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Ahlin: An American Christmas of confusion, controversy

By Jane Ahlin / Forum News Service

The Christmas story according to a 3-year-old particularly dear to my heart goes like this: First, Jesus was born; then God died after he was eaten by sharks. God is in heaven now, and he loves all of us, especially Santa because he brings us presents.

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The only response that comes to mind is “Amen.”

Not that Christmas confusion is limited to my favorite 3-year-old. Take the latest brouhaha over a “Festivus” pole made of beer cans that’s displayed in the Florida state Capitol rotunda along with a nativity scene. The pole is the work of a man who views the placement of nativity icons on state property as a violation of the separation of church and state. The ridiculous pole is his protest. (The Wisconsin state rotunda also has a Festivus pole alongside nativity displays.) If you remember, “Festivus for the Rest of Us” was the imaginary holiday invented by Frank Costanza, father of George Costanza, in a 1997 episode of the popular “Seinfeld” sitcom. Celebrating Festivus included putting up a 6-foot aluminum pole, “airing grievances” from the preceding year during the Festivus dinner, and engaging in “feats of strength,” which really were wrestling contests to see whether somebody at dinner could pin the host.

According to the plotline, Frank Costanza invented “Festivus” because he was fed up with the commercialization of Christmas — a stinging parody if ever there was one. Long before the “Seinfeld” episode, Christians lamented the crass, secular Christmas that ignored the nativity in favor of buying gifts, decorating lavishly and partying for a month. The phrase “taking the Christ out of Christmas” became popular, and although during the “Seinfeld” years concern for the religious importance of Christmas wasn’t overtly political, society was moving toward that divide.

As the new millennium dawned, the phrase “War on Christmas” was coined — attributed to Bill O’Reilly — and suddenly it was a partisan war. The amorphous “they” (secularist Democrats) were out to ruin “our” (Christian Republicans’) Christmas. Thus, a governor lighting a “holiday tree” instead of a “Christmas tree” was part of a War on Christmas. Stores, whose employees said “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas,” were blasphemous.

This year’s odd contribution was a Fox news personality’s insistence that Santa and Jesus were “verifiably white.” (Do you suppose she’d be interested in my favorite 3-year-old’s theology including sharks?) The point is, there’s political profit in insisting Christians and Christmas in America are always under siege.

Never mind that the tradition of Christmas trees was co-opted by Christians from pagan festivals or that shopping used to be a prime culprit in ignoring “the reason for the season.” Never mind that Christmas did not become a federal holiday until 1870 — almost 100 years after the Declaration of Independence and Revolutionary War — or that the religious freedom Pilgrims sought included their Christian belief that Christmas ought not be observed.

Frankly, given our national history, nothing is more puzzling than the imaginary War on Christmas and the accompanying movement to fight it by placing symbols of Christianity on government land and in government buildings. It’s particularly confusing because decisions in two 1999 court cases — one challenging government’s right to make a religious holiday a federal holiday and the other concerning religious displays in public places — both favored Christmas.

Then again, the rub was the courts’ determinations that for the nation, Christmas is primarily a secular celebration.

We are in an era of politicizing religion and making public policy out of a narrow notion of religious belief. Unfortunately, the result has diminished both religion and public policy. The only thing enhanced is cynicism.

As for my favorite 3-year-old, suffice it to say I changed the order for his Christmas present. He’s still getting a sleeping bag — just not the one with the shark motif.

Ahlin writes a Sunday column Forum News Service. Email her at