Apparently, even colors can be insensitive.

In St. Paul, Minnesota, county officials have banned the use of red poinsettias from a city hall holiday display. White ones are okay, they say, but the red flowers are associated with Christianity.

Also in Minnesota, two Rochester middle school students were disciplined for wearing red and green scarves in a Christmas skit that ended, "We hope you all have a merry Christmas."

Maybe they should have said "holiday" instead. That method seems to work at the Wisconsin State capitol where a 40-foot Balsam fir in the rotunda is not a Christmas tree. It's a holiday tree.

Charles Haynes, senior scholar of the First Amendment Center, recently wrote that tensions are common during America's annual "December dilemma." From civic buildings to schools to business offices, public institutions must balance religious holiday celebrations and political correctness. This year is no different.

"Fighting over Christmas isn't the best way to celebrate the season of 'peace and good will'—and it can get messy," Haynes writes. "But let's keep our conflicts in perspective. … In a world torn by sectarian conflict, it's a real holiday miracle that Americans of many faiths—and those of no faith—manage to live with one another as citizens of one nation. When we differ, it may end in a lawsuit—but it doesn't become a holy war."

Nevertheless, Haynes says, debates over public holiday celebrations do embitter and divide communities. John Leo, columnist of the New York Daily News, agrees. He wrote Monday that during the Christmas season, sensitivity arguments have become tradition themselves.

But, Leo argues, the type of battle is changing. "The customary struggle has been over the role of the nativity scene on public property," Leo writes. The emphasis was on making the majority aware of minority sensibilities and the need to respect non-Christian religious expression. Now the battles increasingly involve minorities assaulting majority sensibilities. Instead of just broadening Christmas displays to accommodate other traditions, the emphasis now is on trying to erase and disparage all mention of Christmas in the public square."

There are plenty of examples this year.

"We're getting besieged," John Whitehead, president of the Rutherford Institute, told The Washington Times. The Charlottesville, Virginia-based organization provides legal representation in religious discrimination cases. This holiday season, the group has received at least 50 complaints.

Article continues below

Schools have banned Christmas cards, religious locker decorations, and the reading of Christmas-related stories. One school deleted the word "Christmas" from the calendar.

In nearly all cases, Whitehead said, the Rutherford Institute found that school officials overstepped their bounds. Schools, however, are only one battlefront.

In November, the county executive of King County, Washington, sent a memo to businesses encouraging employees to keep any holiday celebration "religion-neutral."

According to The Seattle Times, the memo from Ron Sims says: "We at King County want to ensure that any upcoming holiday celebration at the workplace is held in a respectful, inclusive, and sensitive manner that does not favor one religion over another." The letter suggested not having Christmas parties but "holiday" or "winter" celebrations instead. Sims also encouraged wishing co-workers a "happy holiday."

In Portland, Maine, apartment residents complained to the Portland Housing Authority about regulations that prohibited Christmas decorations in certain residential buildings. The rules have since been loosened. According to the Freedom Forum, holiday decorations are still banned in public areas but now allowed in community rooms, residential hallways, and solariums.

Nicole Brodeur, columnist for The Seattle Times, wrote Sunday that instances like this are changing Christmas.

"In an effort to include everyone, we've eliminated what is special to each of us—and what shouldn't offend anyone," Brodeur writes. "I now look back on my childhood Christmases the way some people look back at the time before World War II: A more naÏve, simple society that didn't feel like it was walking on eggs."

Now, she says, Americans celebrate "with the well-intentioned yet absurd belief that the United Nations is doing spot celebration checks of every all-purpose room in every public school in America. Commit a perceived act of exclusion and you risk your 'compassionate citizen' papers."

Christmas controversies are not uniquely American. The Manitoba provincial legislature has avoided references to Christ and Christmas since the 1980s. The spruce tree in the rotunda has been a "multicultural tree" since 1990, and the word Christmas has not been officially used since 1996. According to the National Post, Manitoba Premier Gary Doer has now put his foot down.

"If it walks like a duck and talks like a duck, it's not a flamingo," Doer told the paper. "We don't call the menorah that's outside a multicultural candle holder. What we have in our legislature is a Christmas tree. I don't like sanitizing, I don't like taking the word 'Christ' out of Christmas."

Article continues below

Many American public displays also cling to the traditional name, including the U.S. Capitol's National Christmas Tree and the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree in New York.

But the trend for municipal trees—like the Wisconsin capitol's "holiday tree"—is to move away from the "Christmas tree" designation. Religion News Service asked Renee Kidman, past president of the Iowa Christmas Tree Growers Association, if people in general are shunning the words "Christmas tree." "In public settings, yes," Kidman said. "In private settings, no."

Nativity scenes are annually a source of debate as well. In November, a federal appeals court ruled that Lexington, Massachusetts, could continue to place content-neutral restrictions on holiday displays on the historic Battle Green.

In Norwood, Massachusetts, city officials have allowed two displays to join the Christmas crÈche on the town common. One is an interfaith kiosk celebrating religious diversity. The second is a billboard supporting the separation of church and state.

While the mixing of church and state in public displays continues to be under fire each year, Detroit News columnist Thomas J. Bray says private religious displays stress what America stands for.

"You may not be able to mix church and state on the City Hall lawn, but they are thoroughly mixed on private lawns this year," Bray writes. "The displays show an embedded understanding of the close connection between America's religious heritage and its secular freedoms—and a determination, in the face of self-styled Islamic radicalism, to defend both."

Todd Hertz is assistant online editor of Christianity Today.

Related Elsewhere:

See more articles on Christmas from Christianity Today and sister publications.