'Christmas' makes a comeback in public spaces

Part of the problem is misinformation, with cities and schools often unsure about what is constitutional.

Who doesn't hanker for a return to a "real sense of Christmas" during the holiday season? Particularly after this year's Black Friday spree in which some shoppers walloped each other over discounted products.

Everyone, of course, has their own take on what that involves. Is it a happy, if rowdy, opening of presents on Christmas morning? A family tree-trimming tradition or favorite holiday concert? Perhaps it's a quiet pondering of the biblical Christmas story. Or a sharing of a meal with the less fortunate.

To some long distressed by the secularization of the holiday – and particularly by the disappearance of the word "Christmas" and its religious symbols from the public domain – there is reason for cheer in 2006.

Signs have appeared of a "return of Christmas" in the culture. Big-time retailers including Wal-Mart, Macy's, Target, and Kohl's have responded to demands to resurrect a "Merry Christmas" theme in their stores. More cities are approving the inclusion of nativity scenes in holiday displays on public property. And film studios are releasing movies with a genuine biblical theme.

"The Nativity Story," which opened in theaters across the US over the past weekend, represents more than a follow-on to Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ," says Ted Baehr, chair of the Christian Film and Television Commission.

"This is not a personal project, but a studio deciding to do a major movie very respectful of the faith, with both dramatic and theological quality," he says. "Like they used to do with 'Ben-Hur' and 'Quo Vadis.'" With studios now marketing to a variety of groups, he adds, the biggest group is probably churchgoers. Dr. Baehr sees more faith-related films in the works.

Yet the Christmas comeback goes beyond Hollywood.

"We're seeing a sensitivity that was not there before to the fact that removing the Christian aspects of Christmas is offensive to the majority of Americans," says Erik Stanley, chief attorney for the Liberty Counsel, a conservative group that has taken the cause to the courts when it deemed such action necessary.

Just recently, the legal group helped Robert Wortock, a citizen of Racine, Wis., get a nativity display on the city's Monument Square after officials previously rejected it. Traditional Christmas decorations had disappeared from the streets, and Mr. Wortock wanted to change that.

"This is a good example of how, in the last three years, we've seen a good return on this effort," says Mr. Stanley.

In recent years, several conservative Christian groups have claimed that a "war on Christmas" was being waged by secularists, and they marshaled their troops in response. The Liberty Counsel is in its fourth year of a "Friend or Foe Christmas Campaign," pledging to be a friend to "entities which do not censor Christmas and a foe to those who do" – language that makes some Christians wince.

Groups they charge with fomenting the problem, such as the American Civil Liberties Union, counter that it is a "fictional war," that they are implying an anti-Christian hostility that doesn't exist. The clash centers on a disagreement over the propriety of religious symbols of any kind on public property.

Both sides agree that part of the problem is misinformation, with cities and schools often unsure about what is constitutional. (Courts have ruled that nativity displays are allowable alongside other secular and religious symbols.)

What also raised the hackles of some religious folk was a growing retail practice of opting for "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas" on signage around stores. Some managers instructed employees not to say "Merry Christmas" to customers.

Some retailers say it just makes sense to be more inclusive during a season when Hanukkah and Kwanzaa are also celebrated. Best Buy, for example, is sticking with its "Happy Holidays" theme. But Wal-Mart Stores Inc., has responded to the clamor in a vigorous way.

"We learned our lesson, and this year more than ever 'Christmas' will dominate," says spokeswoman Jami Arms. Ticking off a list of pro-Christmas changes the chain has announced, she adds, "This is what Wal-Mart does – listen to its employees and associates. We heard them say they wanted Christmas to be more a part of our store."

Some suggest the pressure has been drummed up by Christian advocacy groups, which maintain "Grinch" or "Scrooge" lists on their websites and sell buttons and bumper stickers with such messages as "I helped save Christmas."

Yet it seems these groups are also responding to individual concerns. Elizabeth Sither, a septuagenarian in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., had her own campaign for a nativity display under way before learning she could get outside help.

When her community's Fall Activities Calendar came out, Ms. Sither says, she saw secular holiday activities planned as well as a Hanukkah celebration, but no mention of Christmas.

"Christmas is a national holiday and a very precious time for Christians," she says. "It doesn't make sense to take the Christ out of Christmas."

So she wrote to city officials, and learned she'd have to make a formal request to the city council. It was only when she panicked over not having a display ready should her request be approved, that she tried a Web search using the word "nativity." There she learned the Thomas More Law Center, of Ann Arbor, Mich., had helped others in similar cases.

"When it appeared my request wouldn't be seriously considered for a display this year, their attorney stepped in," Sither says. Palm Beach Gardens officials approved a nativity scene for display at the city recreation center along with a tree, snowman, and menorah.

"Walt Wiley, a former mayor, took pity on my effort and volunteered to make a nativity in his garage," Sither adds, chuckling. Now she is busy planning a public Christmas celebration with caroling at the center. "One lady volunteered 200 sandwiches!" she says delightedly.

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