Taking Christmas out of Christmas

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas. The ACLU is in courthouses all across the country guarding against the risk of revealing the reason for the season. Cities and towns are surrounding their traditional displays of creches and menorahs with large plastic figures of Frosty the Snowman and Santa Claus.

It’s all an attempt to convince the courts that they’ve de-sanctified the sacred symbols enough to escape an injunctive order. Most of the time it doesn’t work.

It’s all reminiscent of what our 26th president, Teddy Roosevelt, warned us about: that one day we’d either have to “advance the cause of Christian civilization or revert to the horrors of brutal paganism.”

Boston was in the middle of the fray last week, torn between what to call the giant tree that officials put up on Boston Common. Either the tree’s holiday lights or its Christmas lights were what Mayor Tom Menino turned on Thursday. He called it the city’s Christmas tree. The city’s Web site called it a holiday tree.

All the talk about what we call a pine tree on Boston Common has turned attention to the one they put up on the U.S. Capitol grounds in Washington. Until the Boston controversy, it had largely gone unnoticed that sometime in the 1990s Congress decided to call the congressional tree the Capitol Holiday Tree.

Now, House Speaker Dennis Hastert is saying that if a tree has 10,000 lights and 5,000 ornaments, it’s a Christmas tree. And that Congress should join the White House, countless other public institutions, and millions of American families in celebrating the holiday with a Christmas tree.

A small thing? Maybe, but, we should be paying attention to all of this kind of talk. The ACLU certainly is.

(Truman Taylor hosts a television public-affairs show and is a frequent contributor to The Providence Journal.)