Tis the Season for Holiday Display Battles

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  November 24, 2010 — 9 Comments

It looks like holiday display battle season has officially begun. The Chester County, Pennsylvania board of commissioners have voted to change their holiday display policy at the historic county courthouse in West Chester. Once open to all comers, displays will now be handled solely by the county.

The new policy would revoke previously adopted policies that allowed private organizations, such as the Freethought Society, the Pennsylvania Pastor’s Network, the Chabad of Chester County, and the Greater West Chester Chamber of Commerce, to erect displays on the front and south side lawns of the county’s 1846 courthouse facing High and Market streets. The resolution adopted calls for the county to “erect and maintain its own seasonal holiday displays to celebrate the traditions of the holidays” to support the troops, celebrate peace, and promote commerce. The displays, it stated, would conform to “constitutionally permitted … applicable law.”

No one is sure what will happen yet, but the Freethought Society of Greater Philadelphia is donating its news-making “Tree of Knowledge” to the county in hopes it will continued to be used.

“The Tree of Knowledge has become a beacon of enlightenment and has drawn visitors to Chester Count y from around the country,” society President Margaret Downey said in the letter. As a gesture of goodwill, FS will donate the Tree of Knowledge and its ornaments to Chester County for use in official holiday displays. However, should the Commissioners reject these donations, we request that the explanation for denying the nontheist community representation be sent to us, in writing, at your earliest opportunity,” she wrote. “The eyes of the nation are on Chester County this holiday season as you decide whether or not the nontheist community will be allowed equal participation on the public grounds of a government building.”

Supporters are pointing out that this move is just the latest in a series of maneuvers designed to eliminate the troublesome “Tree of Knowledge” from the holiday displays.

“This would have been the fourth year in which the Tree of Knowledge shared the lawn of the Chester County Courthouse with the Christmas Tree, the Jesus Crèche, and a large Menorah. Each year has been a fight for the Freethought Society to get around the Commissioners ever changing procedures designed to block them from participating in the winter festivities. Last year, the county even created “zones” in which holiday displays could be placed, but after a few days all the displays were moved to a more prominent location not in the zoned area except the Tree of Knowledge…”

While the commissioners say this wasn’t a religiously-oriented decision, claiming it was about supporting the troops, even the local press seems somewhat skeptical of that assertion. Meaning we’ll most likely be seeing a  lawsuit, or at least the threat of one, very soon. While there isn’t a Pagan angle to this particular story, the deliberate closing of a public space to a single minority religion or philosophy can create a chilling effect for us all. If atheists aren’t welcome in the public square, I can’t imagine modern Pagans are either. Over the last couple of years Pagan involvement in Winter public holiday displays haven’t always gone over very well, and now it seems like the “War on Christmas” is being won by the self-proclaimed “Christmas” partisans.

“This season, merry Christmas — not happy holidays or season’s greetings — will dominate retailer’s marketing messages. There will be Christmas sales and Christmas trees and Christmas carols galore. That has the American Family Association, arguably one of the loudest voices advocating the use of Christmas in retailer’s marketing messages over the past few years, predicting that its crusade could conclude in the next year or two.”

The public square should reflect the diversity of the public, especially when it comes to religion, lest it be seen as establishing or endorsing a religious preference for the government. A nativity scene, a menorah, and Santa Claus isn’t diversity, it’s a subtle endorsement of Judeo-Christian cultural norms. Further, this time is special for many different religions, and to browbeat government officials and retail companies into “putting the Christ back in Christmas” isn’t “defending” Christmas, or protecting tradition, its silencing inconvenient voices.

Jason Pitzl-Waters