The Santa Clause


Someone in Brooklyn is burning Christmas wreaths. So far the arsonist has targeted at least 18 homes in Marine Park.

"Police classified the fires as possible bias incidents that may be motivated by hatred of the Christmas season," the Daily News reported. The perpetrator is described as green and furry, with long, sinuous fingers and a dog named Max.

OK, I made up that last part. But police really have suggested that the vandalism might be motivated by anti-Christian prejudice.

One problem with that theory is that seven of the arson cases involved autumn decorations: harvest wreaths, cornucopias, and a scarecrow. Another difficulty is the assumption that Christmas wreaths have something to do with Christianity.

Clearly, the police have not read the Supreme Court's rulings about government-sponsored Christmas displays. If they had, they would know that most of the things Americans associate with Christmas are actually "secular symbols" of "the winter holiday season."

In a 1984 case, the Supreme Court found that a Christmas display sponsored by the city of Pawtucket, Rhode Island, did not violate the separation of church and state required by the First Amendment's Establishment Clause. The Court's reasoning was based partly on the fact that the display included, in addition to a Nativity scene, "secular" symbols of the holiday, such as a Christmas tree, a Santa Claus house, and reindeer pulling Santa's sleigh.

A 1989 decision seemed to confirm the power of such features to redeem displays that might otherwise run afoul of the Establishment Clause. In that case, the Supreme Court rejected a Nativity scene on the main staircase of the county courthouse in Pittsburgh while approving the display of a menorah next to a Christmas tree in front of the City-County Building a block away.

The Court emphasized that the creche–which included a banner proclaiming "Gloria in Excelsis Deo" ("Glory to God in the Highest") and was not accompanied by Santa–was indisputably religious. Although the same could be said for the menorah, the Court found that putting it next to a Christmas tree nullified whatever sectarian message it might otherwise have sent.

Given these precedents, it's not surprising that local officials and federal judges have difficulty deciding when a Christmas display is sufficiently secular to satisfy the Constitution. The confusion fostered by the Supreme Court's Santa Clause was evident in a Jersey City case involving a creche and a menorah in front of City Hall.

In 1994, after the American Civil Liberties Union complained about the display, the city put up a sign to clarify its intent. "Through this display and others throughout the year," it said, "the City of Jersey City is pleased to celebrate the diverse cultural and ethnic heritages of its peoples."

Unsatisfied, the ACLU sued, and in 1995 U.S. District Judge Dickinson R. Debevoise ordered the city to refrain from erecting the creche and menorah "or any substantially similar scene or display." In response, the city added a plastic Santa, a plastic Frosty the Snowman, and a red wooden sled.

Debevoise thereupon pronounced the display secularized: "I conclude that by making these additions defendants have sufficiently demystified the [holy], they have sufficiently desanctified sacred symbols, and they have sufficiently deconsecrated the sacred to escape the confines of the injunctive order."

The appeals court did not agree. Debevoise "apparently determined that the presence of Frosty, Santa, and a sled cleansed the display of its sectarian qualities," the court noted. Yet he "offered no assessment of the demystifying powers of Frosty the Snowman or Santa Claus, or even the sled."

Rather than mocking poor Judge Debevoise, perhaps we should question the premise he was forced to deal with: the idea that any symbol of Christmas can accurately be described as secular. Christmas, after all, celebrates the birth of Jesus, whom Christians identify as the Son of God and worship as their Lord and Savior.

The impulse to gloss over that point is apparent in the Supreme Court's rulings about Christmas trees and creches. It is also reflected in the popular insistence that everyone, regardless of religious belief, share in "the holiday season."

Anxious that no one feel left out, Americans say "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas." They lavish attention on Chanukah, a minor Jewish holiday distinguished only by its proximity to Christmas. Try as they might, however, they can't escape the central fact that Christmas is for Christians.