SACRAMENTO, Calif. — On cue, California jumped into the yearly fray over why Christmas symbols and carols get banned from schools and other public places, when that well-known religious radical, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, ignited a controversy by pointedly calling the state’s official “holiday” tree its “Christmas” tree instead.
Schwarzenegger is a (shudder) Catholic. A spokesman for the governor’s office tells me, “Well, it is a Christmas tree, that’s what people call it in their living rooms. But somebody did ask us whether the governor misspoke.”
I should hope so. His radical act of renaming the majestic decorated tree a “Christmas Tree” flew in the face of the decision by former Gov. Gray Davis, who under pressure from special interest groups dubbed it a “Holiday Tree.” And Arnold’s behavior was preceded by the shocking actions of our California First Lady, that right-wing religious nut Maria Shriver.
Shriver is yet another (shudder) Catholic. On Dec. 2, Shriver went to Washington Elementary School in Sacramento and engaged in the following unnerving conversation with the children, according to a pool reporter who accompanied Shriver and provided the sole account of the event:
Shriver “took out a set of her children’s books that she was planning to give to the school and showed them to the class. ‘This is a book called ‘What’s Heaven,’ she said, pointing to a picture of herself on the back cover. ‘That’s me. I look younger.’ ”
Whoa! Hold on a minute. An eyewitness reporter is telling us that Shriver went into a public school and promoted a book on heaven? Where were the authorities when this outrage unfolded?
Then, according to the pool reporter, “After answering several more eager questions, Shriver opened the ‘Polar Express’ and began reading, commenting, at points, ‘You gotta admit, that sounds good.’ and ‘Cool.’ Afterward, she said, “Now, all of you can go write your own books about the North Pole and what it looks like.’ A discussion followed about whether or not Santa Claus is real. ‘That’s a good conversation for you to have with your parents or your grandparents,’ Shriver said.”
Excuse me, a discussion of the theoretical underpinnings of Santa ensued? In a public school? How typical of do-nothing Public School Superintendent Jack O’Connell to be absent just when we need a cultural crackdown on the California First Lady.
Obviously, the Schwarzenegger-Shriver clan is blissfully unaware of the raging effort in California each December to rid more and more schools and other public spots of people exactly like them.
During the past few years, various California schools have banned the singing of Christmas carols such as “Silent Night” (in Sacramento’s San Juan district), ordered the choir not to sing Christmas songs including “Jingle Bells” because of offensive religious connotations (at a Fresno school), and removed Christmas lights from schools because they were a “provocation” (Newport Beach).
In Newport Beach, a local observer explained in all seriousness at the time: “At the heart of the issue is the question: Do red and green lights communicate the religious message of Christmas?” One pundit promptly questioned whether Newport Beach officials should also rid their pricey beachfront city of all colored traffic signals.
People, people. There is no public ban on Christmas. None of the restrictions and blackouts instituted by these misinformed California schools and officials are required by any law, anywhere.
Don’t misunderstand. I am a secular humanist. I do not attend, nor belong to, a church. I have no religion. But I don’t hate and fear any religion, and I’ve somehow gotten past the Crusades. I wince each December as my secular humanist brethren scheme to shame public school teachers and public officials into stamping out Christmas – aside from the shopping part of it, that is.
Let’s be clear here: there is no state law or state education code against allowing Christmas symbols or singing Christmas carols in schools or public places in California. Kids and teachers can freely say “Christmas tree.” Further, courts agree that the U.S. Constitution’s Establishment Clause can’t be read as promoting hostility to a religion, such as Christianity, in schools or public places.
In fact, religious expression is allowed in schools and other public spots, as long as there’s a legitimate secular purpose for it. Such as, oh I don’t know, perhaps the purpose of understanding a widespread tradition observed even by most of America’s unbelieving?
Lance Izumi, an education expert with the conservative-oriented Pacific Research Institute, says California school bureaucrats and California’s teacher colleges have so convinced schoolteachers that there is some kind of mystery Christmas ban that “everybody is walking on eggshells when discussions of Santa or heaven come up. And how dare Arnold call it the Christmas tree? How dare he? Yet we have this huge multicultural effort to teach multicultural methods and multicultural instructions to our teachers, where you are supposed to value everyone’s culture. Christians are a major part of society, and they have a culture. But it conflicts with the PC ethic.”
California’s intolerance toward Christmas is just another reason why Californians and residents of other blue states are viewed by the heartland crowd as hostile, Godless types who can’t stand regular folks. But the ban on Christmas is hardly isolated to the West Coast.
In the past month, the following events have unfolded on the East Coast: Parents in Scarborough, Maine schools began saying “C-word” rather than uttering “Christmas” because school officials have made the holiday seem so inappropriate; the principal of Epping Elementary School in New Hampshire proudly noted that he doesn’t call the school’s traditional gift drive a “Christmas” drive; the Charlotte-Mecklenberg schools in North Carolina banned “Silent Night” and “Joy to the World,” but were still dithering uncertainly over what to do with the troublesome “Jingle Bells.”
A few weeks ago, schools in Maplewood, New Jersey banned the singing of all religious songs. This sweeping act inspired WABC Radio’s popular morning drive-time show in New York City, (featuring conservative Guardian Angels founder Curtis Sliwa and left-wing lawyer Ron Kuby, who rarely agree on any subject) to poll New York and New Jersey residents. As of Dec. 3, of 3,750 respondents to a question asking whether they backed the ban on religious songs, 93% agreed with the statement: “No, it is another example of the PC crowd going nuts.”
The Anti-Defamation League, a liberal and mostly Jewish group, has gotten into the guilt-tripping act that so afflicts public schools and spaces. The ADL currently urges on its website that “to avoid First Amendment violations” during the 2004 Christmas season, public schools should not hold Christmas concerts dominated by Christmas songs.
Oh, please. There is no First Amendment ruling saying schools need to prohibit Christmas concerts that include more Christmas songs than other types of songs.
The ADL is also urging schools not to display “a Nativity scene, crucifix or other undeniably religious symbols.”
Again, religious displays in public schools are not banned by the courts. They can be displayed so long as they are set up at school within a mix of secular stuff like reindeer and so on, thus ensuring that religious symbols are not being solely featured.
The Catholic League created a counter-website page responding to the ADL’s, stating that, “The use of religious Christmas symbols within the context of a discussion of the season, or acknowledging the religious Christmas celebration along with the secular aspects of the season and the traditions of other faiths within December is not only permissible but appropriate.”
In California, the pressure has also mounted on adults to feel uncomfortable about symbols of Christmas, such as angels or stars of Bethlehem. You won’t see those designs included any longer on those holiday window paintings at your grocery store. It’s Frosty the Snowman-themed now. People in Los Angeles and San Francisco almost invariably say “Happy Holidays” instead of the rapidly vanishing “Merry Christmas.”
I’ve been feeling contrarian about the unstated peer pressure I feel to switch to the bland “Happy Holidays.” In protest, I’ve decided to boldly state “Merry Christmas” at Christmas parties this year. I imagine I’ll be assumed to be a Bible-Belter by many of the suave urbanites in attendance.
But I feel the need to act, however pathetically. Some of my sweetest childhood memories include attending Christmas bazaars at a local church with my parents. I was allowed to use my allowance to buy wondrous handmade cotton angels and tiny wooden mangers to hang on our tree. As I learned from my irreligious father, having religion was not a requirement for cherishing the trappings, warmth and decency of the biggest national tradition in the United States.
California, or much of it, already lacks the key ingredient for a classic Christmas: snow. How awful it would be if California’s busy thought police stamped out the songs, the merry greeting, the red-and-green, and the enduring question among children, so deftly handled by Maria Shriver the other day, of whether Santa Claus is real.