Ever since First Things began in 1990, Fr. Richard John Neuhaus has been commenting on Christmas in his column, "The Public Square." If political America has much of a Christmas tradition anymore, it's the annual battle that rages in courts and newspapers over the public presentation of the holiday. Nothing put a joint production by Franz Kafka and the Ringling Brothers could approximate the weirdness of the resulting Christmas displays. Here are a few of the observations about it all that have appeared in "The Public Square":
• Holiday greetings or Christmas greetings? Every year about this time, the arguments begin anew. William Devlin, the founder of the Urban Family Council in Philadelphia, has come up with a notice that might be posted in public places in order to preempt the contentious and litigious: "Legal Disclaimer: 'Merry Christmas' (hereafter 'The Greeting') . . . this announcement is not intended to offend, alienate, foster hate, or be a precursor for any egregious acts (legal or illegal), thoughts, words, or deeds. 'The Greeting' is made only in the context in which it may be legally received, if in fact, it is received at all. It is not intended to be nor should it be, in any way, connected to any other type of greeting, real or imagined, past, present or future. No references to any persons, things, or substances, animate or inanimate, real, fictional, or otherwise, should be assumed by the reader or receiver of the greeting (hereafter, 'the greetee'). The greeting is not being made to (nor will tenders be accepted from or on behalf of) nonbelievers in 'The Greeting' in any jurisdiction in which making and/or accepting the greeting would violate that jurisdiction's laws or feelings (also refer to local statutes and ordinances related to 'The Greeting'). In any jurisdiction in which perceived 'greeting' is not welcomed nor agreed upon by all 'greetees,' then the 'greetor' of 'The Greeting' will be held harmless in this life and the next, including all issuing posterity both now and forever. 'The Greeting' may be made by a licensed 'greetor' and any liability assumed or created by the 'greetee' shall be the sole responsibility of said 'greetor.' If you have been aggrieved, offended, waylaid, parlayed, filleted, or delayed in any way, either real, imagined, or perceived by said 'Greeting' and/or by 'greetor' as the result of receiving said 'greeting' you can call toll free 1-800-CHRISTMAS to speak with legal counsel." (December 2004)
• "Gridlock in the Public Square." That's the title of a column in the New York Post that has stirred up quite a furor. E.V. Kontorovich of the Post editorial board wrote that all kinds of groups are "piggy-backing" on Jewish success in crashing the Christmas party. He calls this "the Menorah Principle." Some years ago, Jews demanded equal space in the public square and got the menorah put up beside the Christmas tree. The very minor feast of Hanukkah was inflated to the size of Christmas, and now fabrication has been added to inflation as some blacks demand equal space for the newly invented festival of Kwanza.
This is getting crazy, says Mr. Kontorovich. In Cherry Hill, New Jersey, a district not notable for its cultural diversity, inclusivity requires a Christmas holiday display crowded with Christmas trees, menorahs, Kwanza kinara candle holders, and gold-laminated pictures of Buddha. Enough already! cries Mr. Kontorovich. In a country where more than 90 percent of the people are Christians, why can't minorities be tolerant enough to let the Christians celebrate their big festival? "Unless society draws a line the only obvious place to draw it is at Christianityan unmanageable tumult will ensue: gridlock in the public square," concluded Mr. Kontorovich. For his troubles, he was attacked with a bombardment of protest in the letters column of the Post.
Of course, Mr. Kontorovich has a point. In most of the country, a Christmas treewhich is a theologically ambiguous symbol at bestposes no big problem. But where there is an influential Jewish presence, the accompanying menorah has become a tradition by now (traditions being more or less instant in a culture afflicted by presentism). It would cause an awful fuss to remove the menorahs, and where it is tried the courts declare it illegal. One might argue that we should "draw the line" at the tree and the menorah, there being a special connection between Judaism and Christianity (as in the Judeo-Christian tradition) that doesn't obtain with Islam, Buddhism, or, heaven help us, Kwanzaism. But that line would be impossible to sustain, socially or legally. And we really do not want the courts getting into the theology of the singular relationship between Judaism and Christianity.
An alternative to gridlock is that, in the public square and the public school, we might declare it the Religion Season rather than the Christmas Season. But the courts would likely prohibit that as an impermissible "advancement of religion," even if the town atheist got to put up a sign indicating his dissent. The editors at the Post note that most of the protest letters came from Jews, and wondered where the Christians are on this. The answer is that many Christians feel very uneasy about being a majority. Call it the virtue of humility, guilt over their real and alleged oppression of minorities in the past, or just loss of nerve. Our more liberal churches are not at all sure that Christianity should be "privileged." Not even in church, and certainly not in the public square. More orthodox Christians, too, are easily intimidated by the charge of "triumphalism."
So what is to be done? Where it does not raise community hackles, a Christmas tree or, much better, a crèche is a very nice thing. And if the Jews in the community really want a menorah there, why not? For Jews it is a sign that they really belong, while for Christians it speaks of Christ as the fulfillment of Old Testament promise. Plus, it shows that Christians are very nice to Jews. But it becomes a different matter when what Kontorovich calls "the 2 percent religions" (and 1 percent and near zero percent) all want to get in on the act. The Cherry Hill solution is simply silly. Moreover, there is no more sure way to trivialize religion than to suggest that the crèche, the menorah, a Kwanza candle, and a laminated Buddha are all "equally meaningful" symbols of whatever.
E.V. Kontorovich is right. The "Menorah Principle" was wrongheaded from the start. Here in New York it was pressed by the very Orthodox, such as the Lubavitcher Hasidim. There is painful irony in a reach for symbolic "equality" that involves distorting Jewish tradition in order to produce a simulacrum of Christmas. Jews were and still are divided on the wisdom of the Menorah Principle. Jews can withdraw from their public entanglement with Christmas, but there is no agreement on doing that. Christians cannot ask them to withdraw without sparking an enormous public row.
Were it not for the judiciary's mindless pronouncements on the "establishment" of religion, it would have been possible for the overwhelming majority of citizens to publicly celebrate one of their really important festivals. In fact, it happened quite naturally until the Supreme Court, beginning in 1947, took its "strict separationist" turn of hostility to religion. Before that, Jews more or less gladly left Christmas to the Christians, recognizing that a minority of 2 percent is, well, in the minority. The Court's hostility to religion (especially the religion of the majority) made common cause with the Lubavitchers' zeal for religion, producing the Menorah Principle, about which not much is to be done. Except perhaps to let it run its course and destroy itself in the Cherry Hill Implosion. Or, at the risk of sounding utopian, the courts might come to their senses.
Meanwhile, it is worth remembering that, while the public school is a government school, the public square is not coterminous with government square. Government schools are on the defensive and may over time give way to schools of parental choice, as more people realize that, when it comes to what is most important in education, government makes a complete hash of things. The public square, however, includes many spaces that are not governmental. It involves malls, which in many places are the closest thing to a town square. And it involves church properties and the front lawns of homes, where citizens can be as exuberant as zoning laws allow in celebrating Christmas as a Christian thing.
Where that can still be done in government space as well, let it be done. But it cannot be done where the Menorah Principle is entrenched, and it seems it will soon be entrenched everywhere. Certainly, Christians should not be complicit in the public trivialization of Christmas. And I expect there will be a return to sanity some day when enough Jews decide that a muddled exhibition of menorah, Kwanza candle, Islamic star and crescent, Buddha, and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer is not really the statement they wanted to make about the place of Judaism in American public life. When that happens, Christians, Jews, and everybody else will be permitted to go back to celebrating their holidays as holy days. (December 1997)
• 'Tis the season to once again complain about the season. There is something to be said for classy complaining such as Dell deChant of the University of South Florida provides in "The Economy as Religion: The Dynamics of Consumer Culture." For instance, there is this: "Santa is not the embodiment of secular commercialism. He is the embodiment of our culture's greatest religious myth: the myth of success and affluence, right engagement with the economy, and the acquisition and consumption of images and objects. Santa is the incarnation of this myth. For this very reason he functions as a profoundly religious figure in our postmodern cosmological culture. This reason may also account for his seeming immunity to criticism from a religion still following the cultural logic of a previous time. In short, Santa is not secular. He is sacred. To attack him as secular is to attack his shadow." It is not only Christmas, says deChant. There is also Easter, Valentine's Day, Halloween, the Fourth of July, the Super Bowl, and, if the designation catches on, September 11 as Patriot Day. All are intensely sacred events, we are told. "As such they reveal not only how thoroughly religious postmodern American culture has become but also just how difficult it may be for Americans to cease being the consumers the Economy demands that they be."
The postmodernist flourishes notwithstanding, deChant's article is a pretty conventional jeremiad against "consumerism." There is an important element of truth in such complaints, of course, but they always strike me as being a bit Scrooge-ish. And a bit condescending toward ordinary folk who, we are told, are dumb enough to believe every advertisement. Dr. Johnson observed that a man is seldom so innocently employed as when he is busy making money. And more or less the same obtains with the spending of money, at least when one is spending it on gifts for others. I rather doubt that Santa is the sacred figure deChant claims he is. His cult claims no martyrs. Not that lives are not ruined by excessive consumption, but nobody dies in its name. That being said, it is reassuring that every December the cry is heard in every corner of the land that we have lost the true meaning of Christmas, from which one may infer that the true meaning of Christmas is far from lost. It will be time to really worry when the cry is no longer heard. (December 2004)
• The struggle to keep Christ in Christmas never ends. The Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Divine up on Morningside Heights is doing its part. They have a twenty-eight-foot-tall metal spiral sculpture that is a "Tree of Sounds" as part of the Winter Solstice Celebration. "This popular secular event," it says here, "celebrates the ancient traditions from which Christmas has evolved." Any other questions about the true meaning of Christmas? (May 2005)
• All should be braced for this year's round of campaigning against the commercialization of Christmas. Last year the National Council of Churches (NCC) got a broad array of religious leadership types to sign on with a "Campaign to Take Commercialism Out of Christmas." (There was nothing in the statement about replacing commercialism with Christ.) Pastor Leonard Klein of Christ Lutheran Church in York, Pennsylvania, wrote to the NCC, and his complaint seems entirely pertinent a year later. "I detect [in the statement] spiritual arrogance in a kind of snobbish hostility to the simple pleasures people get in buying, giving, and receiving. I see no sympathy toward the instinct of generosity nor any real appreciation of the genuine blessing of material prosperity. Advertisers and merchants are demonized, and their legitimate economic vocations are demeaned. Your message reads as if you were afraid somebody will have some fun or make some money, and this when the nation is coming out of a recession and anybody with any sense is cheered by the signs of consumer confidence! Will anybody, rich or poor, really be better off if the stores come out of the Christmas season awash in red ink?
"Moreover, in appealing for altruism you simply overlook the fact that an enormous amount of charitable giving, major or minor, takes place in this last month of the year. Concern for the poor and unfortunate is never at a higher peak than now." In addition to casting a pall over some very human and humanizing behavior, says Klein, the religious leaders seem to be at a loss about the significance of Christmas once commercialism has been removed. "But this is not the worst of it. After an excess of outrage against the hazards of commercialism, this statement by church leaders offers no other Gospel to those it has condemned than phrases like these: 'the spirit of Christmas,' 'making Christmas real,' 'invest in renewing our own spirits, our relationships, and our natural environment,' and 'the spiritual and life-affirming potential of the season.' Great balls of fire! The most you can affirm is the same meaningless jargon that is readily used by the very merchants, advertisers, and media you condemn. What about the baby Jesus?
"Christmas is about the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, the incarnation of the second Person of the Holy Trinity. Of this there is not one word, literally not one word, in the statement of the Campaign to Take Commercialism Out of Christmas." Believing that when people are truly serious they can afford to lighten up, Pastor Klein told the NCC that he was going to preach on advent during Advent. "And then a little later in the season I'll pour some brandy in the eggnog and give my daughter that REM tape she's been wanting and have a merry Christmasin honor not of my moral sensitivity but of the birth of Mary's boy." (December 1993)
Court Watchers and Pro-Lifers, keep an eye out for the January 2007 issue of First Things. If you enjoyed Hadley Arkes' predictions for future Supreme Court jurisprudence on questions centering on abortion in his opinion piece "This Heartbreaking Court" in the October 2006 issue, then you don't want to miss Professor Arkes' follow-up article in the January 2007 issue. In "The Kennedy Court," Arkes offers incisive analysis of the oral arguments in Gonzales v. Carhart, the partial-birth abortion case, and shows how Justice Anthony Kennedy may be positioning himself as the swing vote on the court now that Sandra Day O'Connor is retired. Look for the January 2007 issue on newsstands December 15. Or better yet, subscribe today.