Wednesday, December 15, 2004


Christmas day is nearly upon us again. For many of us, it is a time of joy and celebration. For some, it brings with it a melancholy feeling, even depression. It’s is, for certain, one of the calendar’s most schizophrenic holidays.

Consider that Christmas is at once a Christian holy day and a secular holiday. It is the only Christian holiday that has been granted federal holiday status. How’s that for separation of church and state?

But fret not all you constitutional purists. Despite what you may have been told all your life, Christmas might not be all that holy after all.

First of all, there is no mention anywhere in the bible about Jesus’ birthday. Sure, two out of the four Gospels mention the birth of Jesus, but not the day he was born. And the fact that half the Gospels leave out the story of his birth altogether might be interpreted as meaning it wasn’t all that noteworthy.

So we don’t really know when he was born. The only real clue comes in the book of Luke where it mentions shepherds keeping watch over their flock by night. In Nazareth, Decembers are pretty cold, so shepherds kept their flocks indoors. Most historians believe he was born sometime between May and September.

So what’s with December 25?

Well, we look to some of the early Church leaders for the answer to that one. The early Catholic Church was struggling to bring in converts. One way to do that was to employ the same tactics that some Protestant churches use today: Make going to church more fun!

So they invented Christmas – which gets its name, by the way, from a contraction of the phrase “Christ’s Mass,” a worship service given to honor Christ’s birth. And the date was set as December 25 to coincide with the pagan celebration of Mithras, which heralded the return of the sun from its wintertime low. Since folks were already celebrating at that time, the Church decided to attach its new holiday to the existing festivities.

There is no question that the Christmas holiday is deeply rooted in paganism. But most people now believe that there has been enough time elapsed since those early days of Mithras that the holiday has become strictly Christian in nature.

Of course, it has only been relatively recently, historically speaking, that Christmas has enjoyed such widespread Christian acclaim. The holiday was made illegal in Massachusetts in Colonial days. And even in colonies that didn’t outlaw it, it was not all that important an event.

To be sure, there are some Christian groups that even today denounce the celebration of Christmas. They say the story of Aaron’s golden calf in the Old Testament and how God threatened to exterminate the Israelites for bowing down to it is proof enough that God doesn’t like his worship to be shrouded in pagan symbolism.

In fact, Jason Young, a writer for “Bible Answers” had this to say: “It would be wise therefore to avoid the wrath of our Heavenly Father, and put Christmas aside from any occasion of celebration.”

Well, ok, so the bible doesn’t call for a celebration of Christ’s birth. Does that mean we can’t celebrate Christmas at all? We celebrate Mother’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day, even Groundhog Day and the bible doesn’t endorse those holidays, either.

I haven’t checked with Mr. Young personally, but I imagine as long as we confine our caroling to “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” or “We Wish you a Merry Christmas,” or “Sleigh Ride” we won’t be offending any deity. Heaven help us, though, if we should break into a chorus of “It Came upon a Midnight Clear.”

Thursday, December 02, 2004

Internet Scams

It never ceases to amaze me how many ways there are for unscrupulous people to relieve unsuspecting victims of their money. There are the old, low-tech ways that still exist, such as classified ads in magazines and TV infomercials that promise get-rich-quick schemes for one low price.

And now, there is a new breed of deception, whereby charlatans make use of the Internet and e-mail to scam the gullible. In fact, some of the schemes are so polished that one no longer has to be completely gullible to fall for them.

If you are one of the zillions of Internet users who are members of the eBay online auction service, or PayPal, the online payment service, chances are you’ve received what’s called a spoof e-mail that tries to trick you into giving away your password and credit card information.

The first time I received such a spoof, a couple of years ago, I almost fell for it. I received an e-mail that had all the earmarks of being legitimate. It used eBay’s logo; it had eBay’s disclaimer at the bottom, and it sounded like it might have been written by someone at the auction service.
It claimed that my account was scheduled for termination because I had violated eBay’s terms of use policy. It said that I needed to verify my information with eBay or the account cancellation would go through.

What made me stop and think, however, was that the form that I was supposed to fill out to keep my account open was right there on the e-mail itself. I knew eBay would never ask me for my password. So I contacted the service and they told me the e-mail was a hoax.

That was the first time I had been “spoofed” by an Internet pirate. But it wasn’t the last. The hoax messages have lately started to get more and more frequent. Today alone I received three of them. All three were attempting to get into my PayPal account.

The hoaxers are become more cunning. Instead of asking for your information in the e-mail itself, the message includes an official-looking link that that takes you to a page that looks authentic. But it’s not.

Not only does the page look real, it might even include the name of the legitimate company in the Web address somewhere. But these pages are never legitimate.

For the sake of you who cringe at the use of an absolute modifier like “never,” let me say that again: E-mails from PayPal or eBay that want you to update your account information by going to a Web site and filling out a form that includes your password and credit card number are NEVER legitimate. Period.

Of course, these types of scams are not the only ones haunting the Net; they’re just the latest.
I still get e-mails from that guy in Nigeria who wants me to hold on to his $15 million for him while he arranges transportation to America. I get to keep 10 percent of it for myself. First, though, I have to give him my bank account number so he can make the deposit. I wonder if anybody has ever been naive enough to have fallen for that one.