Now, I admit it is a bit secular but wouldn't it be
nicer at the Courthouse than a skeleton in a Santa
suit--and more traditional too, in fact more in Virginia
tradition than a creche.
The issue began several years back when the County government said that there could be no holiday displays mounted on the Courthouse lawn in the center of Leesburg during the Christmas season. Loudon County is pretty solidly Christian with both strong Evangelical and Catholic contingents. (The Evangelicals represent many of the long-time residents; the Catholics came mostly with the housing developments that have just swamped this once charmingly rural area into what is now a bedroom-suburb of Washington DC, about an hour to the south along the Potomac.) Many residents were outraged that there would be no crèche on the Courthouse lawn. There had been a crèche placed there at private expense for over twenty years and the Rotary club had sponsored a Christmas Tree there for half a century.
Knights of Columbus Holy Family Council 6831 attached to Saint John the Apostle Church in Leesburg was not about to stand by for this secularization. They organized a protest that led the County Board to reconsider the policy and the board decided in fairness to all citizens ten displays could be put on the Courthouse grounds on a “first come first serve” basis. What the Knights had not foreseen was that not only would Christian groups with good will for all vie for Christmas displays, and perhaps a Jewish group would want a Chanukah display (there aren’t many Jews in Loudon County), but atheist groups might want their displays as well. (I am unaware of any requests from Islamic groups, but that would provoke an interesting response.) In fact, since atheism isn’t seasonal, disbelievers mounted displays throughout the year. Now as a reward to the Knights’ efforts, there is a war of competing ideologies going on in the middle of this otherwise quaint town. It is a bit confusing about this crucified Santa however as the woman who put it up is an atheist but her son who helped her is a Christian. They claim that it isn’t a pro-atheist statement but rather a “piece of art” that draws our attention to how the true Spirit of the Season has been corrupted into gross materialism. Well, they do have a point but the work is somewhat ambiguous. Art, after all, says what the viewer apprehends not necessarily what the artist intends.
Anyway, we owe this imbroglio to the Knights of Columbus who undoubtedly meant well but who opened Pandora’s Box of religious strife. The Knights are now insisting that Christian displays be allowed but that atheists not be given space on the Courthouse lawn. That solution will obviously not hold up constitutionally. Tempers are running high in Leesburg and the Prince of Peace is becoming a symbol of civic strife—not for the first time in history. Of course in colonial days when Leesburg had its origins there would have been no issue. There would not have been a crèche—far too Catholic in a colony where Catholicism was illegal. There would have been some festive holiday greens perhaps. The Christmas tree had not yet come from Germany but Virginians draped laurel and evergreen and holly swags and wreathes to cheer them against the cold days and long nights of winter. Perhaps if there is to be decoration of public property it should be this discreet sort of greening and let the religious displays be made on private and Church properties. A crèche on the lawns of the Presbyterian and Methodist and Catholic Churches would be lovely and a contest among them good ecumenical fun; an electric Menorah at the synagogue (though I think Leesburg’s solitary synagogue is pretty far out of town center) would be pretty silhouetted against the darkening skies of December would non-offensively to anyone give hope. And you know, I don’t think anyone—even an atheist—would really want a crucified Santa in front of their home. As for the Courthouse, deck the halls and call it quits. Besides, the lawns, though spacious, are not nearly expansive enough to handle ten displays without looking tawdry. And Knights—let’s do something constructive that reminds the world that Christ came to gather all people together into one and not to stir up sectarian strife. Crusades are over. They were a disaster. This is the age of Pacem in Terris.