Christmas WARS

NOVI, Mich. — They fled Iraq 25 years ago, and the first Christmas they lived in the United States, they set up a Nativity scene on their front lawn.

But this year, it wasn't so easy for the Samona family, who are Chaldean Catholics living in Novi, Mich., outside Detroit. This year, their crèche brought threats of fines from a housing management company that supervises their home in a newly built community.

It's all part of a strong cultural tide assaulting the only religious federal holiday in the United States. To wit:

— The city of Boston caused a furor when it recently renamed the giant tree in its city park a “holiday tree” instead of “Christmas tree.” The Nova Scotia logger who had cut down the 48-foot tree was furious when he discovered the name change, and said he would never have donated the tree if he had known. Public outrage caused the city to name the spruce a “Christmas” tree again after a few days.

— Companies such as Target, Kroger, Office Max, Walgreens, Sears, Staples, Lowe's, JC Penney, Dell and Best Buy refuse to use the word “Christmas” in this season's promotions, using the term “holiday” instead. The American Family Association is organizing an internet petition which will be sent to all of these companies to voice the displeasure of Christian customers.

— In malls and supermarkets across the country, it takes effort to find real Christmas cards. Many are simply called “holiday cards” now.

— Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, R-Ill, told the press Nov. 29 that the decorated tree outside the U.S. Capitol has been officially designated a “Christmas tree” again, after several years with the title “holiday tree.” Last year, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger lit what he termed a “Christmas tree” at a state ceremony. Only the year before, he and former Governor Gray Davis had presided over the lighting of a “holiday tree.”

Various Catholic and Christian groups have asked for an end to these slights to Christmas. Even a coalition called Jews Against Anti-Christian Defamation formed a few months ago under the auspices of Don Feder, a Boston Herald columnist. The group was established to combat anti-Christian bias in government, news media, Hollywood, public education and from activist groups.

On Dec. 1, the group announced at a press conference at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., that “Jews Say it's OK to Celebrate Christmas.”

Feder wrote in a recent column, “The secularist assault on Christmas… is one front in the war on America's Judeo-Christian heritage.”

Another member of his group, Rabbi Daniel Lapin, president of Toward Tradition, has said, “Christianizing the culture is not a problem for Jews. Secularizing it is.”

“There is a vocal minority who is offended by the use of the word ‘Christmas’ and Nativity scenes,” said Kiera McCaffrey, director of communications for the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights. “The problem is that this vocal minority speaks out, and other Christians are eager not to offend.”

This movement of sanitizing Christmas into a generic and meaningless holiday also makes presumptions about Jewish people, she said. “It assumes that Jewish people are not secure in their religion, and that they have no tolerance for other religions. But that's not the case,” said McCaffrey.

“It also assumes that some people will feel excluded,” she said. “But people get excluded all the time. I'm not a veteran. If I feel excluded on Veterans’ Day, should we abolish Veterans’ Day? What if a white child feels excluded during Black History Month? Do we abolish Black History Month?”

Another group which has taken a stand is the Knights of Columbus.

Every year, the Knights do public service announcements for TV and radio with the message: keep Christ in Christmas. These PSAs have been viewed by 21.2 million people on TV, and heard by 27 million people on radio.

Displays in Public

Meanwhile, the Samona family, in Novi, Mich., had to fight for the right to keep Christ on their front lawn.

Three years ago they moved to a new house in a newly built community of homes. The day before Thanksgiving this year, they received a letter from their home's management company which told them to remove their Nativity scene because it violated a code about outdoor displays. If they refused they would have to pay a fine of $100 per week.

“They called us on a Monday. I drove out on a Tuesday,” said Edward White, a trial attorney for Thomas More Law Center — a national public interest law firm dedicated to promoting the religious freedom of Christians and the sanctity of human life. “By the time I arrived the news media was already on their front lawn covering the story.”

White heard a local radio station talking about the incident on his drive to the house. The story had already made the front page of the Detroit News. White later discovered that the couple's 16-year old son had called the media.

“We went to the management office and after explaining the situation to a woman behind the desk, she called the group's lawyer. After a few minutes she came back to us and said, ‘We are so sorry, but the rule doesn't apply to religious displays.’”

White stresses the fact that all Americans have the right as individuals to decorate for Christmas any way they want to. Within the public sphere, the issue becomes a bit more complicated.

“The Supreme Court has never given clear guidance on this,” he said.

If a government structure, like a city hall, has a nativity scene, it must include elements of other faiths or secular images — like Santa Clause — for it to be legal. If it had only a Nativity scene, it might seem as if that government was favoring one religion.

What many people do not realize is that every town has a designated public forum.

“Any citizen can fill out an application and put up any decoration they want,” said White regarding these public fora. For example, the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights puts up a Nativity scene in New York City's Central Park every year — with the city's permission.

The Samona family did receive a prompt response from the management company after their complaint — and the widespread media attention. The company sent a written apology and a gift basket to the Samona's to make amends, with a statement that the gift was a “token of our remorse, in the spirit of this holiday season.”

The Samonas asked that the gift basket be forwarded to the St. Vincent DePaul Society in Pontiac, Mich.

Sabrina Arena Ferrisi is based in Jersey City, New Jersey.