It appears Christmas is back, or at least the “Christmas tree” is back. After several years of referring to the tree at the United States Capitol as the “Capitol Holiday Tree,” at the request of Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert (R,IL), the tree was renamed this month the “Capitol Christmas Tree.”
In another reprise of the Christmas wars, the noisiest Christmas backlash so far this year took place in Boston, where the Parks and Recreation Department set off a firestorm by calling the city’s annual gift from Nova Scotia a “Holiday Tree.” The logger who donated the spruce said he’d rather feed the tree to a wood chipper than call it a “Holiday Tree.” Christian groups like Liberty Counsel threatened legal action until Boston Mayor Thomas Menino said, “I consider this tree to be a Christmas tree.”
“Christmas” is also back in retail. The word has been curiously missing from the marketing campaigns of major retailers in recent years, even though they, like most retailers, depend upon the Christmas season for a bulk of their revenues. Kroger, Lowe’s, Dell, Target, OfficeMax, Walgreens, Sears, Staples, J.C. Penny, and Macy’s, to name a few, have re-introduced “Christmas” in their seasonal advertising.
The Christmas wars have become all too familiar: “Silent Night” or “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” at the local middle school “Winter Concert” or “Holiday Concert,” nativity scenes banned from display on courthouse lawns, school teachers not permitted to read Christmas prayers or perhaps even to put the word “Christmas” on bulletin boards, refusing to allow retail clerks to say “Merry Christmas” for fear of being insensitive or disrespectful to those who do not celebrate Christmas, and so it goes.
So the “December Dilemma” of the place of religion in public life visits us once again.
Is it any wonder that Christians who are tired of this dilemma are now reacting, sometimes via legal redress? They feel pushed to the limit by what appears to be an organized attempt to secularize completely this most special of Christian holy days. Christians are tired of political correctness, feel like the recipients of reverse discrimination, and in general believe they must draw a line somewhere or there will be nothing left that looks or sounds like the culture of their youth. For some, this becomes a moral battleground, a place where one must take a stand if one has any convictions at all.
Of course its possible to over-react. If it is un-Christian to dismiss important Christian symbols it is equally un-Christian to act disrespectfully to those who do not share our values or belief systems. Refusing to acknowledge Hanukkah or Kwanzaa, for example, do not win Christians any points for love or compassion.
All this is rooted in the meaning of the First Amendment. Government is to protect the free exercise of religion even as it avoids establishing one religion over others. That’s the rub, and that’s why the Christmas wars are not going to go away anytime soon.
One thing would help, though—if people could learn to distinguish between government-supported activities and all other activities that take place in the public square. If you can make the case for a Menorrha alongside a crèche in the city park, you should also be able to acknowledge the individual right of businesses to use Christmas, Hanukkah, or Kwanzaa language in their advertising as they deem appropriate. One is publicly owned, the other is simply public. Christmas need not be empowered by government to continue its worldwide influence. It’s the Person and spirit of the season that yet makes the world pause and reflect about all that is good.
© Rex M. Rogers - All Rights Reserved, 2005
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