Have a Holly, Jolly Holiday

The former Capitol Holiday Tree is the Capitol Christmas Tree again, at the behest of House Speaker Dennis Hastert.
The former Capitol Holiday Tree is the Capitol Christmas Tree again, at the behest of House Speaker Dennis Hastert. (Haraz N. Ghanbari - AP)

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By Neely Tucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, in considering the ongoing war on Christmas, let us begin with the evidence that Mathew Staver, president of the Liberty Counsel, calls "Exhibit A."

Said prosecutorial evidence is tiny Ridgeway Elementary School in Ridgeway, Wis. Youngsters are set to perform a play in which the lyrics to "Silent Night," which celebrates the Christ child's birth, have been changed to "Cold in the Night," which do not. The charge, leveled by both Staver's group and the American Family Association, is that this school rewrote a sacred song to erase Christ from Christmas.

Earlier this month, both groups fired off outraged press releases. TV networks reacted with segments. Conservative bloggers howled. The school principal got 1,500 e-mails. One unhappy Christian called Pat Reilly, the school board treasurer, a "spineless liberal [expletive]."

Here's Tucker Carlson of MSNBC, interviewing Staver:

"It is kind of heartening, I think, for Christians to see this, all this outrage, all this fear at Christmastime, you know, Christmas tree, Christmas carol, 'Silent Night'-- oh, that's a, you know, that's a subversive song -- because it means that Christianity isn't dead. It still has the capacity to scare people. It still gives people the creeps."

Giving people "the creeps" at Christmas is a serious thing, so we decided some actual reporting might be in order.

The first thing we found out, contrary to both news releases, is that nobody at the school rewrote anything. The song is part of a copyrighted play. Really in-depth reporting -- making two phone calls -- revealed the offending playwright and composer to be one Dwight Elrich. No one had talked to him until we called.

Here is what we found out:

(a) Elrich was a music director for a choir at Bel Air Presbyterian, former president Ronald and Nancy Reagan's church in California, for decades.

(b) "Cold in the Night" is part of a children's play called "The Little Christmas Tree" (note title). The little tree sings the little song. The little tree is looking for a family to take it home, sort of like Charlie Brown's little tree. The play comes with a "Christian" page, which may be performed or not. In Ridgeway, where the play has been performed for years, it is sung with Christian Christmas songs, including "Angels We Have Heard on High."

(c) Elrich's other musicals: "What in the World Is Christmas?" (Answer: "Kids from around the world celebrating Jesus's birth.") "Christmas in Hawaii," "365 Days of Christmas Each Year!"

(d) "The Little Christmas Tree" has been performed in more than 500 schools and churches across the country for nearly two decades. Mostly churches.


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© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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