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Take Back the Holy Night
September 9, 2003
by Jennifer Roback Morse

No, I am not going to ask for donations for the needy in midsummer. Nor am I going to encourage you to start your shopping early. I am going to suggest that we begin preparing for the annual Christmas Crèche Crisis.

You know the drill. Somebody objects to some display or other. They're offended, don't you know? A law suit happens. Anything remotely religious must be removed from any property remotely associated with any government entity.

This process has evolved to the point that even large parts of the private sphere are Christian-symbol-free-zones. We have Holiday shopping and Winter Solstice parties. (Ah, the glories of paganism.) We can hardly find religious "holiday cards" to send. We might hear "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" piped into the mall while we spend enough money to keep the retail establishments afloat for the year. But "O, Little Town of Bethlehem" might offend someone.

This stripping of the private sector gives us a clue that the assault on Christian symbols at Christmas-time isn't primarily about protecting the sensibilities of non-Christians. Many non-Christians enjoy the holiday, and have no problem receiving good wishes from their Christian neighbors. Most adults understand that people are entitled to celebrate for a whole variety of reasons from which they might be excluded. Anybody can walk past a birthday party in a park and take some small pleasure in the celebration, even if they weren't invited themselves. Sensible people are not offended by walking past a wedding reception at a hotel, even if they aren't married or likely to get married.

No, the annual Christmas Crisis is about removing Christianity from public consciousness. The new Christmas Political Correctness shares some features with Political Correctness more generally. PC ruthlessly controls the language that is considered acceptable in polite company. By bullying people into censoring their language, the PC police can make certain lines of thought more difficult. Thought control is and always has been, the goal of Political Correctness.

I suggest that we take back Christmas, using the great American tools of individual initiative and private property. No one can stop us from putting up displays on our own property. They can complain and call us names, but our property is still ours, and we can decorate it any way we like, for any reason we like.

So here is what we do. We sponsor Christmas decorating contests. Of course, lots of neighborhood associations already have lighting contests. The twist is for Catholics to sponsor their own contests. We would give prizes for something other than kilowatts per square inch. We could have categories for religious themes, for artistic merit or for catechetical effectiveness.

The advantage of a contest is that a small number of people can accomplish a lot with a modest amount of money. You'd need a committee of people to publicize the event, and another committee for judging. You could get by with a thousand dollars in prize money. Give a $500 first prize, $300 for second prize, and a hundred bucks for a couple of runners up.

If that sounds like a lot of money, think of how much it would cost to fight the ACLU in a lawsuit. Think about how much the Knights of Columbus would have to spend, just to produce one very spiffy display on their own property. For that small investment, you'd get a lot of people participating. Think of it: a whole neighborhood lit up with Nativity displays. People competing for the most elegant display of the Magi or the Flight into Egypt. Who knows? Maybe the word "Madonna" could come to mean something other than a slutty singer. The ACLU couldn't do a thing about it, because it would all be on private property.

Business establishments should be a separate category. Legatus, an organization of Catholic CEO's, has chapters in many large cities. Many communities have organizations of Catholic business owners and professionals. Groups such as these could sponsor decorating contests for commercial establishments.

The business owners who have removed religious themes from their decor and advertising no doubt have a variety of motives. Some probably have principled reasons: they don't believe in God, and they certainly don't believe Jesus was his son. They don't want to betray their own beliefs. Perhaps some set of business owners have made a calculation that religious themes are offensive to a significant set of their customer base.

But very likely, a substantial set of business owners are just following the crowd of political correctness. They might claim that they don't want to offend anybody, but in fact, they have not given the matter all that much thought. Catholics and other Christian consumers should try to encourage these establishments by actively supporting and endorsing those businesses that are unintimidated, and boldly use religious themes.

Catholic business owners have unique opportunity to make a statement about the meaning and origins of the holiday. Don't be ashamed to create an attractive crèche in the store window. (If it is tasteful and not garish, it might be the only thing in the mall that is.) If you have a product that people want to buy, very few people will turn their back on you over your decorations. Honestly, the average customer is not likely to walk out of the store in a huff if you play "O Holy Night" instead of "Jingle Bells" on the sound system.

Women's groups publicized the dangers of sexual assault with their campaigns to "Take Back the Night." It is time for Catholics to take the lead in reclaiming Christmas as a holiday that people can celebrate and enjoy without looking over their shoulders for the Sensitivity Police. It is time to Take Back the Holy Night.

This column first appeared in the August 31 edition of the National Catholic Register, as "Christmas in August."

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