Santa Monica, CA – For the past 59 years, the city of Santa Monica has been known, among other things, as the City of the Christmas Story. For decades, churches in the community have set up various nativity scenes in the public Palisades Park. The scenes are visited by hundreds of locals and tourists each year as part of the town’s holiday tradition.
Not this year.
Due to protests from the town’s atheist community, the Christmas scenes have been banned as Santa Monica officials washed their hands of the dispute between the church and the secular community. The ban has prompted churches to sue over freedom of speech violations, stating that they have a legal right to set up their 14-scene diorama in the park. The churches’ attorney will ask a federal judge today to re-instate the depiction of Jesus’ birth. The city aims to reject the case.
“It’s a sad, sad commentary on the attitudes of the day that a nearly 60-year-old Christmas tradition is now having to hunt for a home,” said Hunter Jameson, head of the nonprofit Santa Monica Nativity Scene Committee that is suing.
The atheists who started the protest will not be present in court. He and fellow atheists are involved outside the court, an act that “highlights a tactical shift as atheists evolve into a vocal minority eager to get their non-beliefs into the public square as never before.”
Atheists are hoping that their actions will encourage other small towns across the country to shun religious practices centered on Christmas.
“In recent years, the tactic of many in the atheist community has been, if you can’t beat them, join them,” said Charles Haynes, a senior scholar at the First Amendment Center and director of the Newseum’s Religious Freedom Education Project in Washington. “If these church groups insist that these public spaces are going to be dominated by a Christian message, we’ll just get in the game — and that changes everything.”
Last year, atheists set up booths in the Santa Monica park right alongside the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus. One such display held a sign that showed pictures of Poseidon, Jesus, Santa Claus, and the devil. The sign read: “37 million Americans know myths when they see them. What myths do you see?”
A court hearing today in the US District Court in LA could decide the fate of the Christmas tradition for the upcoming season.
Nativity scenes in local parks are just one of the forms of Christmas celebration that take place all over the nation each holiday season.
Christmas in the US has become a mash-up of various cultural and religious traditions over the years. Homes are decorated with lights, a tradition that originated with Thomas Edison’s electricity stunt of the year (one year he electrocuted an elephant). Edison’s whole purpose was publicity, advertising his newly developed strung bulb light by draping them all over his workshop in the 1880s. Evergreen trees are cut down and dragged into homes, a custom that began with a pagan celebration of the winter solstice. The goal of the evergreen tree, decorated and put up in homes (originally hung upside down from the ceiling), was purposed to remind the sun gods of the fruit of their labor, invoking the sun to give up its winter nap and warm the earth once more. Every mall in the nation hosts a Santa display, with children lining up with their parents to sit on the jolly man’s lap and ask for a game console or Bratz doll.
While it is understandable to be frustrated at the promoting of ideas which you believe to be false, there seems to be no one picketing at malls, shunning the jolly old man in the red suit. No one is insisting that those who have trees in their homes truly believe that their ornament-laden tree will lure the sun god from his winter nap. It seems that, should every religious (or non-religious) holiday practice be banned because someone, somewhere, disagrees, we won’t have anything left to celebrate.
Readers: What do you think? Should the city of Santa Monica ban the Christmas diorama tradition?