Whether it’s lighting the menorah on the Third Street Promenade, carving pumpkins purchased at the Farmers’ Market or grooving to the tunes at the Twilight Dance Series, we all have our own traditions that we cherish. Traditions help define who we are by reminding us of our roots, and provide comfort and some certainty at a time when both are in short supply. Honoring traditions is critical. Without them, it’s easy to drift off course.
For nearly 60 years, many Santa Monicans have enjoyed the nativity scene displays erected in Palisades Park by a coalition of churches and the police officers’ union. Generations of families have flocked to Ocean Avenue to see the crèches, some recognizing the religious significance of the Christmas holiday and the role the Catholic church has played in Santa Monica’s history, while others walked simply for entertainment and a chance to view the park in a different light with their loved ones. It was all about basking in the holiday spirit and taking part in a time-honored tradition.
Unfortunately, that tradition has been tarnished. A group of atheists from outside Santa Monica hijacked the holiday displays last year by flooding City Hall with applications, forcing staff for the first time to hold a lottery to determine who would get the 21 spaces available for displays during the month of December. The atheists, who were offended by the presence of Christ and religion in a public space, were smart and filed several applications separately, thus increasing their chances of being granted as many spots as possible. And they were successful, securing 18. The nativity coalition was left with only two spots, far from the 14 they feel they need to properly tell the story of Christ’s birth.
The emergence of the atheists and the outcry of the faithful now have the City Council contemplating doing away with all winter displays regardless of content, a recommendation made by the City Attorney’s Office out of concern with the increasing costs of administering the lottery and the potential problems that could arise as more groups seek a coveted spot in Palisades Park to promote whatever cause they choose.
There are those who want City Hall to find a way to preserve the nativity displays by tailoring the law so narrow that the atheists wouldn’t be able to meet the criteria. Others say stick with the status quo. It’s content neutral and gives everyone a fair shot at landing a spot.
After careful consideration — weighing concerns about pricey litigation and the risk of eradicating a time-honored tradition — the Santa Monica Daily Press feels the best solution, given the legal restraints, is to eliminate all displays in Palisades Park.
If the council were to change the law to make it more narrow or more cumbersome, the atheists would surely file suit, forcing City Hall to spend taxpayer money defending a law that essentially protects religious expression at the expense of all else. That is clearly not in the best interest of the city and would certainly not be in line with Santa Monica’s penchant for free speech.
Others would like for the council to extend the area in Palisades Park where displays are allowed with the hope that more spaces would mean more opportunities for the 14 nativity scenes. But judging from the atheists’ enthusiasm and the interest shown by other groups to use that space (PETA was trying to get in on the act this past year), increasing the number of spots would most likely mean more spaces for outsiders to erect their dioramas, and more opportunities for possibly offensive messages. There would never be a guarantee that the nativity coalition would be able to erect its 14 displays since the lottery system is set up to be impartial.
And think of all the parking spaces Santa Monica would lose if the number of display sites was expanded.
In a perfect world, we would respect one another’s beliefs and give the freedom and space to express them. However, that world doesn’t exist. We wish the atheists would see how important the displays have become in the lives of many and give them a pass during a time of year when were supposed to show love for our fellow man, but that’s not the reality. We wish the atheists would be content with setting up a table in the park near the nativity scenes and hand out literature and protest in that way. But that apparently is not enough.
So in light of the realities we face, the Daily Press suggest eliminating the displays, but not entirely. We feel a great solution would be for the coalition of groups to erect the displays on private property throughout town or in one space if there’s room. The churches and their followers could organize a walk from one display to the next and sing carols along the way or read scripture. While it may be difficult to get all the displays side by side, at least it’s an option.
Sometimes tradition changes from its present form into something else. The time has come to consider creating a new tradition using the crèches, one that still honors the past but recognizes that times do change and we must adapt or perish. Let’s create a new tradition, one that focuses on the true spirit of the season and not let ourselves continue down this dangerous road of divisiveness.