Redirecting Christmas From North Pole to Bethlehem

By Adelle M. Banks
Religion News Service
Saturday, December 16, 2006

Standing next to plastic figures of Mary, baby Jesus and Joseph, two ministers and three members of Congress took turns at a microphone this month to announce a new initiative called "Project Nativity."

"Our hope and prayer is that over the next three to four years, hundreds of nativity scenes will begin to dot the landscape of America once again," said the Rev. Patrick J. Mahoney, director of the Christian Defense Coalition. He said he hoped the temporary nativity scene on a terrace of the Capitol would serve as a "template" for similar efforts.

His project, which encourages Christians to seek permits for nativity scenes in front of public buildings, is just one example of multiple efforts to "take Christmas back." In recent years, there have been rumors of a "War on Christmas" and actual skirmishes over the use of the word in the public square and at the retail counter.

Now, some clergy and devout lay people are shunning secularism and church-state concerns and taking a more proactive stand to remind people of the Christ in Christmas or, as they like to say, "the reason for the season."

The initiatives stretch across the Atlantic to northern Ireland, where Catholic schoolteacher Kathleen Darragh wrote her own version of "12 Days of Christmas" that is being distributed by Illinois-based ACTA Publications.

Writing with her schoolchildren in mind, her poem begins: "On the first day of Christmas, our true God sent to us . . . Our Saviour Baby Jesus."

"The most excited talk they have is about Santa, and I sort of thought we have to get this idea across to them that Christmas is really about Christ and keeping the Christ in Christmas," she said in a telephone interview.

"People here and people in England are saying: 'Let's not go down the American route of having a Happy Holiday. Let's say . . . this is Happy Christmas. It's not Happy Holiday.' "

Stateside, some Santas have even focused on Jesus's birth.

Las Vegas hairdresser J.D. St. Ives plays the starring role in a new DVD called "Santa's Sing-A-Long!" that features carols as well as more secular Christmas songs. In the Magic Tree Inc. production, he asks his green-haired elves about the meaning of Christmas and they respond: "Toys! Games! Santa!"

"Ho! Ho! Ho! No. No. No," he responds before introducing "Silent Night." "Although all of those things are a part of the way we celebrate Christmas, that's not why we celebrate Christmas."

Since the 1980s, the "Kneeling Santa," a figure bowing down at the side of the infant Jesus, has grown from books to a range of merchandise. In the past few years, that brand has extended to a $200 outdoor figurine suitable for front lawns.

"People forget what the season is all about -- and children especially -- so it brings them back to what it's supposed to be and the true meaning of Christmas," said Velia Faso, director of special affairs for Addison, Ill.-based Roman Inc. Her company, which is the licensee for the "Kneeling Santa" line, plans to begin distributing a 4-foot silhouette image of the figure as "illuminated yard art" in 2007.

This year, some Christians are celebrating the focus on Jesus's birth on the big screen with the recent premiere of "The Nativity Story," just one way they hope to redirect Christmas away from the North Pole and back to Bethlehem.

"What I sense is it's raising the level of discussion about Christmas back to where it should be, instead of where it has been over the last two or three years, over whether we can say the word 'Christmas' in our greetings," said David Jeremiah, a pastor in El Cajon, Calif., who has written a companion book to the film.

In a move to further the movie's message, the same ministers that were encouraging permits for nativity scenes also supported plans to give each member of Congress a pair of free tickets to the film.

The Rev. Rob Schenck, president of the National Clergy Council and the other minister at the Capitol news conference, said plans to verbally spread the message are under way as well.

"We just had a telephone conference call with religious leaders across the country who are encouraging their congregations to deliberately wish people a complete Merry Christmas," he said.

Their congregants are charged to say: "Merry Christmas, the joyous celebration of the birth of Christ."


© 2006 The Washington Post Company