On Leesburg’s Christmas Controversy

This morning, I ventured out to the Post Office. I had to mail some packages for Christmas, and I wanted to get my Christmas cards in the mail. I thought about going into Randallstown, but they have a small, difficult-to-navigate parking lot. Eldersburg, I decided, would be easier to get to. I expected, since it was the Saturday before the Christmas weekend, that the Post Office would be mobbed. To my surprise, I got in and out of the Post Office in five minutes.

I stopped at Big Lots on the way home, mainly because I needed to buy a new car charger for my mobile phone. (I snapped the end off; the wire was stiff or brittle, and it snapped like a dry twig.) And, strangely, it turned out to be the most depressing experience I’ve ever had at Big Lots.

It was no fault of the employees there — the cute redhead Melissa who rang me up was nothing less than lovely. The store itself was less than busy, which struck me as odd for the last Saturday before Christmas, until I realized that, no, next Saturday is the last Saturday before Christmas (which also happens to be Christmas Eve).

No, what depressed me was a sense of loss. And it was a palpable sense of loss. You see, the last five years, I’ve gone to Big Lots on the Saturday before Christmas (or the one before that) and bought my grandmother some Christmas presents. Usually, I bought her a tea or coffee gift set, with coffee mugs (since coffee mugs strangely disappeared when my grandmother was round), but I’d also buy her some mint candy sticks. Unwrapping presents on Christmas Day gave her something to do, but she didn’t have the memory or attention span to appreciate anything she received, so I always gave her something practical — and something edible. I never bought her anything expensive, because there was never any point to doing so.

It struck me forcefully that I couldn’t do that this year. She passed away in July. And, somehow, it hadn’t occurred to me, not until this morning. I wandered around the store, strangely glum and sad.

I bought something for my niece, besides a mobile phone charger, and left the store. My mood improved on the drive home.

Then I saw this article in the Washington Post: “In Leesburg, holiday displays bring controversy and change.”

In Leesburg, Virginia, about an hour’s drive away, the community has become embroiled in a controversy over the town’s Christmas display. Traditionally, the town had a tree and a Nativity scene on the courthouse lawn, but this year the town has opened up the lawn into something more ecumenical, with ten different displays:

Then came the mannequin Luke Skywalker and signs celebrating the winter solstice. This month, a skeleton Santa Claus was mounted on a cross, intended by its creator to portray society’s obsession with consumerism. A pine stands adorned with tinsel — and atheist testimonials. Members of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster are scheduled to put up their contribution this weekend. It’s a banner portraying a Nativity-style scene, but Jesus is nowhere to be found. Instead, the Virgin Mary cradles a stalk-eyed noodle-and-meatball creature, and the manger is surrounded by pirates, a solemn gnome and barnyard animals. The message proclaims: “Touched by an Angelhair.”

Unsurprisingly, this has caused consternation in Leesburg. The crucified Santa has been vandalized several times. Christians, outraged that their religion and traditions are being mocked, have appealled to the town council to do something. From the article: “Kenneth D. Reid, Loudoun County supervisor-elect for the Leesburg District, sent a news release opposing ‘outrageous anti-religious displays.’ In a letter to a local newspaper, one resident called the displays a ‘mean-spirited attack by the faithless on the faithful.'” Meanwhile, the local atheist group behind the crucified Santa said that “if Jesus has a right to be there, so does the skeleton Santa.”

Ironically, I don’t agree with Leesburg’s atheists.

While I’m not a Christian, I have absolutely no problem with community Christmas trees or Nativity displays. Yes, Nativity displays are religious in character; despite one Leesburg resident’s belief that “the creche is not religious,” the Nativity is a decisive moment in Christian mythology that non-Christians don’t recognize or share. But Nativity scenes are tradition in many communities.

At the same time, there should be some recognition that not everyone in the community shares in the belief system those symbols represent. The United States is a multicultural society, and we have a multitude of belief and value systems in our communities. Thus, I understand Leesburg’s attempt at being inclusive toward its non-Christians.

The city needs better guidelines, however, as they’ve allowed the irreligious of Leesburg a free platform from which to mock large swathes of the community. If they were trying to educate their community about the pagan origins of Christmas or the Great Conjunction of 7 BCE and they were doing so in a respectful manner, that’s one thing. But that’s not what Leesburg’s atheists and Pastafarians have done. They’ve used the town’s platform to send a political message. A crucified Santa Claus is a political message, not a spiritual message, and it’s a message that mocks core beliefs of many people in the community.

I understand the impulse the Pastafarians and the atheists are operating from — I myself have a puckish streak a mile wide — but they also need to recognize that mockery of others’ beliefs isn’t the best approach toward making friends or building a community.

Tradition may not be logical, but it still carries a great deal of emotional weight. Mocking a town’s traditions and beliefs isn’t very sensible, either. I think that’s what it comes down to — a question of respect, and the mocking Christmas displays are offending some, perhaps many, on a very emotional level. It’s no wonder people are upset in Leesburg.

Leesburg is a quiet, quaint little town. I have driven through it many times, and it has its small town charms and character. I hope the town learns something from this debacle and puts some guidelines into place for next year that will create an environment for Christmas displays that is both more inclusive and less hostile and that honors the locale’s quaint charms.

And, on that note, I am going to listen to the Beatles’ Christmas albums, which I really think EMI should release officially instead of leaving it to the bootleggers to do so.

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