When I had anything to say about it, discussions of Christmas in the Mullaney household when I was young began with Santa and ended with Claus. My parents, of course, asked me to think deeper. Since my son arrived in May, I'm facing this year's holidays with an eye toward how I'll teach him about observance as he grows. And like any parent, I've wondered how I could explain the religious fervor behind September 11. It turns out that several excellent Web sites help parents learn--and teach---the basics of the world's religions.
My top pick is Beliefnet.com, a religious portal that is Christian at its roots but covers all the major faiths. Those who want to learn about Judaism in time for Hanukkah, which begins on Dec. 9, could consult the portal Zipple.com. And people who are thinking of Islam for the first time in the wake of September 11 could start with Islam101.com.
I've written or edited reviews of hundreds of Web sites, and Beliefnet may be my favorite. It's smart and entertaining, deftly mixing articles with games, and an active community that posts running chat alongside articles. How many Web sites can ask for send-ups of C.S. Lewis' religious novel The Screwtape Letters and get 250 entries? That's Beliefnet.
Beliefnet presents wide-ranging views. Evangelical ex-Presidential candidate Gary Bauer is a contributor--as is liberal Jewish thinker Michael Lerner, once a spiritual adviser to First Lady Hillary Clinton. In mid-November, the site featured a column by Richard Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary, about his plan to fast for Ramadan. He's fasting as a hard-times reminder that Islam, Judaism, and Christianity have common roots.
Beliefnet is a tough act for Zipple and Islam101 to follow, though they're fine in their own ways. Most of the year, Zipple is interesting for its Israel-centric view of Mideast politics, including coverage carried by Israeli papers. Its Holidays channel includes explanations and how-tos for Hanukkah celebrations, and links to everything from reverent songs to comedian Adam Sandler's Hanukkah Song, a completely different kettle of gefilte fish. Its activities for kids are especially winning, including coloring books, songs, and spinning-dreidel games.
These days, Islam101.com is devoted mostly to September 11. It also has basics on Ramadan, Islam's monthlong ritual of daytime fasting to build discipline, charity, and obedience to God. For more on Ramadan, which began on Nov. 16, surfers might try Soundvision.com. Its highlights include a "Grade One Student Presentation about Ramadan" and guidance for Muslims on explaining their religion to nonbelievers. Non-Muslims can follow along--and learn.
All this is a long way from my Irish Catholic holidays of yore, but we live in a smaller world and need to know our neighbors. None of these sites fits under a tree. But they're gifts nonetheless. By Timothy J. Mullaney