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A Jew says 'Merry Christmas'

MY ONE-year-old hasn't built up much of a vocabulary yet -- "wow" and "hey" and "oh" are about the only words he's mastered. But they were all he needed the other night as we drove through Mission Hill, gazing at the lavish Christmas displays lighting up so many front yards. On one block we saw Santas and reindeer and a giant polar bear ("Wow!"); on the next there was a beautiful nativity scene and dazzling lights made to look like fireworks ("Hey!"). Rooftops were trimmed with icicle lights, trees pulsed with color, and streets normally bland and unremarkable were lovely in their holiday glow.

I enjoy Christmas decorations -- and Christmas music, and the upbeat Christmastime mood -- and I say that as a practicing Jew for whom Dec. 25 has no theological significance at all. I have never celebrated Christmas, but I like seeing my Christian neighbors celebrate it. I like living in a society that makes a big deal out of religious holidays. Far from feeling threatened when the sights and sounds of Christmas surround me each December, I find them reassuring. They reaffirm the importance of the Judeo-Christian culture that has made America so exceptional -- and such a safe and tolerant haven for a religious minority like mine.

Unfortunately, it isn't only nativity scenes and Santas that make an appearance every Christmas. The holiday season also heralds the annual return of Scrooge and the Grinch. Or, as they're known in Bellevue, Wash., these days, Sidney and Jennifer Stock.

The Stocks are atheists who want Bellevue's city council to remove the Christmas tree from the lobby of City Hall. Since "it is impossible for everybody's religious belief to be displayed and nonreligious belief to be displayed," Sidney Stock told reporters last week, "no religious beliefs [should] be displayed."

Never mind that Christmas trees themselves have no religious significance. In Bellevue, as it happens, they don't even call it a Christmas tree. They call it a "giving tree," because its purpose is to stimulate gifts to the poor. In addition to tinsel and gold ribbon, the tree is hung with requests from needy families, and passersby are encouraged to help the less fortunate by making a donation. According to KOMO-TV in Seattle, the giving tree generates nearly $25,000 in contributions.

Most Americans, whatever their faith, would regard Bellevue's tree as a beautiful demonstration of true Christmas spirit. But to the Stocks, its presence on city property is a matter of "injustice and inequality." That is the voice of antireligious fanaticism -- what Rabbi Daniel Lapin, the Orthodox Jewish founder of Toward Tradition, calls "secular fundamentalism."

Every year these fundamentalists renew their assault on Christmas and its Christian meaning. Sometimes they claim the Constitution bars any expression of religion in government venues (it doesn't). Or they speak of "sensitivity" to those of other faiths. Or they couch their censorship in the language of "tolerance" and "diversity." Or they simply oppose any reference to Christmas at all. One way or another they end up demanding that America's vast Christian majority keep its religious feelings to itself. It's an outrageous demand, and it leads to outrageous results:

* In Maplewood and South Orange, N.J., the school board has banned all Christmas carols, even instrumentals, from holiday concerts.

* In Denver, the city's annual Parade of Lights included German folk dancers, a gay and lesbian Indian group, and belly dancers -- but a Christian-themed float was banned because it would have included a message reading "Merry Christmas."

* In Southwest Florida, the rule against celebrating holidays in so rigid that one middle school principal told the Sarasota Herald Tribune: "You won't see any Christmas trees around here. We keep it generic."

* In New York City, official school board policy authorizes displays of "Christmas trees, menorahs, and the [Muslim] star and crescent" -- which it describes as "secular holiday symbol decorations" -- but prohibits depictions of the nativity.

* In Franklin, Mich., the annual Holly Day celebration has been renamed the Franklin Winter Festival. "Holly Day," the sponsors decided, sounded too Christmassy. "We wanted to try to make it more inclusive."

But there is nothing inclusive about silencing the 90 percent of Americans who celebrate the birth of Jesus. Christians, after all, have freedom of religion, too -- and that freedom shelters my faith no less than it does theirs. Christmas is a blessing for all Americans. May yours be filled with joy.

Jeff Jacoby's e-mail address is 

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