by David Sisler

"Mamma in her 'kerchief, and I in my cap, had just settled down for a long winter's nap, when out on the lawn there arose such a clatter, I sprang from the bed to see what was the matter."

When Clement C. Moore wrote A Visit from St. Nicholas, the noise he was investigating was the arrival of a sleigh full of toys, eight tiny reindeer, and St. Nicholas. The odds are better than even if you hear that sound this December 24th it will be the American Civil Liberties Union tearing down Christmas decorations.

At least that is the way it would sound in Jersey City, New Jersey.

In 1994, the town's traditional Christmas nativity scene and menorah provoked a lawsuit by the ACLU. Last year, because of an injunction issued by the U.S. District Court in New Jersey, banning the display which had appeared in front of City Hall for longer than 30 years, it is all in storage.

The Supreme Court and the Second Circuit Court of Appeals declared that holiday exhibits are allowed if a "reasonable observer" would not mistake them for a "religious endorsement."

A religious endorsement? Debate the appropriateness of December 25 as the anniversary of Jesus' birth if you will. Debate whether or not modern celebrations still resemble, in any fashion whatsoever, a celebration of that birth. But somewhere under all of the shopping, decorations, caroling, and the general ill-will towards men engendered when that knot-head in line in front of you beats you to the last "gotta-have" toy, ask yourself: Didn't Christmas used to be a religious celebration, religiously endorsed? Is not the placing of a Menorah still a religious celebration, religiously endorsed?

But in order to comply with court rulings, Jersey City Mayor Bret Schundler added Frosty the Snowman and Santa Claus to the gathering at the manger. Good enough, the courts said. Oh, no you don't, the ACLU said, and argued, successfully, in federal court that Frosty and Santa were examples of "superficial secular tokenism" and "background witnesses to... the birth of Christ."

So last year, Mayor Schundler set up two new holiday decorations — two wooden billboards.

The first said, "Due to a lawsuit by the ACLU our traditional menorah and creche may not be displayed this year. We are fighting in court to be able to return these beautiful displays to you next year. Seasons Greetings! Mayor Bret Schundler."

The second billboard quoted the Constitution of the State of New Jersey, expressing gratitude "to Almighty God for the civil and religious liberty which He hath so long permitted us to enjoy," and urged residents to continue "looking to Him for a blessing upon our endeavors to secure and transmit the same unimpaired to succeeding generations."

I telephoned Mayor Schundler this week and asked how City Hall is decorated this year. "With the same two signs," he said.

Jersey City, the home of Ellis Island, celebrates the diversity of its people year round, the mayor explained. During November or December, depending on the lunar calendar, a "Happy Ramadan" sign is posted and a "Break Fast Ceremony" is celebrated inside city hall. The Hindu "Festival of Lights" is celebrated, as are dozens of ethnic and religious observances year round. Jersey City schools even celebrate Earth Day.

"We teach ‘Mother Earth,'" Schundler said, "but heaven forbid we say ‘Father God.' In a city that has a continual, year-long celebration of ethnic and religious diversity, the only attacks from the ACLU are against Christian and Jewish symbols."

In fact, the initial complaint against those symbols did not come from inside Jersey City. The ACLU spent one year soliciting its members and former members until it found three people who were willing to put their name on the complaint.

The inmates are in charge of the asylum. In Hillsborough, New Jersey, you can no longer celebrate St. Valentine's Day. It is now "Special Person Day." And the Easter Bunny (there is that religious stuff again — although I have never quite figured out how a rabbit who convinced a chicken to lay colored eggs became a symbol of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ) is called "The Special Bunny" in East Lancing, Michigan.

So before a court declares we can no longer call this time of year "Christmas," that we can use the name of Jesus only if it is attached to a vulgar oath, and we all end up wishing each other "Happy Sparkle Season" (to quote the title of a 1997 Wall Street Journal article about Jersey City), allow me to quote from the first Christmas carole. "For unto you is born this day in the city of David, a Savior, who is Christ the Lord."


Published in the Augusta Chronicle 12/5/98

Copyright 1998 by David Sisler. All Rights Reserved.

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