APRIL TO October is fighting season in Afghanistan — the other months are just too wretched. December is fighting season in the United States — the other months we have better things to do.
I write, of course, about the perennial war on Christmas. Halfway through the month, we’re all up on our high horses, forces clashing. How goes this year’s combat, you ask? Just dandy, thank you. Even better, while battlegrounds in previous years have often been in far-off places like Washington state, 2014’s skirmishes are right in our backyard.
We begin in Copley Square. Each year, Boston’s main library is decorated with large green wreaths with red ribbons. Let’s see: green and red — hey, those are the Christmas colors! And so Back Bay resident Esther Weissman takes umbrage, demanding not their removal — “The wreaths are lovely,” she says — but that the Boston Public Library display a menorah as well. The city refuses, arguing that wreaths have nothing at all to do with Christmas.
Journey now across the river to Cambridge, where the Peabody School has just banned Santa! The jolly old fellow used to make regular appearances at the public school’s holiday concert, but this year, apparently because of one complaint, he did not grace the stage. The school notes that Santa will still appear at a family sing-along on Dec. 23, but no matter: We can see the camel’s nose under this particular tent, can’t we? What’s next for Cambridge? Does it ban chimneys?
Could be. The University of Maine, for example, wants to ban candy canes. That was the upshot of an e-mail from school administrators that warned employees “not to decorate any public areas with Christmas or any other religious-themed decorations.” And what exactly are those religious decorations? They include “Xmas trees, wreaths, Xmas presents, candy canes, etc.” You’ll be relieved to know, however, that it is OK to have “plain trees without presents underneath, decorative lights, but not on trees [and] snow flakes.”
Sounds like we need a lawyer here. What exactly makes a candy cane a candy cane — its unique hook-like shape and red stripes? Would a brown-striped un-hooked piece of candy get a pass? And then there is the matter of decorative lights on trees: they’re allowed separately, but seemingly the conjoining of the two miraculously turns the profane into the sacred.
Ahh, I do love Christmas.
Granted, these do feel like “First World problems.” If wreaths, Santa, and candy canes are the things that trouble our thoughts, life must be pretty good. Then, too, the war looks downright petty when compared to the other preoccupation of this particular December: the wave of outrage over police killings in Ferguson, Mo., Staten Island, N.Y., and elsewhere.
On the other hand, the war on Christmas fascinates because it genuinely engages a stew of real issues over a holiday that has multiple meanings and origins. It pushes us to think hard about how much role religion — or quasi-religion — should have in the public realm. The holiday coincides with the winter solstice, and to a degree it has co-opted the non-Christian symbols and feasts that — well before Christianity — marked the year’s shortest period of daylight. And, obviously, Christmas has become a critical driver of the national economy, a fact blasted by comedian Chris Rock in a recent “Saturday Night Live” monologue. “From what I’ve read, Jesus is the least materialistic person to ever roam the earth,” he observed. But nevertheless, “we turned his birthday into the most materialistic day of the year.” He’s likely right.
Wreaths have their origins in pagan rituals, Santa was never in Bethlehem, and putting lights on evergreens likely won’t sway anyone’s spiritual leanings. But the fact that we debate them is probably quite healthy. Since the founding of the nation we’ve wrestled with how to accommodate religion in a diverse country. For the most part, it’s something we’ve managed quite well, even if at times — such as determining the religiosity of a candy cane — it can seem, well, just a little silly.
This column was first published in The Boston Globe on December 16, 2014.