Thursday, December 29, 2005


Did I ever mention that I grew up not far from a thirty-foot-tall outdoor statue of the Virgin Mary? Yes, it's still there. I dropped by over Christmas weekend. There's a good-size creche at Mary's feet this time of year, and in an adjoining building is a diorama purporting to represent Bethlehem at the time of Jesus' birth (no lie: it's actually called the Christorama).

I'm thinking about this because we've spent the last month yammering about whether religion is "banished from the public square," and then I visit my family for Christmas and I get to walk out the door and in a few minutes find myself looking up at a massive metal Mary -- which, by the way, isn't being protested or picketed or challenged in a lawsuit (in fact, it's has been there for decades, on church property across the street from a church-run nursing home; it's open to the public and is just an ordinary part of life for the people on the street and for visitors).

Right-wingers use the phrase "banished from the public square" precisely because it's slippery: literally it means "driven from public property," but it has an additional, almost subliminal meaning: it suggests that religion is out of sight altogether, publicly invisible and accessible only in catacombs. In fact, nobody at the ACLU cares what you do on private property; you might upset your neighborhood association if you put a massive creche on your front lawn, but you won't violate any notion that church and state should be separate.

(Most of the Christmas decorations on my street, by the way, were secular, Santa and reindeer and snowflakes and the like -- as they always were, for as long as I can remember -- but I did see one creche. It was watched over two guardian angels -- Bert and Ernie -- and also by a New England Patriots flag.)

Do you think there needs to be more public religion? Then I suggest you buy private property and build displays of faith that are open to the public. A lot of downtowns in America are full of shuttered storefronts, after years in which merchants have lost business to malls; why not proclaim your faith on the sites of those old downtown shops? Or why not just buy space at the mall? That's the true public square, not the lawn of City Hall.

Meanwhile, go to my old neighborhood and visit the shrine. The admission's free.


OK, now I think I'm really out of here until New Year's. See you next year....


UPDATE, JANUARY 1: I see that commenters (hey, Davis, didn't know you were from Winthrop) mention both the excesses of Christmas house decorating in Saugus, Massachusetts, and the Southwestern custom of decorating your property with luminarias. I saw both this year -- we took a drive to Saugus on Christmas night and saw the overkill, then I flew out to New Mexico and saw lots of luminarias (and also a few houses in Taos that would make the people in Saugus envious).

As for public celebrations of Christmas, apparently the Las Posadas procession in Taos wasn't shut down by us God-hating Nazis; I missed it, but I'm back in New York now, and I can always see one of the Three Kings parades here (there are also Three Kings parades in Miami and Puerto Rico). No reported ACLU sightings.

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