A Non-Issue Issue

What is it with all of the sudden “Liberals are trying to kill Christmas!” screaming that’s going on out there? Where did this come from, and why is this non-issue an issue?

Conservatives are screaming that Liberals are the bad guys and are trying to take something away from them. Why is it that they can’t see the separation of church and state? The truth is most of them want a theocracy — but no two religious people can decide what religion should be part of it.

Liberals are patriotic by defending the rights of all, religious and not. Republicans just can’t see this.

Article Archived Here

December 19, 2004
HOLIDAY WARS
Does Christmas Need to Be Saved?
By KATE ZERNIKE

pastor in Raleigh, N.C., took out a full-page newspaper ad in November exhorting Christians to shop only at stores that included “Merry Christmas” in their promotions.

In Mustang, Okla., parents last week voted against an $11 million bond for schools, after the superintendent excised a nativity scene at the end of the annual Christmas play. They then erected their own manger outside the auditorium, with signs saying “No Christ. No Christmas. Know Christ. Know Christmas.”

And in Kansas, The Wichita Eagle published a correction this month, noting that the tree lighted at Winterfest was the “Community Tree” not a “Christmas tree.” After protests, the mayor last week declared himself “not a politically correct person” and announced that next year there would be a Christmas tree.

If the demands to “Bring Back Christmas” – or, in the words of one group in California, “Save Merry Christmas” – seem louder and more insistent this year, they are. The debate over how to celebrate the holiday without promoting religion is as perennial as a poinsettia. This year, however, conservatives, who have long pushed to “put the Christ back in Christmas,” say they have been emboldened by election results that they took as affirmation that most Americans share not only their faith but also their belief that the nation has lost bearings.

But the demands to bring back Christmas are not simply part of an age-old culture war, with the A.C.L.U. in one corner and evangelicals in the other. There is also a more moderate force, asking whether the country has gone too far in its quest to be inclusive of all faiths. Why, they ask, must a Christmas tree become a holiday tree? And is singing “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” in a school performance more offensive than singing “Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel”? “It’s political correctness run amok,” said Lynn Mistretta, who with another mother in Scarborough, Me., started BringBackChristmas.org. “I’m not for offending anyone, but we’re excluding everyone, and everyone feels rotten about it.”

Over the years, schools, governments and even department stores have toned down the mention of Christmas after complaints from Jews and others who felt excluded by a holiday they did not celebrate. “The basic proposition is that people have the right to send their children to the public schools without having them evangelized for someone else’s religion,” said Douglas Laycock, a law professor at the University of Texas in Austin. Those opposed to even secular celebrations of Christmas, he said, “see the increasing strength of the religious right and worry about everything they’ve gained over the last generation being rolled back.”

But even many liberals say there is silliness in the way schools in particular try to avoid offending anyone. One school chorus in Chicago, for example, sang “We Wish You a Swinging Holiday” instead of a “Merry Christmas.”

It’s not just Christmas. Ms. Mistretta and Lynn Lowry say their frustration started with Halloween, when the Scarborough schools said their children could not wear costumes. In February, they observed “Friendship Day” to avoid talking about the saint in Valentine’s Day. And in December, instead of Christmas, it was a literacy parade with children dressing as their favorite literary characters (sending parents to find Halloween costumes.) Ms. Mistretta said her son came home saying he was afraid to wish his friends “Merry Christmas.”

She acknowledged that many non-Christian parents recall feeling excluded as children, and don’t want their own children to feel the same way. “It makes me sick to hear of any child feeling that way, 30 years ago, today, or in 30 years.” she said. “But there’s no way we can respect each other’s traditions if we don’t talk about them.”

In Maplewood, N.J., some parents worried that they’d become a national laughingstock after the school district banned Christmas carols, even instrumental versions, sending the brass ensemble and choirs to rehearse new repertoires just days before their performances this month. Even “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” was out, because it mentions Christmas Eve.

“It’s worse than silly, it’s a great disservice to music education,” said Tom Reingold, the father of two, who is Jewish. “There’s a way to teach music and not make it coercive.”

John W. Whitehead, president of the conservative Rutherford Institute, calls it the new Golden Rule: Thou Shalt Offend No One.

“I think what you’re seeing is people are waking up and saying, ‘Wow, you can’t sing a Christmas song anymore,’ ” said Mr. Whitehead, whose group has for the first time in almost a decade re-issued its “Twelve Rules of Christmas” booklet outlining ways to legally include religion in Christmas displays and observances. “What really burns them is, they see Kwanzaa, they see Hanukkah, they see Frosty and they see Rudolph, but they don’t see ‘Oh Come All Ye Faithful.’ ”

Of course, for many conservatives, this controversy is not just about Christmas; it’s a way to talk about a whole float of issues. Bill O’Reilly warned viewers that store clerks no longer saying “Merry Christmas” foretold the imminence of “a brave new progressive world” where gay marriage, partial birth abortion and legalized drugs run rampant.

“Some people see this as a marvelous opportunity to heat up the culture war,” said Charles Haynes, a senior scholar at the Freedom Forum’s First Amendment Center, and the author of its guide outlining acceptable mentions of religion at Christmas. “It’s an opportunity to trigger deeper emotion and frustration that are not really about Merry Christmas, but about what kind of country we are.”

The Alliance Defense Fund’s “Christmas Project” radio ads demonize the American Civil Liberties Union, insisting “It’s O.K. to Say Merry Christmas.” (The A.C.L.U. says it never said it wasn’t.) Rightmarch.com is urging those angry about what it calls the attack on Christmas to send money to “help us spread the word of conservative activism from sea to shining sea.”

Conservative leaders everywhere trade tales of outrage: Candy canes banned! A school won’t allow red and green napkins!

Many of these stories are more legend than truth. The A.C.L.U. defended the child in Massachusetts who wanted to distribute candy canes with a religious message. And what about that school in Kirkland, Wash., where a performance of “A Christmas Carol” was canceled because of Tiny Tim’s line, “God Bless Us, Everyone”? Well, the superintendent said the performance was canceled because the group wanted to charge admission, against school policy.

But no matter. As a radio ad for the Alliance Defense Fund warns, “If we don’t do something, they’re going to steamroll us parents and get rid of Christmas like it never happened.” School boards report that parents are pre-emptively filing complaints, only to discover that school policy does allow religious music or Christmas cards.

In the meantime, some efforts at inclusiveness flounder. In Wichita, some Jews complained that the “Community Tree” lighting was held on the first night of Hanukkah.

The plea from many is for both sides to relax a bit. As Mr. Haynes, at the Freedom Forum, said: “Sensitivity is not hostility to Christianity on the one hand. And on the other, Christmas is not always oppression.”

But as the nation becomes more religiously diverse, it is also becoming more religiously divided, and some say neutrality may not be possible.

“Our constitutional system is to leave the government neutral and leave it to families and churches and synagogues,” Professor Laycock said. But, he said, that can be hard in a society with many different faiths or no faith at all.

“All sides want the government on their side,” he said. “They don’t really want the government to be neutral.”

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