12/04/2012 02:16 pm ET Updated Feb 03, 2013

No Naked Decembers in the South

It's the Holiday Season! If there's one month in the calendar that says we Americans live in a Christian country, December is it.

If you have any doubt that "Holiday Season" means Christmas, just go to your local mall, especially true for those living in the South as I do. Even if the signs say "Holiday" rather than "Christmas," the surrounding symbols make the Christmas orientation clear. There is no other explanation for the red and green colors, decorated Christmas trees, boughs of holly, sleighs full of wrapped gifts and flying reindeer. What other explanation is possible for the lack of Hanukkah sales at the mall with accompanying blue and white colors, dreidels and menorahs. I published my first article on the December Dilemma in The Christian Century more than 20 years ago, and my take on it now is, "The more things change, the more they stay the same." And that goes double here in the South.

All those years ago, I was responding to a front page story about a Christmas Tree riot in The Chicago Tribune, above the fold with a glorious, almost full-page photo. In an increasingly diverse municipality in the western suburbs, the principal of a public high school decided to honor the religious diversity in the school and re-situate the annual Christmas tree from above the front door to a corner in the lobby. A thousand students took to the streets. Along the way they picked up a police escort. They marched across town to the second high school there in protest of the removal with some of the kids shouting, "Go back where you came from!" And to the Jews watching the march, including my daughter, the shouts were, "Go back to Jerusalem!"

When the street marchers arrived at the high school No. 2, they expected support from the church across the street from the school. The students and supporters were greeted with an unexpected sight. There was no Christmas tree at the door of the church, or in its lobby. According to the pastor of the church, the Christmas tree was a pagan symbol, had no place on religious grounds, and was a symbol of the secularization of what should be a holy, religious celebration. Instead of a Christmas tree, the church front lawn sported a crèche, a detailed re-enactment of the Christmas story that took place not far from the Jerusalem where my daughter was told to return.

This street riot was an early salvo against the War on Christmas, a war launched by atheists and those against religious freedom. Ground zero was the public school, and then it spread to the town library and to the displays in the town square. Even as we have become more diverse in the decades since this incident, as mirrored in our electoral process this year, the war has intensified. The recent decision of the City of Santa Monica to have no religious public displays shows the frustration over a lack of good alternatives for sharing space. Any government entity that has tried to accommodate all religious parties concerned understands true pain.

Yet the Naked Public Square, a term I heard for the first time at a conference in Chicago circa 1990, has long been a non-starter in negotiations. That continues to be the case, certainly here in the South. The vacuum of nothingness is seen more a symbol of invasive secularism than an accommodation of religious diversity and belief. While some cite the separation of church and state as a logical and legal underpinning for the Naked Public Square, the local Christian communities see it as a threat to religious freedom, a ban on what has always been done. Here in the South, tradition and "we've always done it that way" are more persuasive to most than the legal fine print. It should come as no surprise that the growing focus of outside groups pressing for separation of church and state in the South is seen as modern-day carpetbaggers by many.

Public schools are primary targets. Local newspapers run front-page stories of reigning cheer leaders who use biblical verses, football coaches who have Christian prayers before a game and public school graduation ceremonies in churches. Programs that relied on churches to provide buses to take public school students on field trips are increasingly shut down. Yet, privately funded Bible classes continue to be offered in many schools. The depth of Christian identity in the South should not be underestimated, nor should the sense of a personal connection to Jesus. Southern tradition means that much is left intact that has been removed elsewhere in the country.

What does this mean for Christmas in public schools in the South? Issues of religious songs and symbols are usually addressed quietly. Negotiations for children of non-Christian families take place behind closed doors. These students are often excused from assemblies where they would feel uncomfortable. Others simply go with the flow. For them, Christmas trees are secular holiday symbols, as are the red and green lights, boughs of holly, and flying sleighs and reindeer. Their homes don't sport any of this secular/Christmas paraphernalia and they are well aware of their separateness. Yet, unless you are willing and able to go to war, these symbols are generally agreed to be relatively harmless.

The war is far more likely to start over the more religious symbols of Christmas: the crèche and religious Christmas carols. Here In the South, protest even over these deeply religious symbols has been muted. It takes a daring group to request permission to erect a Hanukkah menorah in the public square. Often, those groups have leadership who are not native Southerners. Here in Chattanooga, the public lighting of a huge Hanukkah Menorah has become a tradition in recent years. Its presence is proof that a publicly religious December in the South is far better received than a naked one.