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 Ã¢â‚¬Å“inclusiveÃ¢â‚¬??
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 SantaÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s reindeer. He even purchased a crÃƒÂ¨che 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: Ã¢â‚¬Å“We disagree with the court.Ã¢â‚¬?
So whatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s in a symbol? Christian cultures got along without a Christmas tree for sixteen centuries, and without a crÃƒÂ¨che for fourteen of those centuries. But there is a difference: The Christmas tree is pagan in origin and ambiguous in its symbolism while the crÃƒÂ¨che 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 ChristmasÃ¢â‚¬â€the more, the merrier we might say this time of yearÃ¢â‚¬â€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 societyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s default value, let the tree be what it has become, the seasonalÃ¢â‚¬â€and secularÃ¢â‚¬â€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, hasÃ¢â‚¬â€like the celebration of Christmas itselfÃ¢â‚¬â€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 Ã¢â‚¬Å“Merry Christmas,Ã¢â‚¬? 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 ChristÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s humble birth, as symbolized by the crÃƒÂ¨che, is a miniature gospel prefiguring his later life and death. They know, too, that the crÃƒÂ¨che 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 childrenÃ¢â‚¬â„¢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.”