Merry whatever

Posted: Dec 05, 2001 12:00 AM
This first Sunday in Advent, the time when we Christians wait in joyful hope for the birth of Christ, the priest at my local Tarrytown (N.Y.) church had a special message for us: "When you buy Christmas cards, don't get that snowman junk. Get a nice Renaissance painting of the birth of Christ. Add a few angels to the Santas and reindeers on the Christmas tree. And oh yes, each year the government issues a religious stamp at Christmas. Be sure to ask for those. If they don't sell them, they won't make any more."

At times like these, you gotta love being Catholic. I mean, here is a guy who has given up sex, money and personal autonomy for Christ's sake, and all he asks me to do is march down to the post office and demand the Madonna stamp? Yeah. I can handle that.

I had already bought a nice Bouguereau "Madonna and Child," surrounded by choruses of blindingly white angels, so I was covered on the Christmas card front. And as a backup, I armed myself with a second, guerrilla Christmas card set: "Merry Whatever," the card says, while underneath a paper doll cutout of a jolly bearded guy boasts an interchangeable set of looks: a Santa suit, a blue Hanukkah rabbi and a drunken New Year's reveler.

As the mere existence of a card like that suggests, the priest had a serious point to make. Christmas, like other erstwhile holy days, is in grave danger of being sanitized of all outward religious meaning, especially in the public square. And I don't mean crushed by materialism -- the tinsel, the lights, the gaudy decorations, the greedy festival of gift-giving which (in the humble, totally lay opinion of yours truly) is not an entirely unfitting way to celebrate the day God materialized anyway.

No, the problem is what The Becket Fund's Kevin Hasson calls secular fundamentalism: the aggressive belief by certain people (of many different faiths or none at all) that they are entitled to feel especially aggrieved by the religious displays of others. Oddly, this particular form of bigotry often masquerades as a form of tolerance.

So the Kensington, Md., town council recently voted to ban Santa Claus from the town's annual tree-lighting ceremony. Yes, Virginia. How could this have happened?

About a year ago, according to the Washington Times, a local resident asked that a menorah be included with the Christmas tree. For some reason, instead of merely acceding to this perfectly reasonable request to have the town recognize a Jewish holy day too, the council voted to secularize its public celebration on the grounds that some of its residents find Christmas offensive. And they made the big mistake of trying to use Sept. 11 as the cover story, lighting the tree in honor of police, firefighters and rescue workers. Last week the town council issued a statement, sniffing: "All the attention is missing a key point: This year is different from most years. The events of Sept. 11 require a different kind of ceremony."

Oh, yeah? Ken Forte, a Kensington volunteer fireman, showed up along with hundreds of others in a red Santa suit. Another Santa, Don Wade of Montgomery County, said there "is a need to show tolerance for the thousand families" who want Santa. And Christmas too, I might add.

We could use a little more such common sense in thousands of other American communities where officials mistakenly believe either the Constitution or civility requires the public censoring of religion. "Put up a menorah. Celebrate Ramadan. Let everybody have their holidays. Just don't take away our Christmas tree," one local business owner rather plaintively but brilliantly put it to me.

Exactly. Merry Whatever. And a happy new year to you, too.