Right after Thanksgiving -- sometimes even Halloween -- holiday displays seem to spring up all over the place. On tree-lined streets, in shopping malls and at our children's schools, we see Kriss Kringle and Christmas trees, menorahs, kinaras and yule logs.
Invariably, though, and especially in recent years, this copious spreading of good cheer raises questions of political correctness and cultural sensitivities. When and where is it appropriate to express good tidings and cheer? Under what circumstances is it best to eliminate all signs and symbols of religious holidays?
Here in the Northern Hemisphere, December is known for its short days and the winter solstice, which marks the shortest day and the longest night of the year. Long ago, celebrations focused on the lengthening of the sunlit day and the hope for another abundant and bright new solar year. Modern-day pagans still celebrate the winter solstice and give thanks for the rebirth of the sun. Other popular December observances are "Festivals of Light," which include burning candles, flickering lights, shiny tinsel and fireplaces with Yule logs that provide both light and warmth.
Even though it is often debated, Christianity adopted December 25 as the birthday of Jesus, the Incarnation of God the Son. Christians the world over celebrate Christmas Eve and Day with church services and the exchange of greetings, decorations, special meals and gifts.
Hanukkah, a relatively minor Jewish observance, celebrates the miracle of the oil when only a tiny bit burned for eight days after the destruction of the Temple. Jews kindle Hanukkah lights on menorahs and share latkes (fried potato pancakes). Modern American Jews usually exchange gifts, as well.
Kwanzaa is a celebration of family, community and culture. It honors universal African-American heritage and culture and is more of an ideology than a religious observance.
Canter Erik Contzious of Temple Israel of New Rochelle, N.Y., explained that he sees a big difference between retail displays and those of government buildings and secular schools. "The holiday displays in shopping malls are used to encourage and increase sales. There is a strong economic incentive." He also supports the theory of separation of church and state and doesn't feel that government buildings are the proper place for a holiday display.
"You also have to be respectful of all people. There are religious observances during the year that do not get attention. It also is insensitive to agnostics and atheists." He added, "I don't want the state to decide importance or preference of faith."
Contzious also noted that while Christmas is a significant holiday for Christians, Hanukkah is one of the minor observances for Jews. "It is historically significant but not spiritually important." Like some other religious leaders, he feels that the combined December celebrations are a misguided attempt to make the commercialism more appealing to a broader audience.
Since its creation, the United States has become home to a wide diversity of religious beliefs, and the freedom to exercise them is protected. Here, a distinction is made when it comes to some of the common displays and their contents. Christmas trees, menorahs, twinkling lights, candles, kinaras, dreidels and many tree ornaments are not religiously meaningful but do hold cultural significance. In contrast, nativity scenes depicting the infant Jesus, cruciform objects and crosses are strictly religious items and may not be sensitive to the diversity of a community.
The Supreme Court ruled that public schools may not sponsor religious practices but may teach about religion. While the Court has made no definitive ruling on religious holidays in the schools, it has let stand a 1980 decision by the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals (Florey v. Sioux Falls School District) that allows for the recognition of holidays if the purpose is to provide "secular instruction" about religious traditions rather than to promote the particular religion involved. Based on this, a holiday display may be permissible so long as it does not promote religion.
Freedom of expression also makes it permissible to display the holiday decorations of your choice around your home and in religious institutions. That is good news for those of us who enjoy driving through neighborhoods to enjoy the colorful holiday displays that grace many lawns.