Merry fill-in-the-blank: fighting over the December dilemma

Sunday, December 19, 2004

Merry Christmukkah? Yes, ’tis the season to be ridiculous.

Christmukkah, for the uninitiated, is OC speak for Seth’s favorite celebration. During the holiday episode on “The OC” — a nighttime soap on Fox set in Orange County, Calif. — Seth, Ryan and all the gang wear red skullcaps trimmed in white fur.

Visit “The OC” Web site and join in singing “The 12 Days of Christmukkah” — 12 Beemers beeping, 11 hissy fits, 10 trophy wives (well, you get the idea). Now here’s a concept guaranteed to offend everybody.

Poking fun at our perennial December dilemma may be OK on “The OC,” but nobody’s laughing at Christmas conflicts that have sprung up this year in schools and communities across the nation.

From Maine to California, Americans are arguing more than ever about how to celebrate the season of “peace on earth, goodwill toward men.” Fed up with the bickering — and determined not to offend anybody — some local officials are banning Christmas from schools, getting rid of Christmas parades, or re-christening (oops) Christmas as the “holiday season.”

A number of conservative Christians are fighting back. One group is pushing a “holiday restoration campaign” to put Christ back in Christmas in schools and everywhere else. Another is calling for a boycott of department stores that jettison “Merry Christmas” in favor of the more generic “Happy Holidays.”

Before matters get any more bizarre, let’s all take a deep breath and relax. Surely we can figure out ways to enjoy the season without imposing the majority faith on everyone — or turning the public square into a religion-free zone.

Let’s start by remembering how we got here. For much of our history (and still in some places) local communities and public schools celebrated Christmas as though everybody celebrated Christmas. Nativity pageants turned the schoolhouse into the local church, and city displays proclaimed glory to God for the birth of Jesus. Non-Christians often felt like outsiders in their own country. And some Christians objected to government appropriation of their faith.

During the second half of the 20th century, expanding religious diversity combined with successful legal challenges pushed government out of the religion business. Well-intentioned city councils and school boards got rid of the crèches, but kept the trees and tinsel. The Christmas holiday became “winter break.” Conservative Christians who didn’t like the court decisions in the first place were angrier still about what they viewed as political correctness gone wild.

If we hope to get beyond this conflict, we’ll need to get beyond both of these failed approaches. Using government to promote Christianity or any religion is unconstitutional and unjust. But excluding Christianity or any religion from the public square, including the public schools, is unfair (and, when individual rights of free expression are denied, may also be unconstitutional).

Here’s my two-step solution.

Step one, get religion right. The government isn’t the engine for proclaiming the religious message of Christmas. That’s what churches do. But does that mean no religious-themed floats in the city parade? No sacred music in the school concert? Of course not. Including a variety of floats, songs or whatever — religious and nonreligious — is both constitutional and fair.

For example, a December school concert that doesn’t include sacred music would be odd indeed. But the overall effect of the program should be educational, not devotional. When it comes to religious holidays, public schools are supposed to educate kids about what people of various faiths believe and practice (and not just in December).

Many schools either persist in the old model of promoting religion, or they move to the other extreme of leaving out the religious elements entirely. But another approach — the only solution that upholds the First Amendment — is to teach about religions. This takes work (teacher preparation, good resources) that many schools aren’t willing to do.

As for the larger public square, cities and towns shouldn’t sponsor official displays that promote any religion. But they should open public spaces to religious communities that wish to put up religious displays in December or at other times.

Step two: Once the religious issues are addressed, sit down together and figure out how to deal with the secularized Christmas.

The religious Christmas has constitutional guidelines, but the secular Christmas doesn’t. Trees, Santa and mistletoe aren’t likely to be seen as religious by the courts. But when government puts up even the most secularized Christmas displays, conflicts still break out.

Why? Because many non-Christians see all references to Christmas as religious messages. To complicate matters further, many Christians don’t like their faith reduced to Santa and reindeer.

Bringing people together in a school or community to talk about how to handle both the religious and secular Christmas is difficult. The path of least resistance is either to ban any mention of Christmas or to plow ahead and ignore minority complaints. A far better approach is to face the issue, agree on how to include religion constitutionally and then find ways to celebrate the season without banning Santa Claus.

Of course, it’s too late this year to find common ground. Wait until January to have the meeting. Meanwhile, everybody needs to lighten up.

On one side, don’t interpret sensitivity to minority faiths and nonbelievers as an attack on Christianity. Remember that we live in an increasingly diverse nation where we all have a place at the table.

On the other side, don’t get upset whenever you hear “Merry Christmas.” It is, after all, a national holiday as well as a religious celebration.

Our Puritan forbears, you may recall, had their own solution. They banned Christmas as a decadent, pagan-inspired celebration that corrupted society. Walking through the shopping malls listening to “seasonal music,” I’m beginning to understand their point.

Anyway, Merry fill-in-the-blank to one and all.