A couple of years ago, perceiving a giant, light-covered fir at the Capitol in Olympia, Wash., as a symbol of Christmas, the Jewish organization Chabad of Seattle sought to erect a menorah to commemorate Chanukah. A local real estate agent, perceiving the menorah as a religious symbol, decided to sponsor a Nativity scene.
This year the Freedom From Religion Foundation, offended by the Nativity scene, retaliated with a large plaque in the Capitol declaring, "religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds." The provocative plaque attracted nationwide criticism and inspired various rejoinders, including a sign announcing, "atheism is but myth and superstition" and a 5-foot aluminum pole marking Festivus, the fictional holiday invented by George Constanza's father on "Seinfeld."
All this fuss could have been avoided if only Chabad had recognized that the decorated evergreen in the rotunda, sponsored by the Association of Washington Business, was not a Christmas tree. As the Associated Press noted, it was in fact "a nonreligious Holiday Tree."
You don't buy that? Neither do I, but it's remarkable how many people at this time of year will insist with a straight face that they are celebrating a secular winter holiday season, when the reason for the season -- the birth of the Christian Savior, whom his followers believe to be the Son of God -- is about as religious as things get. Even Fox News commentator Bill O'Reilly, who was predictably outraged by Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire's willingness to make room for atheists, tries to have it both ways.
O'Reilly says the Capitol's "traditional holiday display" was "perfectly appropriate since the federal and state Christmas holiday celebrates the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem." At the same time, he says, "most Americans, even those living in the far-left enclaves, respect uplifting traditions like Christmas, where peace and love is the theme of the great day." He adds, "Can't we all just get along for a few weeks in December?"
The plea to get along is touching, especially coming from a professional hothead like O'Reilly. Yet O'Reilly can't seem to decide whether Christmas is, as the name suggests, all about Jesus Christ, or simply a time of warm feelings that even atheists can appreciate.
He is not alone in his confusion. As long as local and state governments stick to illuminated evergreens and other "secular symbols" of "the winter holiday season," the U.S. Supreme Court has said, they don't have to worry about violating the First Amendment's Establishment Clause by endorsing a particular religion.
This sort of reasoning explains why the Christmas Program at my 5-year-old daughter's public school in Dallas was instead called a holiday program, at which the children sang festive holiday songs that to my untrained ear sounded a lot like Christmas carols. The school did seem to eschew songs that explicitly mention Christ (as long as you ignore the Christ in Christmas), but it still forced my wife and me to choose between 1) letting our daughter publicly celebrate a religious holiday that is not part of our tradition and 2) making her feel excluded by stopping her from joining all the other kindergartners in an official school activity that involved weeks of preparation in music class. The Christmas stocking with her name on it that she proudly brought home from school and wanted to hang above our fireplace put us in a similarly ticklish position as practicing Jews.
I'm not sure this sort of thing rises to the level of a constitutional complaint, but maybe we'd all get along better if the majority did not pretend that everyone can comfortably celebrate Christmas. The other day, as we were preparing for the first night of Chanukah, we had a visitor who remarked that she had always thought of Christmas as a secular holiday. My wife, a rabbi, explained to her why that view is problematic. Upon leaving, our visitor wished me a happy Chanukah and a merry Christmas.