Would public ban of religious Christmas displays hurt?
December 16 2008 by Norman Jameson, BR Editor

No trees adorned with twinkling lights will bless—or aggravate—visitors to UNC-Chapel Hill’s two main libraries this year, according to a Dec. 5 story in the Raleigh News and Observer.

After many years of displaying Christmas trees in the libraries, this year the trees are being left in storage because some library employees and patrons were bothered by the Christian display, according to Sarah Michalak, UNC’s associate provost for university libraries.

Responding to dismay from the public over the lost tree story, Chancellor Holden Thorp released a video on the UNC web site that shows many garlands, Rudolphs, ribbons and trees around campus and in its shops. He said that at UNC, “all departments are free to put up a tree … or not.”

Christmas celebrations were banned in Boston for 22 years in the 17th century because they represented superstition and “dishonored God,” according to the decree from the general court in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Since then of course, our nation has gladly taken the Christian holy day to heart and even recognized it as a federal holiday.

The tree ban at the libraries is another notch in the score card that shows overtly Christian symbols (not that a decorated tree is overtly Christian) are unwelcome in many public venues of our pluralistic society. America hosts both adherents of many religions and those who advocate none.

More and more of them seem to resent the historic willingness of our society at large to accommodate the Christian celebration in December.

This could be a good thing.

For decades Christian friends have lamented that Christmas is becoming too secularized; it is losing its religious meaning; businesses have appropriated the religious symbols of Christmas and now they mean nothing more than decorations to sell merchandise.

Saints have morphed to Santas; tributes are diluted to toys and holy days are simply holidays. And all this seasonal fiscal flavor is salted with crèches, camels and caravans; stars, sheep and shepherds; wise men, mangers and drummer boys.

If, as the English proverb says, familiarity breeds contempt, it is logical that Christmas symbols floating in the marketplace unattached to their religious meaning will themselves become meaningless. Could it be that when Christians work to place precious symbols of faith in alien public venues that we contribute the knife to emasculate their significance?

As Christians we want to live in a society that respects our right to believe and freely practice that belief in public. Truthfully, don’t we also want to feel the warmth of respect from the public both for our identity as Christians and for the icons of our faith?

That was easier when our nation was considered “Christian.” Although unspoken and certainly unlegislated, there was a long era when being a Christian was “required” for a healthy business or to acquire political office or even many jobs unrelated to religious work. It was an identity that greased the wheels of social interaction, whether or not the label accurately described the one who wore it.

Christians felt good about that because we lived in a geographically massive Christian enclave that stretched 3,000 miles between two oceans. Non-Christians gritted their teeth and bore it during public prayers at football games or to open city council meetings. To do otherwise would threaten a backlash unhealthy for business and for seamless meshing of societal gears in the PTA or grocery store.

Those days are gone as more non-Christians react negatively to an overt Christian presence and pressure in public venues. Surprised and resentful that anyone would react negatively to more than a century of tradition and to our well-meaning and harmless efforts to infuse the atmosphere with happy reminders that Christ has come, we Christians have had our own negative reactions to those protestors.

Perhaps we are reacting to the time 20 centuries earlier when the first Christians could only identify themselves covertly to each other, with a subtle fish drawn in the sand or a cross etched in a door post or woven discretely into a bracelet or necklace.

No one joined the early Christian church to gain a political or commercial advantage. No one corrupted Christian observances with garish, impotent, ubiquitous displays whose purpose is to lift dollars from our pockets buying gifts for each other to “honor the Christ child” who would rather we feed His sheep.

What will it mean if the public forum gradually closes to overt displays of Christian symbolism? It may mean that those consumed with consumption can continue their debt bondage to “the holiday season,” and those who celebrate the Christ of Christmas can busy ourselves with service and worship undeterred by the annual indigestion over how our special day has been corrupted.

If Christian Christmas arrangements must disappear from court yards, public buildings and school houses it might just enrich the spiritual meaning of the displays of Christmas joy in the places where they are welcomed: in our churches and in the homes and yards of people who truly love the Christ child.

12/16/2008 2:39:00 AM by Norman Jameson, BR Editor | with 0 comments




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