Seasonal symbols make some people see red

John Leo

12/17/2001 12:00:00 AM - 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.

The word "inclusion" comes up all the time as a term used by those who wish to obliterate rather than include. This is certainly so in Plainfield, Ill., where elementary school principal Sandy Niemiera made a startling announcement: Because of diversity concerns, students will no longer be allowed to celebrate any holidays at all. So goodbye to Valentine's Day, Halloween and Thanksgiving as well as Christmas and Hanukkah because the school needs to "respect each individual's uniqueness but also to help us look for and celebrate those things that we have in common." What the students will have in common, of course, is a sterile, tradition-free public environment. And the school-induced sense that religion and ritual are inherently dangerous.

In plain English, the term "inclusion" has come to mean "exclusion." In New York's Central Park, we have a Christian nativity scene, a Jewish menorah and a Muslim star and crescent, all privately paid for and displayed on public property. That's inclusion. Banning all signs of religion from schools and public property (neither of which is called for by the Constitution or the Supreme Court) is exclusion posturing as inclusiveness.

There's another new wrinkle in inclusiveness ideology. Call it the sensitive person's veto. Last year, the city of Eugene, Ore., barred Christmas trees from public property, then backed down a bit and allowed firefighters to put up a tree on Christmas Eve and Christmas. But the city manager said that if one person objects, the tree must come down. This allows the most sensitive person in town to set policy. Kensington, Md., banned Santa Claus from this year's tree-lighting ceremony because of two complaints.

The sensitive person's veto was born in the anti-smoking campaign and has spread to other fields. Now it's showing up in the wars over Christmas and Hanukkah. Those who want to keep those traditions alive in the public square had better push back. The sensitive person's veto requires only one vote to topple any norm. And that vote will always be easy to find.