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Nativity Scenes Or Naïve Activity Scene?:

It’s June, always a great time to get riled-up early about whether or not those nativity scenes with the mannequins should return to Palisades Park this Christmas. Before I launch into any discussion about that, you are probably owed a few disclaimers.

Full disclosure: I grew up Methodist in Wisconsin. Because of my age, I was a kid at a time when there was never any issue that the birth of Jesus might be represented in people’s front yards by means of molded plastic figurines with light bulbs in them. We never had any of those in our own front yard, which instead featured flood lights and a plywood cut-out of the ubiquitous Coca Cola Santa, sans Coke bottle.

Second disclosure: My favorite statement on the meaning of Christmas continues to be the animated “A Charlie Brown Christmas” TV special. It’s charming, beatnik hip, appealing, and funny. And it still manages to capture a true spirit of the holiday season if not the only spirit of the holidays for all. It may not surprise you to learn that initially execs at CBS Television were not big on the show. Then it aired as a special on Dec. 9, 1965 and drew in 15.4 million viewers, placing it second in the ratings that week after the western series “Bonanza.” We’ll return to the Peanuts gang in a moment.

It might be time to deal with some hard truths about the Palisades nativity scene dust-up. The decorations themselves, first displayed in 1953 and by mere dint of that somehow “traditional” for Santa Monica, now have a somewhat dingy and even bizarre appearance. To protect the mannequin scenes, each is covered with storm fencing that causes the entire display to look like the figures are being held for questioning. Any uplifting impact the display might have is, by my lights, mitigated by its real appearance.

America in 1953 was more like the Wisconsin neighborhood of my youth. Times have changed. We now recognize and accept that the time of the year we call “the holiday season” involves celebrations of all kinds, not just the story of the nativity. Yet I feel that any attempts to mitigate the Palisades display with balancing displays reflecting other views, whether fairly realized by a lottery or not, are doomed to only reduce the potential for the entire tableau to echo any sort of joy.

In dealing honestly with the Palisades display issue, it should be recognized by all sides that a city park public land venue holiday display that leans heavily on any one religion or religious view has an inherent advocacy or even proselytizing intent: It’s just naïve to think otherwise. But it’s in this simultaneously clear yet often murky area that Santa Monica struggles with the Palisades nativity issue. The Christian holiday of Christmas becomes “Christmas time,” and that “time” becomes a default zone in which representations of the nativity seem natural and even correct. And then because that’s been the case for decades, attacks on nativity representations become attacks on “tradition.”

A few years back the folks that manage the Third Street Promenade invested in holiday decorations that featured a theme of ice and snow, beautifully evading any religious issues. While Christmas reds and greens appear here and there in the Promenade’s display there’s also a lot of blue ice and silver white snow, blue and silver/white being traditional Hanukkah colors. The Promenade loves the holiday season for obvious reasons, and most definitely does not intend to put-off any potential shoppers. I now find their wily navigation of potential conflicts to be contemporary and pleasing. I like the downtown temporary ice skating rink, open to skaters of all faiths, even better.

But a person who likes traditional holiday representation might quibble. And I don’t think we need more plastic ice floes installed in Palisades Park. So what are we to do about the Palisades nativity scenes? There’s a quandary in the City asserting that the nativity scenes be banned, because it will feel like a loss of freedom of speech no matter how you parse it. Yet I strongly disagree with those who assert that the loss of the nativity scenes would cause Santa Monica to lose a sense of community.

Allow me to call on Linus from the Peanuts gang to help me make a modest proposal. In the aforementioned TV special, Linus uses his endearing scratchy voice to remind Charlie Brown “what Christmas is all about.” True, he then quotes from the Gospel of Luke. But Linus ends on this: “… and on earth, peace, good will toward men.”

Linus of course meant women as well as the LGBT community; back in 1965, Linus was pressed for time. But how about peace as a theme for any display in Palisades Park? Could students be persuaded to contribute new displays that spoke to the global yearning for peace? Could Santa Monica artists be involved in the creation of new works for the season inspired by the simple notion that all unite in a wish for peace on earth? I don’t know for certain that these new displays would all be cheerful or even bright. But they would, unlike our now perennial debates over the nativity scenes, be filled with a beautiful hope.

in Opinion
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