Long time Santa Monica residents have their holiday favorites old and new. For many, there’s making a visit to the ice rink that sets-up downtown for the holidays at the corner of 5th and Arizona. There are decorations displayed and music to announce them at the Promenade each year. Neighbors and tourists alike enjoy the holiday lights down on Main Street. But for me, nothing quite brings on that holiday glow like an update on the gypsy travels of the Santa Monica Nativity Scenes.
Ironic, perhaps, that a collection of mannequins depicting the journey of Mary and Joseph has itself become nomadic.
From the website The Lookout dated Dec. 12: “Hoping to carry on a 60-year tradition, Santa Monica’s Mt. Olive Lutheran Church has agreed to host a dozen life-sized figures representing the Christmas story on its property starting Sunday. The Church’s front lawn will be the second new home for the displays since the City prohibited groups from displaying them in Palisades Park – their home for more than five decades – in June 2012 after several atheist groups protested the practice.”
That particular account may be true as far as it goes. But my take is that the groups involving the atheists merely precipitated action on a struggle our city had been having for years, which was full knowledge that the “tradition” of the nativity scenes in a public city park defied separation of church and state. Yet the scenes themselves had been a regular holiday event for so long (60 years!) that shutting them out was akin to putting down the family dog. Moving the scenes to any other location than Palisades Park leaves some feeling as though the Statue of Liberty has been relocated to New Jersey. Hold it… turns out it is in New Jersey. Actually, New York and New Jersey share jurisdiction over the Statue of Liberty.
Which is something like the current status of the nativity scenes. Mt. Olive officials are hoping to become the permanent home of the scenes but after all the ruckus they’ve engendered the past few years, they seem to have taken on the permanent title “The Santa Monica Nativity Scenes.” Now it’s like they belong to all of us. So, as a citizen of Santa Monica, maybe I can assume a stake in discussing the movable holiday display. And the first item of business would be that term, “holiday.”
What’s really being wrangled over each year when we find ourselves in these “Keep the Christ in Christmas” arguments is how pliable our democratic and freedom-loving society will be in tolerating outright, plain as day religious celebrations.
Over many decades, culture has embraced Santa as a universal symbol at this time of year (albeit based on a saint), while Jesus’ place at the Christmas table seems fuzzy if you filter it through something like the number of “holiday” TV specials that actually mention Jesus or Christ by name. Yes, TV specials are created as a dimension of capitalism to provide shelving for commercials for “gift ideas.” But it’s still hours and hours of (admittedly Jesus-free) “holiday” television, and almost none devoted to Hanukkah. Or at other times of the year, Islam. Thus we end up back at some kind of special privilege for Christianity if we encourage the nativity scenes being returned to the Palisades public city park that belongs to all citizens. And because of that, they shouldn’t be there.
I’m delighted Mt. Olive Lutheran Church may become a new tradition as a location for the scenes. And just as I enjoy almost any kind of holiday yard decoration people might want to put up, often blending iconic Frosty the Snowman with a manger scene to create a kind of electricity-sucking every-world of Christmas, so do I recognize that the frankly clunky-looking Santa Monica Nativity Scenes are ultimately like my neighbor’s pantheon of lights: A means of celebration.
Let us hope that there was a miracle thousands of years ago, and that it might be one that in any way could teach us to live better with each other. Because that, fellow earthlings, would be something to celebrate; something that might bring us enough strength to end such awful and needless human-on-human activity as homicide sprees in elementary schools. But at the heart of our nation’s freedom of religion is respect. And you can’t have government, local or national, respect any one faith more than another without signaling that somehow that one lucky faith is the official national faith. It’s not, and our continuing effort to draw and then enforce those lines is also something worth celebrating.