Of Cradles And Dreidels

Michalczyk's new film deals with religious, commercial controversies associated with Christmas, Chanukah

By Sean Smith
Staff Writer

The anxiety which accompanies the holiday season's joys has become a familiar topic in the media and public, and Prof. John Michalczyk (Fine Arts) hopes to contribute to the conversation with his latest film, "December's Dilemma: The Creche, the Dreidel and the Star."

The half-hour documentary, which Michalczyk screened at a special campus premiere last night in Higgins 307, offers a fresh view of the origins and spirit of the Christmas and Chanukah traditions. Mixing historical narrative with interviews of scholars, educators and clergy - including some from Boston College - the film examines public and private controversies associated with the two holidays, such as displays of religious symbols, commercialism and tension among interfaith families.

Michalczyk said he is not out to resolve complex, long-standing issues in half an hour. Instead, he sees "December's Dilemma" as a means for viewers to "start asking the questions" about their own perspectives on the holidays and what they mean.

"I usually try to provoke people into reflection and discussion with my films," Michalczyk said, "but I do think it appropriately depicts the realities of the situation. The film strongly suggests that however different the Christmas and Chanukah traditions are, both speak eloquently about our human condition.

"It's important, therefore," he added, "to look at all their dimensions. This includes the conflicts which may arise within, and between, the Christian and Jewish faith communities. If we can at least appreciate the richness of each tradition, though, maybe we'll understand that living in a pluralistic society has its benefits as well as its problems."

Prof. John Michalczyk (Fine Arts)-"The film strongly suggests that however different the Christmas and Chanukah traditions are, both speak eloquently about our human condition." (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)

"December's Dilemma" represents some familiar territory for Michalczyk, whose previous films have depicted relations between different cultures and ethnic groups. The idea for the film evolved from a major research project on the complexities of Christmas in American society, led by Social Welfare Institute Director Prof. Paul Schervish (Sociology) and funded through the T.B. Murphy Foundation Charitable Trust. With additional support from the Jesuit Institute, Michalczyk wrote, directed and produced the film over two years.

Among those interviewed for the film were Prof. Thomas Groome (Theology), Sociology associate professors Seymour Leventman and Paul Gray, and School of Nursing associate professors June Horowitz and Rachel Spector. Assoc. Prof. Daniel Kirschner (Biology) and his wife, Joanne Baker, performed traditional Chanukah music for part of the film's soundtrack.

The interviewees share both personal experience and observations as well as expertise in discussing the two traditions. German-born artist Margaret Hoenig, for example, recalls Christmas celebrations in Munich that demonstrated the secular aspects associated with the holiday's celebration. Leventman, meanwhile, comments on the post-World War II evolution of Chanukah, as an occasion for Jews to celebrate their religious identity and freedom.

Others talk about the disparity between the religious or spiritual aspects of the season and the increasing trend toward commercialism in Christmas and Chanukah, as well as the difficulties arising from the merging of cultures and traditions. Journalist Nat Hentoff notes how, although Jewish, he was expected to sing Christmas carols with the rest of his Christian classmates in school. In response, Hentoff said he would inject "very irreverent Yiddish phrases" into the lyrics.

With the juxtaposition of the holidays, and the increasingly pluralistic society, Groome says Christians should celebrate the season in a way that respects cultural differences. This solicitude, he says, reflects "the true meaning of Christmas."

"I was very pleased by the range of responses and commentary," Michalczyk said. "People were able to speak on a number of different levels, in a way that was informative yet also enables viewers to connect in a more personal manner. As the film states, understanding and education could help resolve a lot of the tensions and conflict which emerge at this time of year. Our hope is this film can be part of that educational process."

"December's Dilemma: The Creche, the Dreidel and the Star" will be shown on Monday, Dec. 15 at 10:30 p.m. on WGBH-TV, Channel 2 in Boston.

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