Santa Monicans, their neighbors and countless other people around the world spent their weekend celebrating Passover and Easter.
As they did so, some may think back to two December holidays, Christmas and Chanukah, and the much-loved community displays of the nativity scenes and menorah in Palisades Park. They may wonder whether they will be able to enjoy them again this year, for these Palisades Park traditions are under attack.
This is not a dispute over equal opportunity or equal space to celebrate a different holiday or even to present a dissenting view. This is an assault by a non-resident of Santa Monica with an ideological ax to grind along with a few friends who seek to censor the nativity scenes and menorah and drive them out of the public square.
I’ll refer below specifically to the nativity scenes, which are the focus of the committee I represent, but the same attack and defense generally apply also to the menorah erected each Chanukah in Palisades Park by our friends at Chabad of S. Monica.
In word and deed, the leader of the nativity scenes’ foes has shown over the past year that his primary goal is to suppress the nativity scenes rather than present a positive message of his own. As recently as February, he indicated he would willingly forgo his meager displays if he can oust the nativity scenes.
In December 2011, through exploiting some new rules, he and his group won 1 3/4 of the two blocks of display space. They left one block empty in violation of the rules, which say, “Spaces are intended for the installation of unattended displays” and prescribe a penalty for not using the spaces, albeit a weak one that takes effect a year later.
When we asked in December whether in the spirit of Christmas we could use the empty block to mount the bulk of the nativity scenes, the answer was “no.” The block remained empty, demonstrating the foes’ preference for suppressing our views rather than celebrating their own.
In contrast to this Grinch-like negativism, sponsors of the nativity scenes, who have never tried to expel anyone from the park, happily point to numerous positive qualities of the scenes.
• The nativity scenes have been a prized community celebration of Christmas for nearly 60 years in Palisades Park, enjoyed by thousands of Santa Monicans and visitors, including multiple generations of many families and people of many religious (or no religious) beliefs.
• The multiple booths (14 of them) make the nativity scenes a uniquely Santa Monica Christmas tradition, having brought many visitors to the city and resulting in Santa Monica’s being called the “City of the Christmas Story.”
• All display costs, including standard fees paid to the city for taking parking meters along the scenes out of service, are paid by voluntary donations from businesses, churches and individuals.
• The Santa Monica Nativity Scenes Committee, which organizes the display, is made up of 14 Santa Monica-based organizations that number more than 20,000 members, and more than 1,300 people have signed a petition to the city to preserve the scenes in Palisades Park.
• The event represented by the nativity scenes, the birth of Jesus Christ, is the pivotal event in history that provides the dating of our calendar.
• The Christmas narrative depicted by the scenes is an inspiring, uplifting story of God’s love and human love filled with joy, hope, and peace, a part of what has been called “the greatest story ever told.”
The nativity scenes belong in Palisades Park. They have been shown there since they began in 1953. Ysidro Reyes, civic leader and co-founder of the display, who was related to the family that had given Palisades Park to the city, said that having the scenes in the park was the kind of use that would have gratified the donors.
To find an alternate location in our built-up city with adequate space to display 14 scenes in sequence with the excellent visibility and pedestrian and auto access of Palisades Park (not to mention its seaside beauty) is virtually impossible. To banish the scenes from Palisades Park could write a death sentence for them in their current format.
Because the nativity scenes are a valued part of Santa Monica’s heritage, the Nativity Scenes Committee applauds the City Council for its decision Feb. 28 to postpone consideration of a recommendation to ban the nativity scenes, the menorah and all other December displays from Palisades Park. We are thankful that the council and City Attorney Marsha Moutrie have indicated their fair-minded willingness to consider suggestions on apportioning display space before taking up the subject again at the council meeting May 22.
With the help of legal counsel, the Nativity Scenes Committee is working on a proposal we will present in coming weeks to provide a fair and constitutionally sound way of allotting spaces for December displays in Palisades Park. For now, I would encourage supporters of the scenes who have not yet signed the petition urging their preservation in Palisades Park to do so online at SantaMonicaNativityScenes.org.
As we celebrate the triumphs of Passover and the resurrection, let us hope and pray that come December the full nativity scenes display and menorah will continue their time-honored celebration of Christmas and Chanukah in Palisades Park.
Hunter Jameson is chairman of the Santa Monica Nativity Scenes Committee, which organizes the annual nativity scenes display in Palisades Park.