Arresting Baby Jesus

Knute Berger says it’s time to end the silliness around the annual War on Christmas.
Crosscut archive image.
Knute Berger says it’s time to end the silliness around the annual War on Christmas.

The United States is trying to wind up the war in Iraq and is still fighting a tough campaign in Afghanistan. Rivaling these long conflicts in another quagmire: the annual 'ꀜWar on Christmas.'ꀝ

Make no mistake, Seattle is often on the front lines of this war. In 2001, then-King County Executive Ron Sims made headlines by telling county workers not to say 'ꀜMerry Christmas'ꀝ or 'ꀜHappy Hanukkah.'ꀝ In 2006, the Port of Seattle ordered holiday decorations removed from Sea-Tac airport when a local Jewish rabbi asked to display an 8-foot menorah.

That same year, Gov. Chris Gregoire lit a menorah in a ceremony at the state Capitol in Olympia, prompting angry Christians to request a Nativity scene be allowed in the building. In 2007 and 2008, such displays were allowed. Last year, along with the display of Christ, atheists gained national headlines by putting up their own exhibit in the Rotunda proclaiming that religion 'ꀜhardens hearts and enslaves minds,'ꀝ a thoughtful holiday sentiment.

The battles have resulted in various casualties. Sea-Tac banned all religious displays and replaced Christmas trees with cardboard birches and fake plastic snowdrifts. (And no, there were no fake plastic Seattle snowplows to sit by idly while the fake snow piled up.) In Olympia, the atheists'ꀙ display was kidnapped. And in the height of ignominy, the state Capitol Nativity scene'ꀙs figures had to be taken into protective custody because of vandalism fears. Yes, Baby Jesus was essentially arrested by the Washington State Patrol for his own safety!

There has been other fallout from the 'ꀜWar on Christmas.'ꀝ One is that bureaucrats in Olympia put a moratorium on all Capitol displays and suggested stricter rules banning all displays, with the exception of an annual 'ꀜholiday'ꀝ tree. But some groups worried that the proposed rules were too sweeping, preventing signs and charts by groups like the League of Women Voters or the YWCA that come to the Capitol regularly to present their views to the public and the Legislature. Free speech is threatened, they say, if they are banned like Jesus.

Then there is the publicity. Greater Seattle has become a national whipping boy for those who believe that we'ꀙre a hotbed for a secular agenda that'ꀙs trying to drive religion from the public square. Foremost among the critics of Northwest holiday controversies is FOX-TV host Bill O'ꀙReilly, who has said that banning Christmas displays is part of a progressive conspiracy to legalize 'ꀜnarcotics, euthanasia, abortion at will, [and] gay marriage.'ꀝ It is an attempt to silence religious opposition, he claims.

More likely, public officials aren'ꀙt interested in anything so diabolical. They'ꀙre probably just tired of the din, the anger, the warfare that erupts — not over Christmas, but over the diversity of ways people have of following their faith. The intolerance cuts more than one way: The dominant Christian tradition in this country is religious, but also, for many, it is simply cultural. There are many atheists, Jews, pagans, and people who belong to no organized religion who celebrate Christmas. To narrowly define it as something only for Christians is to miss its importance in the larger culture.

On the other hand, there should be nothing wrong with a plethora of other holiday-time religious statements. Instead of assuming hidden political agendas, why not recognize that there'ꀙs more than one way to celebrate a season that so many people regard as sacred? Is one'ꀙs own religious faith really so feeble that it can be shaken by another'ꀙs cross, menorah, or rude sign?

Back during the 1918 flu epidemic in Seattle, Mayor Ole Hanson banned all public gatherings to prevent the spread of the deadly disease. His order included churches, and some religious leaders objected. Hanson replied, 'ꀜReligion which won'ꀙt keep for two weeks is not worth having.'ꀝ In other words, real religion is sturdy, not shakable by something as mundane as a deadly epidemic.

The 'ꀜWar on Christmas'ꀝ is a made-up war by people who are intolerant and insecure. Real Christmas, and the sentiments of generosity and compassion it celebrates, will survive silly rules, bans, and challenges from nonbelievers. It is resilient, as are the faiths of others who don'ꀙt share in Christian beliefs. This fight is between people who pose no threat to each other.

It'ꀙs time to move toward 'ꀜpeace on earth'ꀝ by calling a truce.

This story originally appeared in Seattle Magazine.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.