A final word on holiday displays

Merry Christmas to all who celebrate Christmas. Happy Hanukkah to all who celebrated Hanukkah.

I was ready to let go of the “holiday display” war until next year — and who isn’t sick of the whole thing — but I’m giving a final word of sorts to Ken Woodward.

The former, longtime religion editor at Newsweek (he’s still a contributing editor there), Woodward is one of the senior religion journalists in the country. He’s also a Westchester guy who has been running a terrific lecture series at St. Theresa’s Church in Briarcliff Manor, where he is a parishioner.

Briarcliff is the village that removed its holiday display after a federal judge supported a resident who wanted to donate a creche.

Here’s Woodward’s take, which appeared a few days back in the Wall Street Journal:

“As a New Yorker, I no longer expect a white Christmas this time of year but it would be nice to get through a December without another round in the Christmas culture wars. This year the annual battle over religious symbols in the public square reached the village where I live. As it has in towns and villages across the country, the argument has taken a Talmudic turn: is a Christmas tree a Christian symbol? And if a menorah is added to a Christmas tree on public property, does that satisfy the putative requirement that holiday symbols be religiously “inclusiveâ€??

The trustees of my village have answered yes to both questions. But a Roman Catholic neighbor argues that the tree is no more religious than Santa’s reindeer. He even purchased a crèche for the village to set alongside the menorah and the tree. When the village trustees refused to accept his offer, my neighbor sued in federal court and won. Rather than bow to the decision, the trustees replaced both the tree and the menorah with a Grinch-like sign that says: “We disagree with the court.�

So what’s in a symbol? Christian cultures got along without a Christmas tree for sixteen centuries, and without a crèche for fourteen of those centuries. But there is a difference: The Christmas tree is pagan in origin and ambiguous in its symbolism while the crèche is a Nativity scene and scripturally based. And while I think an open society is better served by allowing explicitly religious symbols on public property on festive occasions like Christmas—the more, the merrier we might say this time of year—the routine use of Christmas trees in retail stores alone tells us that they no longer symbolize anything other than a season. A Yule tree is not a Christmas tree.

I suggest a solution. If inclusion is to be this society’s default value, let the tree be what it has become, the seasonal—and secular—symbol of choice for public property. Let Christians put up Nativity scenes on church grounds and Jews erect menorahs on temple lawns. And let Muslims, if they so wish, salute Christmas with displays of their own devising outside mosques.

The virtue of this arrangement is not merely a truce in the Christmas culture wars. It would signal the recognition that the tree as symbol, though associated for a time with Christianity, has—like the celebration of Christmas itself—reverted to its pagan meaning. Christmas is now a winter carnival of conspicuous spending and consumption, of giving, yes, but mainly of receiving. As such, it is open to Jews and other non-Christians to enjoy with an unencumbered conscience. No one should any longer worry about wishing others “Merry Christmas,� or about heading south for a week.

Christians, in particular, should welcome such a change. Historically, Christians have always been ambivalent about Christmas as a public celebration. The New England Puritans opposed it, as they did most celebrations. And in the nineteenth century, upper-class New Yorkers brought Christmas and its trees indoors–away from public drunkenness and into the womb of the Victorian family whose sentimental values Christmas came to represent. Read Dickens.

Serious Christians know that the story of Christ’s humble birth, as symbolized by the crèche, is a miniature gospel prefiguring his later life and death. They know, too, that the crèche cannot compete with the commercially driven largesse of presents under the Christmas tree. My argument is: why fight it? Perhaps it is time, if only for their children’s sake, that Christians surrendered the end of December to the marketplace that has made it what it has become, and established another day to celebrate the gift that the birth of Christ represents.”

Gary Stern

Gary Stern covered education in the Lower Hudson Valley for several years during the early 1990s. Now's he back on the beat. He believes that schools are one of the main reasons that people live around here and that educational issues -- from curriculum to financing -- are among the most challenging things that journalists can write about. He continues to be amazed by the complexity of educational jargon. Gary got his B.A. at SUNY Buffalo and his M.A. from the University of Missouri Journalism School (where his master's thesis was about the best ways to cover education). He lives in White Plains with his wife and two sons, who attend public schools.