Opinion

Happy holidays, culture warriors

Years ago, when the editor was just a young scamp, the advent of the Christmas season always brought an elaborate holiday display to the household fireplace mantle, assembled with great care by the resident mom.

Central to the display (amongst the angels and the nativity scene and the obligatory tiny, snow-covered village) were four painted ceramic figures that together spelled “NOEL.” And as soon as these were arrayed, the scamp would surreptitiously rearrange the letters, then march around the house singing “The First Leon” until the resident mom caught wind and put the display back in proper order.

Now, the editor grew up in a religious household, but thankfully not a puritanical one. Such blithe defilement of the holy word “Noel” – which derives from Latin by way of Old French and Middle English and signifies “day of birth” – would these days surely bring stern reproof as evidence of incipient moral relativism. Indeed, the national news columns have this week been awash with conservative pique that townships and retailers are avoiding specific reference to “Christmas” in their displays and advertising, and that the Christian holy day is thus being swept under by a tide of secularism.

Even the White House, usually a faithful champion of red-state pieties, has been found morally wanting. The Washington Post reports that the Bush family’s seasonal card – which bade friends a generic “Happy Holiday” – was met with condemnation. “This clearly demonstrates that the Bush administration has suffered a loss of will and that they have capitulated to the worst elements in our culture,” one theological think-tank groused, while another lamented that Bush “claims to be a born-again, evangelical Christian, but he sure doesn’t act like one. I threw out my White House card as soon as I got it.”

With the “culture war” thus raging unabated, we shuddered to think what eternal fate might befall those hapless pluralists who would express holiday goodwill for folks of all faiths, or no faith at all. Unnerved, we strolled along Winslow Way to determine whether Bainbridge Island – a liberal-leaning community said to have disproportionately low church attendance – might still embrace Christmas as Christmas, or is in fact stamping out the religious significance of the season.

In the public squares, signs were uncertain; the decorated tree between the two downtown banks was topped with a sectarian star, while the tree outside City Hall was not. Storefronts, too, carried mixed messages; one announced “XMAS SPECIALS,” while another proclaimed only “Open Until 9 p.m. Tonight.” Both could be construed as blatant capitulation to commercialism, but it occurred to us that even self-appointed defenders of national morality might be praying for brisk sales to pull up the economy and thus the president’s poll numbers.

Outside Town & Country, meanwhile, the community billboard announced an upcoming production of “A Christmas Carol.” A hopeful sign – “God bless us every one,” and all that – until we remembered that Charles Dickens, a Christian of particularly liberal bent, ridiculed the dogmatic Anglican Church, not least for its abandonment of the poor. In the current political climate, his writings would certainly be found suspect.

Inside the supermarket itself, a large banner declared “Happy Holidays,” precisely the message that has so infuriated conservatives – except that the banner also noted that T&C patrons had recently contributed $15,224 to the local food bank, which we would like to think would please both Dickens and Jesus.

Finally, at the salad-and-olive bar, we found clear and unmitigated redemption. There, in bold relief over the Chinese chicken salad and the kalamatas and those wretched green things stuffed with pimentos, a jaunty sign proclaimed without apology: “MERRY CHRISTMAS.”

Now if there’s one place that all of Bainbridge Island seems to come together, it’s the T&C salad-and-olive bar. The “true”

significance of the season, we concluded, is in no danger here.

Of course, to really worry about such matters, you would have to embrace the concepts of “culture war” and “peace on earth” at the same time, without irony.

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