NEW ORLEANS — When Christmas shoppers browse around Lakeside Mall in the New Orleans suburb of Metairie, Louisiana, many take time to admire the large Nativity scene on display. For the last six years, children and adults have taken time out from shopping to gather around the crèche.

“Little kids are always in awe and want to hug the sheep,” Tony Franchina said. He also sees “women praying the Rosary there.”

Franchina is a member of the Knights of Columbus Ludovicum Council 4663 at St. Louis King of France Church in Metairie, the council responsible for placing the four-by-four-foot crèche and figures, including the Three Kings, at the large mall boasting 130 shops and eateries.

The Metairie crèche is only one of countless such displays around the country — found at commercial sites, private residences and, thanks to a federal court ruling, even public places such as town halls and state capitols.

For the folks sponsoring the Lakeside Mall display, their crèche was one of their responses to the Knights of Columbus’ “Keep Christ in Christmas” yearly campaigns. And it wasn’t difficult to do.

“One of our brother knights was walking in the local mall and noticed no Nativity scene among the numerous Christmas decorations,” Franchina explained. He asked the manager why one was missing, and “the manager said no one ever approached him asking for one.”

The mall not only gave a space for the crèche, but this year, in the wake of mall renovations, the Knights will get a space inside where “our newer location will have more traffic,” Franchina said.

“The mall people really like it and are helpful to us, and you can see by their face lots of people enjoy it.”

As the Christmas rush cranks up and shoppers head in droves to the malls and shopping centers to stock up on gifts, this Knights council is committed to publicly reminding everyone of the real meaning of Christmas.

 

Reaching Thousands Daily

Every December, the association of Keep Christ in Christmas NOLA, which is online at the site KeepChristInChristmasNOLA.org, brings the message of the true meaning of Christmas to the masses through print billboards and digital billboards found along highways and neighborhoods throughout the greater New Orleans metropolitan area.

“We cover four civil parishes, basically the New Orleans Archdiocese, which is a large geographical area, wherever the boards are available and not committed to a monthly advertiser,” Stephen Hart, chairman of the Christ in Christmas Committee of New Orleans, told the Register. They choose as many prime billboard locations to display the message, “Keep Christ in Christmas” — joined by a beautiful Nativity scene picturing the Holy Family — on the 10-by-22-foot billboards.

In 2018, 65 such billboards covered the metropolitan area.

Hart pointed out that the billboard company’s reports on traffic at all the locations “range anywhere from 35,000 [weekly] to the largest at 401,000 on Crescent City Connection Bridge, which most people use going into the city of New Orleans.” That means thousands of drivers and passengers see the displays every day.

One year a “Keep Christ in Christmas” billboard even appeared across from the Superdome where the NFL’s New Orleans Saints play their home games.

The private, nonprofit Keep Christ in Christmas NOLA grew out of initial efforts in the 1950s by local Knights of Columbus members into today’s separate association after the turn of the millennium. It’s headed by a committee composed of Knights, its ladies auxiliary and the Council of Catholic School Cooperative Clubs in the New Orleans Archdiocese. In recent years the diocesan paper, the Clarion Herald, also has been lending assistance.

The wide range of sponsors include various Knights’ councils, churches, local businesses including the Bank of Louisiana, 30 Catholic schools, and individuals and families.

“We want to get that message out. Getting the message out means the more billboards, the more people are seeing it,” Hart said, adding that the association doesn’t stop there. In past years thousands of Nativity-scene car magnets have been offered for sale, too.

Their efforts are making a difference. “What we have noticed is a lot more Nativity scenes,” Hart said. “People are putting up their own Nativity sets [on lawns].”

 

Family Tradition

In Bartlett, Tennessee, Bob and Mary Ann Trainor continue a family custom of displaying a beautiful crèche on their front lawn every Christmas season, starting shortly after Advent begins and remaining until Epiphany, with his five children and 16 grandchildren.

Bob Trainor explained, “The Nativity set was made by my [late] wife Kathy in the early 70s, and over the years, we took many Christmas pictures with the children around the Nativity set. That became our official Christmas card we sent to friends and family. In recent years we do the same thing around the Nativity scene with the grandchildren. It’s been part of our family a long, long time.”

The parishioners of the Church of the Nativity are committed to celebrating the reason for the season, heralding in the true meaning of Christmas. “That’s why we’ve been doing it for all these years,” Bob told the Register, noting that their display is a visible sign to the many people who drive the neighborhood during the Christmas season to look at the festive light displays.

 

Message in Public Spaces

“We are seriously committed to our goal of keeping Christ in Christmas,” said Ed O’Malley, president of the American Nativity Scene, which partners with the Thomas More Society, a nonprofit, national public interest law firm dedicated to upholding life, family and religious liberty, to provide free Nativity scenes for display in the public square. Both organizations are based in Chicago.

“Our primary goal is to have a Nativity scene in every state capitol during the Christmas season to honor the true meaning of Christmas — the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ. Doing it in the public square is our way of expressing that,” O’Malley told the Register. “Our secondary goal is to place many Nativities in public venues, courthouses, libraries, parks, town squares.”

O’Malley’s father-in-law, Jim Finnegan, founded the effort in 2013, and a generous anonymous benefactor funds all the Nativity scenes’ large figures of the Holy Family — Joseph, Mary and the Baby Jesus — and with them the angel announcing the birth of Christ. The sets go to individuals or groups willing to sponsor a Christmas manger scene at a public location, get a permit and put up a simple stable.

The American Nativity Scene (AmericanNativityScene.com) provides all the simple directions and guidance.

The focus on capitols grew from that first year, when the donor wished to put one in the Illinois State Capitol in Springfield. Not only has the Nativity scene appeared there every year since, but Tom Brejcha, Thomas More Society president and chief counsel, said, “When we first got our permit down in Springfield, they were going to put us in an alcove off the rotunda.” But when the American Nativity Scene invested in some additional items, “the people in charge of the displays were so impressed they moved the Nativity to the center of the rotunda,” Brejcha said.

This year, nearly half the country’s state capitols —  23 — and maybe as many as 25, will feature the Christ-themed displays. Three of the new displays for 2019 are in Bismarck, North Dakota; Tallahassee, Florida; and Honolulu. They join the list of capitols from California to Maine, from Texas to Nebraska to Michigan.

In today’s frequent attacks on religious freedom, “people are surprised we can do this, expressing our belief in the public square,” O’Malley said.

 

Legally Christmas

But the legal precedence dates to 1987, when the right to display a privately owned and sponsored Nativity scene on public property was decided in federal court in Chicago in Grutzmacher v. The Chicago Building Commission. The decision supported a crèche display in Chicago’s Daley Plaza, which has continued annually ever since. The decision carried a federal injunction “banning discrimination against religious speech under the First and 14th Amendments of our U.S. Constitution.”

Brejcha said that the decision was offered by Chief Judge James Benton Parsons, the first African American judge to sit on the federal bench. He granted an injunction against interference with religious expression on Daley Plaza and later he made it permanent. For the record, Parsons wrote, “The Supreme Court has consistently held that religious expressive conduct in a traditional public forum enjoys the same protections afforded political, artistic, or other types of protected speech under the First Amendment.”

To the plaintiff’s complaint, “We would prefer not to have religionists of any type aboard our Daley Plaza,” he countered, “What a revolting and ridiculous position to be taken here in the United States of America and presumably under the mandate of our Constitution.”

Today a simple phone call or letter from the Thomas More Society (ThomasMoreSociety.org) quickly straightens out any problem in understanding the freedom to display Nativity scenes in public locations such as town halls, town greens, libraries and parks.

Brejcha emphasized that “free speech is entitled to its place in the public forum.” While those such as the Freedom From Religion Foundation of Madison, Wisconsin, put up opposite messages, he said, “The comparison accentuates the positivity of the Christmas message.”

O’Malley is of the same mind. “Our feeling is the message we have, which is honoring the true meaning of Christmas, stands pretty strong,” he said. “We’re not putting up messages to counter anyone. We should celebrate Christmas for what Christmas is about.”

The comments he receives are nothing but positive, focusing on how “It’s a great idea” and on how beautiful the display ceremonies are that often include a children’s choir and a priest blessing the crèche.

 

Resounding Message

Laurel Ann Dukart, the North Dakota state regent for the Catholic Daughters of the Americas, said one of the members from Bismarck brought the idea for the crèche in the state capitol to the board, which agreed it would be a great idea and found the process to be easy through the American Nativity Scene.

“Our goal was to make sure we keep Christ in Christmas,” Dukart said. “By bringing a Nativity scene, it would increase the spirit of peace, happiness and goodwill toward anyone.” She and members look forward to the crèche being displayed for the eight days normally allotted for such displays at the state capitol.

Perhaps Bob Trainor best captures the spirit and meaning of the importance of such displays. “It’s all for the reason of keeping Christ in Christmas,” he reflected. “He is the ‘reason for the season.’ It’s all about what God has given us through his Son. It’s not about Santa and getting gifts. The reason is much deeper than all of that. Many of us need to be reminded multiple times what Christmas is all about.”

Joseph Pronechen is a Register staff writer.