Haunted Christmas in the public square


It’s “War on Christmas” time again in the public square and, thus, in our newspapers from sea to shining sea. Rejoice, all ye lawyers.

Before we move on to a tragic, but well done (one hole, in the shape of a ghost), Washington Post story on the waves of legal silliness going on out in Loudoun County, Va., I want to establish a few basics. Yes, they will seem self contradictory, but I can’t help it. U.S. law is rather all over the place at this moment when it comes to public displays of religion.

(1) I, personally, have never understood why some religious believers think it is so important to have a creche on the lawn of their local government’s headquarters.

(2) I’ve never understood why some religious believers think it is a victory for Christianity to say that a Nativity Scene is not religious and, thus, is merely a cultural symbol. That’s a victory for the faith?

(3) In a perfect world, again in my opinion, every church in town would put up its own creche and the courthouse lawn would not be forced by choirs of lawyers to. … Well, here’s the top of the Post story.

For the better part of 50 years, a creche and a Christmas tree were the only holiday displays on the Loudoun County Courthouse grounds.

Then came the mannequin Luke Skywalker and signs celebrating the winter solstice. This month, a skeleton Santa Claus was mounted on a cross, intended by its creator to portray society’s obsession with consumerism. A pine stands adorned with tinsel — and atheist testimonials. (“I can be moral without religion,” one declares.)

Members of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster are scheduled to put up their contribution this weekend. It’s a banner portraying a Nativity-style scene, but Jesus is nowhere to be found. Instead, the Virgin Mary cradles a stalk-eyed noodle-and-meatball creature, and the manger is surrounded by pirates, a solemn gnome and barnyard animals. The message proclaims: “Touched by an Angelhair.”

With the new displays, a new tradition was born: a charged seasonal debate.

And so forth and so on.

What the story does is effectively portray the political warfare that surrounds the embattled lawn. It also shows the deeply emotions that all of this touches for many citizens — on both sides.

What it does not do, however, is talk to any of the Christian leaders who are either (a) super-pro creche, alone (a position hard to justify under “equal access” legal principles), (b) those clergy happily willing to settle for the crazy mix that currently exist or (c) those who would like to see the flip side of “equal access” honored, with the government choosing the legal option of rejecting all displays while leaving the lawn clean, while churches blanket the town in traditional forms of Christmas celebration — on their own lawns and on those of their members.

At one point readers are told:

Despite a flurry of tongue-in-cheek news reports about the controversy, most in Loudoun don’t find it a laughing matter. Some say the issue is about freedom of speech or the separation of church and state; others say it is about the importance of preserving a cherished small-town tradition.

Stanley Caulkins, who moved to Leesburg in 1937, remembers the first time the Nativity scene was put up at the corner of the courthouse lawn.

Caulkins, who has owned Caulkins Jewelers in downtown Leesburg for more than a half-century, sees the creche as a valued symbol, something that should not be messed with. He went before the County Board of Supervisors two years ago to argue that it should stay. Last week, he said that he still does not understand why the issue engenders such controversy.

“The creche is not religious,” Caulkins said, his voice trembling. “It is a belief symbol. You have to believe in something.” His eyes were glazed with tears.

This is a story about free speech. It is also a story about church-state separation. However, it is also — gasp — a story about the current state of Christmas in modern churches and homes. It’s about the secular Christmas and the religious Christmas.

Yes, believe it or not, what we have here is a haunted Christmas story.

IMAGE: A sample Flying Spaghetti Monster holiday display

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Matthew

    I am not sure if this qualifies as a journalistic remark or not but I am always puzzled by people who think they can have a common culture without a common cult.

  • Mike O.

    tmatt, I very well might have missed it but I didn’t see a link to the Washington Post story:


  • Jerry

    “The creche is not religious,” Caulkins said, his voice trembling. “It is a belief symbol. You have to believe in something.” His eyes were glazed with tears.

    It’s also a story about people who don’t understand what the word “religion” means.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt


    Sorry. It’s fixed. I was rushing out the door to Vespers.

  • http://blog.timesunion.com/rudnick Alan Rudnick

    The public displays of Christianity only water down the faith. My blog post on the topic: http://blog.timesunion.com/rudnick/the-crucified-skeleton-santa/2399/

  • Nate

    “I am not sure if this qualifies as a journalistic remark or not but I am always puzzled by people who think they can have a common culture without a common cult.”

    True that. And in America, our “common cult” is civic rather than sectarian.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Spiking away.

    This is not the place to argue about creches in public squares. It’s the place to argue about the issues journalists face in covering creches in public squares.


  • Mike O.

    I don’t really have a problem with the writer of this article not going into who does and doesn’t want the nativity at the courthouse and why. This isn’t about that. It isn’t about weighing in on a church-state debate.

    This is a new wrinkle on an old story. Everyone is already familiar with various nativity-in-public-space battles. The author presents this town’s addition to the ongoing debate, namely that they won’t play favorities and displays are on a first come first serve basis. The author then details how this then spiraled out of control. That’s what the emphasis was. I can’t fault the author for not taking a big picture approach on this particular article.

  • Maureen

    The guy interviewed obviously takes “religion” to mean “Christian denomination”, whereas “belief” means non-denominational Christianity that everybody can agree on. Given the guy’s age and the population he’s known, it’s not an odd remark to make at all.

    There are 53 places of worship in Leesburg (as listed in the Yellow Pages). One of them is a Conservative Jewish synagogue, one is a Hindu temple, and all the rest are basically various stripes of Christianity.

  • Will

    Luke Skywalker??????????

    And what about Gurnenthar’s Ascendance?

  • daniel

    Surprised you didn’t highlight this line:

    “His perspective, shared by others, shows that the issue cannot be debated entirely on logical grounds; matters of faith — and even the value of tradition — are less about facts than feelings.”

  • daniel

    I see that the line I mention above has been softened on the Post’s website and now reads “His point of view, shared by others, suggests that in matters of faith and tradition, facts carry less weight than feelings.

    But the original wording is still on USA Today.


    I wonder what happened?