is a tale with a sting in the tail.

Once upon a time, there was a planet. It was a beautiful planet, teeming with life. As well as myriads of plants and animals, human beings inhabited much of the land. They were not as adept as the plants and animals in arranging their lives. There was much suffering and much hostility among the humans.

But some tried very hard to do better. Among these were many who believed that God has given them laws by which to conduct their affairs. They believed that the suffering and hostility was a form of punishment, but that some time ago the same God who had given the Laws, sent his Son to redeem the offenders. They decided to remember the day when that happened and called it "Christmas."

One day, they began to lay foundations for a new country in a new place where the Law would be supreme, and where all of them could remember Christmas in a special and personal fashion, no one imposing his way on any other. In time, they decided to invite the entire planet to join them in this new place they called "America."

People around the world began to hear wonderful stories about the new place. And people who have suffered greatly began to hope they might some day see it, perchance live in it.

Then came news of a great ship, perched on the Eastern shores of the Atlantic Ocean, ready to take to America anyone who would show up at the point of embarkation.

The news spread far and wide, and rivulets of humanity formed as they made their way from the far reaches of Asia and Africa through places called Asia Minor and Europe. The rivulets eventually swelled to a great river as people finally assembled on the shore, ready to board the ship.

The night before they were to sail, camp fires were seen as new friends began to tell each other of the places they had left behind. There was Mai-Ling whose parents had been forced to commit suicide in the Cultural Revolution of China because the "wrong books" were found in their home. There was Hoang from South Vietnam whose entire family got killed when the North-Vietnamese overran his village. There was Rama from Kashmir who had been caught between two ferocious religions all her life. There was Mwanga from Uganda, beaten half to death because he had spoken ill of Idi Amin, and Ambia from Ghana who had always starved. There was Zaida from Saudi Arabia who had yearned to cast off her veil and learn a profession. And there was Moshe whose grandparents escaped Russia's anti-Jewish pogroms with their bare lives, and whose parents perished in a German concentration camp.

The next morning, eager to board the ship, they found a gigantic figure standing on the gangplank, barring the way. "Stop and listen," his voice thundered over the multitude. "Stop and listen before you take one more fateful step."

The people froze in astonishment.

"You do not know about this place, this America, you are so eager to reach," the stranger began. "You must realize that the people there, once every year, greet one another with the words 'Merry Christmas!' And as if that were not enough, at the same time, they display a woman with a new-born child, surrounded by animals and three men of uncertain origin!"

The multitude recoiled.

"We must return to our homelands without delay," shouted someone. "How could we be so foolish as to hope for a better life in such a bizarre place?!"

"Wait!" cried Mai-Ling as the crowd began to turn. "Is it not so that I would not have to fear for my life?"

"And I would have enough to eat?" asked Ambia. "And I could practice my religion, and build a better life?" asked Zaida.

"Sure," bellowed the stranger. "You can be free, and you can be safe, and you can work and prosper. But every year, I mean at least once every single year, you have to suffer the indignity of people around you saying 'Merry Christmas!'"

"Do we have to say it, too?" Moshe asked timidly.

"No - but you might not be able to stop others from saying it," warned the stranger.

The people hesitated. "This requires much thought," said an older man. "I say we remain ashore and contemplate our fate tonight."

They sat around the fires again that night. And the next night, and every night. They weighed the price they were expected to pay for freedom, safety, opportunity, prosperity. They could not decide whether putting up with "Merry Christmas" was worth it.

The ship never sailed.

Just as well.