Yule Do Just Fine

Posted by on January 7th, 2011 at 2:39 PM

We’re still in the throes of the post-holiday season, and to finish off our week that, so far, has included Beetle Bailey’s fate at the New York Daily News and a selection of editorial cartoons that deployed aspects of Christmas to make their points, here’s one more of the latter. Take a slow, contemplative look at this cartoon by Michael Luckovich:

What’s the point here? Or, to put the matter another way, who is being ridiculed? Is it Joseph because he has a big nose? Or is it the innkeeper, who apparently thinks anyone riding up to the door on a donkey is among the dispossessed. In ancient Bethlehem, anyone riding on a donkey is likely to be a reasonably well-to-do citizen, so the cartoon is not attuned to actuality in New Testament times. But today, we usually think of Joseph and Mary in the stable as representing something at the low end of the economic scale, hence the innkeeper’s leap of illogic.

Some place in Connecticut, a reader of The Day newspaper —namely Thomas R. Bride, a monsignor in the Catholic Church— took umbrage at the cartoon and he wrote the following letter to the newspaper:

“As a leader of the Catholic Church in Eastern Connecticut and as pastor of Christ the King Church in Old Lyme, it was with dismay that I opened the editorial page of The Day December 21. The editorial cartoon was disturbing. I find it incomprehensible why it is necessary for a public newspaper to use the religious figures of Mary and Joseph, divinely called by God himself to bring forth the Messiah, the redeemer, in something of a mockery set of circumstances.

“The event we commemorate on December 25 changed the world and brought God not only to the people of their day, but indeed in human history to the nations of the Earth. This is no small event and Christians throughout the world commemorate this event with historic recollection, prayer, devotion, service and help to others— to the less fortunate, to the poorest, to the sick and elderly and to many others.

“In our day and time, home foreclosure is a serious, debilitating phenomenon that results from the difficult economic plight in which we find ourselves. Our hearts reach out to those who face the challenges and uncertainty of this terrible plight. Please God, soon this shall pass from us. We watch every day for signs that this will happen.

“I find it insulting that The Day thinks using the figures of Mary, who was with child, and her husband, Joseph, in a city far away from their own, without a room, and their plight somehow has a bearing on the economic situation in which we find ourselves.

“Christmas is a sacred event to millions of people throughout the world, and to thousands who open The Day paper daily.

“Please cease to make humorous or to denigrate what is to so many of us, a most holy and sacred event and time. I think we Christians deserve an editorial apology for The Day’s editorial cartoon. Shame on The Day!”

The editor of The Day, Paul Choiniere, responded as follows:

“In publishing a political cartoon by Mike Luckovich of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on December 21, The Day editorial staff did not intend to mock the Christmas story or insult anyone. In fact, our intent was quite the contrary — to honor the symbolism of the great biblical story.

“According to Gospel accounts, God chose the most humble of circumstances for the birth of his son, Jesus, whom Christians believe to be God incarnate. This Messiah was born in a common stable, among domestic animals, because there was no room at the inn.

“This was a God, therefore, of the common man, of the poor and lowly, and, yes, even of those who have experienced the discomfiture of foreclosure. For 2,000 years these unassuming surroundings for the birth of a savior have provided a powerful image for the faithful.

“So we felt it entirely appropriate when Mr. Luckovich suggested in his cartoon that if the Holy Family were to show up at the innkeeper’s door today he might mistake them for a family that, through the loss of a job or other changed circumstances, had been left homeless by foreclosure and looking for shelter.

“That was our take, in any event. The Rev. Thomas R. Bride saw it much differently. We’d welcome your opinion in a letter to the editor.”
My opinion? I pretty much agree with Choiniere. Luckovich is clearly using home foreclosures to make a point, but the point, I think, is that we should not leap too quickly to conclusions about those whose homes have been foreclosed. They are the new homeless. We too often assume that the homeless deserve their plight, but they, like Joseph and Mary, may be wholly innocent bystanders in some larger machination. The butt of the joke is the innkeeper. And he occupies that dubious distinction because he has judged by appearances.

Monsignor Bride obviously had a different take. He’s just tired of seeing so much of Christmas taking place in less than reverential circumstances. He thinks of cartoons as laugh-provokers, and he’d rather Mary and Joseph weren’t subjects for cartoons or laughter. That’s the conclusion he leaped to.

All of which proves, as if it needs to be proven again, that doing editorial cartoons with Christmas themes is a risky enterprise. But it doesn’t mean editoonists should stop doing them. They should plunge right on, taking risks left and right.

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