Swinging past Law Park en route to downtown Briarcliff Manor, N.Y., this morning, the corner was bare. The tall pine, formerly decorated with lights, was dark. The menorah? Also gone, after a federal judge's ruling: Either let a local resident add a Christmas creche, or take the whole thing down. The disgruntled town officials chose the latter.
I don't actually live in Briarcliff Manor anymore, but most mornings find me in the village diner, sipping coffee and reading the New York Post. This is the year, in other words, the Christmas wars came home.
In Seattle, it was not baby Jesus but the threat of a menorah that prompted harried airport managers to pull down all Christmas decorations. After a raft of negative publicity, the holiday trees came back (with a promise of a menorah next year).
In Warwick, N.J., after one parent objected, the local school district hastily changed "Breakfast With Santa" to "Winter Wonderland Breakfast." (The mom is still not happy, though, because Santa was allowed to attend, along with Frosty and the Gingerbread Man). In Yorktown, N.Y., the local school board issued guidelines welcoming Santa and other "secular" symbols, including menorahs, so long as the menorahs are not actually lighted. Apparently a light bulb is all that separates an innocuous secular symbol from a radioactive religious one. This exquisite line-drawing prompted a dissatisfied local resident to suggest schools display a creche with baby Jesus absent: Would that be the legal equivalent of an unlighted menorah? Coming soon to a federal courthouse near you.
Why all the fuss? In the spirit of the season, let us let Scrooge speak for himself:
In Seattle, according to AP, "Airport managers believed that if they allowed the addition of an 8-foot-tall menorah to the display ... they would also have to display symbols of other religions and cultures. Airport workers didn't have time to do that during the busy travel season."
Frank Greenhall, the superintendent of the Warwick public schools, is not feeling the joy yet. Parents are grumbling that his new winter wonderland strategy of inclusion is "anti-Santa": "Maybe the Gingerbread Man is insulting to someone. Then you have to say Gingerbread Person. If you don't like the Gingerbread Person in the picture, get a picture with the winter scene. I'm not pushing any one agenda," an exasperated Greenhall sputtered, "I just look forward to when this is over." In Yorktown, interim superintendent Vincent Ziccolella is singing the same tune: "I would really like to get busy and do some education issues instead of ... creches," he told a local reporter.
The Christmas wars are not about ideology, in other words, but bureaucracy: Busy officials have better things to do than negotiate the hurt feelings of an increasingly fired-up (also lawyered-up) public. It would be easier to just ban everything.
You can't help but sympathize. You also can't help but pause and give thanks to God that we share a country where religious wars consist of fights about what Breakfast With Santa will be called this year.
Still, I can't help but feel there is something of great educational value in these earnest, repeated attempts to get the Christmas thing right. The world is suffering right now for a model of how people of different faiths can live together in genuine community, without sacrificing their conscience and their faith to the great secularizing god of government. If humanity is going to find the answer anywhere, it's going to be here, in the United States.
Breaking news: In Honolulu, Rabbi Itchel Krasnjansky was inspired by the Seattle brouhaha to ask that a menorah be added to the Hawaiian airport this year for the very first time. Harried holiday airport managers in the middle of the busiest travel season of the year responded: "Sure."
Now was that so hard?