John Leo
Conflict may erupt again next year, but for now the war over the poinsettias has come to an end in St. Paul, Minn. Someone touched off hostilities by smuggling a few forbidden red poinsettias into the religion-free, perfectly neutral, non-Christmas decorations at Ramsey County Courthouse-St. Paul City Hall. The decorations consist of a world peace exhibit with doves and a 36-foot-tall Vision of Peace statue.

Red poinsettias had been banned because they offended somebody who understood the flowers to be a Christian symbol. After much bitterness, an uneasy compromise was reached: Red poinsettias are still banned, but white ones are allowed, since nobody in St. Paul seems to regard them as overly Christian.

Here we go again. The December war of religion is among our most cherished traditions. Somebody is always angry or hurt over something. (Hey, that dove of peace in the exquisitely neutral St. Paul exhibit flew in from the Bible. Let's fight over it.) But the type of battle is changing. The customary struggle has been over the role of the nativity scene on public property. The emphasis was on making the majority aware of minority sensibilities and the need to respect non-Christian religious expression. Now the battles increasingly involve minorities assaulting majority sensibilities. Some assaults were undreamed of a few years ago -- attacks on the display of Santa Claus, Rudolph, Christmas trees, poinsettias, holiday lights, and even the colors red and green.

Instead of just broadening Christmas displays to accommodate other traditions, the emphasis now is on trying to erase and disparage all mention of Christmas in the public square. The city of Pittsburgh invented the term "Sparkle Days" so that no Pittsburgher would have to utter the controversial word "Christmas" (or C------mas, as it is known in our house, since we hate to give offense).

Some schools and public institutions have banned the exchange of religious greeting cards and removed even the most secular trappings of Christmas. In Seattle, King County executive Ron Sims ordered employees to avoid saying "Merry Christmas" or "Happy Hanukkah" while on the job. An uproar followed. Sims backed down last week, still talking about the need for saying seasonal hellos "in a respectful, inclusive and sensitive manner." In 1999, two l3-year-old girls at a middle school in Rochester, Minn., were suspended for wearng red and green scarves and saying "Merry Christmas" in a school video presentation.

John Leo

John Leo is editor of and a former contributing editor at U.S. News and World Report.

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