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Why Alabama loves Christmas

Pew ranks Alabama as the most religious state ... Attending candlelight services on Christmas Eve, volunteering at shelters, visiting the elderly in nursing homes and saying grace over Christmas dinner are among the ways ministers say families can keep ...

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Gallery: Christmas Comment By Greg Garrison It's been a wintry December in Alabama, where Christmas is celebrated with a love and passion for the season and with lots of generosity. After a year of competitive elections that divided the state, this holiday has the potential to unite, with promises of peace on earth and good will to all. "On Christmas, we look into the manger and see God with us in the face of Jesus," said the RevVirginia Monroe, interim rector at the Church of the Nativity in Huntsville, which has services at 9 a.m., 4 p.m., 7:30 and 10:30 p.mon Christmas Eve, then 10 a.mon Monday, Christmas Day. "That gives us hope and unity and promise for new life in the days ahead," Monroe said"It's a wonderful time." While many have spent the past month shopping online or at malls, racing to keep pace with the increasing commercialization of the season, most of us know that at heart it's not a holiday about presents, but about faith and family, she said. "It's focused on the gift of being together," Monroe said"That's the giftPut aside the conflicts, disputes and disagreements for this holy time." Ninety percent of Americans and 95 percent of U.SChristians say they celebrate Christmas, according to a Pew Research Center surveyAbout 55 percent of Americans say they celebrate Christmas as a religious holiday, including 46 percent who see it as more of a religious holiday than a cultural holidayNine percent say they celebrate Christmas as both a religious and cultural holiday. About half of Americans say they plan to attend church on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. Pew ranks Alabama as the most religious state, with 77 percent of people categorized as highly religiousIn 1836, Alabama was the first state to declare Christmas a holidayIt wasn't a U.Sholiday until 1870About 82 percent of people in Alabama say they believe in God with absolute certainty, in a state that went through a revival in the 1800s led by frontier Baptist and Methodist evangelists. For Christians, the central gift of Christmas is a newborn babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, born in a manger. 'She will give birth to a son, and you are to name him Jesus, because He will save His people from their sins,' says the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 1, verse 21. "It's the miracle that Christ is born anew into our hearts and minds and lives," Monroe said"God in the flesh is with us." Since Christmas Eve falls on Sunday this year, many churches are having candlelight Christmas services on Christmas Eve that might not ordinarily do soAt Redeemer Community Church in the Avondale neighborhood of Birmingham, there will be no Sunday morning servicesThe candlelight services for Christmas Eve are set for 4:30 and 6:30 p.m. At Christ United Methodist Church in Mobile, there will be 10 services on Sunday, which is both Christmas Eve and the last Sunday of AdventThat includes five morning services and five evening services, the last at 10:30 p.mMany Catholic churches statewide will have morning services and Christmas Eve services, including Midnight Mass. Since the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, Christmas has always been against the backdrop of a world of violence and disorder. "Christmas is always uniting, and it's always divisive; it's both, just as Christ was," said the RevJoel Brooks, pastor of Redeemer Community Church in Avondale King Herod of Judea ordered the execution of all male children under two born in Bethlehem, in an effort to kill Jesus, prophesied as a king, according to the Gospel of Matthew. "The world is no more hostile now than when Christ came," Brooks said.  "When you look at the Christmas story, you see people coming to worship, and people coming to kill," he said"After Jesus was born, then they had to immediately run when Herod tried to kill the childrenWe can't expect a world with peace, hope and love detached from the love of ChristThe condition of the world, and our hearts, is such that God himself had to come to the world." The gift-giving phenomenon of Christmas starts symbolically with the wise men from the east, who according to Matthew brought the expensive gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to honor Jesus. Even many of the secular trappings of Christmas come trimmed with the roots of faith: Santa Claus was developed partly from stories about StNicholas of Myra, in modern-day Turkey, a fourth-century Christian bishop known for his generosity. Attending candlelight services on Christmas Eve, volunteering at shelters, visiting the elderly in nursing homes and saying grace over Christmas dinner are among the ways ministers say families can keep faith an important aspect of the holiday. "I think it gives Christians the opportunity to easily share with others about their faith and their understanding of Christ," said the RevRob Couch, senior pastor at Christ United Methodist Church in Mobile"I believe I've heard 'Hark the Herald Angels' more on the radio than Mariah Carey's 'All I Want for Christmas is You.' That's a Charles Wesley hymn, probably his most famous, and includes the line, 'Glory to the Newborn King.' It creates an atmosphere where we can more easily talk about and share our faith and live out our faith." Spiritual leaders say acts of charity that reflect the love of Jesus are also an appropriate expression of the season. "This love that's being talked about, what if you demonstrated that by being kind to others, by reaching out into neighborhoods, caring for the needy?" Couch said. Alabama ranks fourth among all states in the percentage of income donated to charity, behind Utah, Georgia and Wyoming, which are tied for first, according to "I'm always amazed at the capacity for generosity that the people in my churches have - to everyone, and that's in addition to what they give to the churchAmerica is one of the most generous countries," Couch said"People are generousIt's amazing that people in need are often the most generous." 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