This is the time of year that is both magical and frustrating. It is a wonderful time to take your family out for a walk or drive around your city, town, or neighborhood and take in the sights. When I was growing up, my parents would pack us into the car and we would drive around to look at all the Christmas lights where people had decorated their houses. It was wonderful and magical and excellent family bonding time.
Today you can find areas where there are forests of Christmas trees decorated by different businesses or organizations as a charitable fundraiser. The public is invited to walk through these wonders and vote on the most beautiful trees in different categories. There are other public displays including large Christmas trees, snow people, Santa Claus, and Nativity Scenes. Because this season also coincides with Hanukkah, there are also menorahs with the appropriate candles lit for each day of Hanukkah.
But as with anything else in our society, there are those who would disrupt the holiday for others. These include other religions that want their symbols displayed alongside those of Christians and Jews, and those who disdain any form of religious observance and seek to quash any public display of religion.
What are the Targets?
The most common target is the Nativity Scene if it has Mary, Joseph, and the Baby Jesus. Especially the Baby Jesus. What is the concern? These are the people who tout the US Constitution’s First Amendment as somehow separating church and state.
The First Amendment simply states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
In the United States, many of our earliest settlers came from Europe where each country had its own state religion. Many still do. When the United States were colonies of Great Britain, the Church of England was the established church and part of the taxes raised went to the support of the church. This also requires these churches to provide basic services to all citizens regardless of their attendance, or non-attendance, at religious services. These services included marriages and funerals.
In the United States, we felt that everyone should be entitled to worship as they choose and so prohibited the establishment of a state religion. But does setting up a Nativity Scene on a public park? According to many court cases, yes, it does. It has reached a point these days that the Freedom from Religion Foundation, an atheist group of approximately 32,000, spends their time moving around the country threatening local jurisdictions with lawsuits. Most local jurisdictions submit to their demands rather than pursuing the matter in court because that can get expensive.
Where do Christmas Trees Fit In?
Christmas trees are more acceptable to many people, not all, because they predate Christianity. In northern Europe, it was common for people to decorate their homes with evergreens as a reminder that spring would come again and the world would once more turn green. The winter solstice falls on December 21 or 22 right before Christmas. The ancient Egyptians would decorate with palm boughs to celebrate the Solstice and the Sun God Ra’s recovery from the illness of winter. The Romans celebrated the Saturnalia at this time to remind themselves that agriculture would return. The Celts and Vikings also held evergreens in great regard.
Martin Luther in Germany created the first lit Christmas tree by adding lit candles to an evergreen tree that he brought into his home. It is, therefore, not surprising that German settlers in Pennsylvania had the first Christmas tree in the United States. In Puritan New England, it was seen as pagan. It finally became popular after Queen Victoria and Prince Albert started the custom in Great Britain.
What About Menorahs in Celebration of Hanukkah?
Local jurisdictions seek to work around these groups by including a menorah to recognize the Jewish observance of Hanukkah, but this leads to additional groups adding their own symbols such as the Satanists and atheists. These groups are also recognized religious organizations under the Constitution and have the right to display their religious symbols on public grounds if one group’s is permitted.
The First Amendment protects the right of individuals to freely express themselves on their own private property so churches, businesses, and individuals have the right to display or exclude any religious symbol they choose. These are the places where you can display your Nativity Scenes and Christmas Creches. Then again, there are those who would try to ruin your holiday by vandalizing your Creche or stealing its figures. If you have a public display, provide some type of security for it.
Using the Creche to Express Political Opinions
There are some places where the Nativity Scene is used to express a political opinion such as a church in Massachusetts that put the baby Jesus in a cage. So long as they are not expressing a partisan political opinion, they can express their opinion. I would question their assumption that 100% of their members agree with this opinion. I’m certain that the leadership at that church sought the consensus of their members before putting up something that the public will use to judge this church.
I believe that you can have an expressive Christmas holiday with Nativity Scene without angering your neighbors, or threatening the religious liberty of your community. Nativity Scenes should not be displayed on public property such as town halls, public parks, or public medians for this reason. They should be displayed in private property where there is adequate room for visitors (if that is your goal), and adequate protection for your property.
As for using the Nativity Scene to make a political statement, I don’t think that Jesus needs much help there either. He did some radical things to the public leadership in his own day, and he met each individual where they were at that time.
I do not advocate using the Christmas holiday to upset people, and I support the right of others to celebrate this or any other holiday in the way that they choose so long as they don’t infringe on my ability to celebrate.
If you disagree with me, please feel free to comment in a respectful manner.