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A Different Season : Atheists Celebrate More Ancient Event: Winter Solstice


It was the closest thing to a religious experience that a man like Alexander Prairie could have during the Christmas season.

It was 1:22 p.m. Thursday and Prairie, head of Los Angeles' largest atheist organization, was standing in front of a Nativity scene in Santa Monica.

The model of the baby Jesus lying in a manger in front of him wasn't occupying the 52-year-old's thoughts, however. He was reflecting on the Winter Solstice.

To Prairie's group, the moment when the midday sun is at its lowest point above the horizon is the high point of the year. It is the traditional time to celebrate life's renewal, as shown by lengthening hours of sunlight and warming days, he said.

His group also feels the tradition of evergreen Christmas trees, holly and mistletoe and the concept of Christmas and Hanukkah gift-giving have sprung from ancient customs held to commemorate the Winter Solstice--the shortest day of the year.

As he inspected Santa Monica's display of 14 Nativity scenes at Palisades Park above the Pacific Ocean, Prairie was planning for Saturday--when his Atheists United group will attempt to set up its own display at the city-owned park.

In the past, the 500-member Sherman Oaks-based organization has been turned away by city officials after it was unable to provide $1 million in insurance liability coverage. The insurance provision applies to all groups.

Prairie, who said he uses that name as a pseudonym in his atheist work to keep from being harassed at home, had vowed that the group would set up its table and chairs at the park without the insurance and wait for Santa Monica police to show up. At the time he did not know that city officials were about to give the group a Winter Solstice gift and drop the insurance requirement.

Atheists contend that their desire for a public observation of Winter Solstice usually isn't welcomed by municipal officials.

In Los Angeles, city officials are being sued by atheist David McCalden, who is demanding the right to place a Winter Solstice display between a Christmas tree and a Hanukkah menorah in the City Hall rotunda.

McCalden, 38, a Manhattan Beach writer, has outraged Jews in the past by characterizing the Holocaust as a myth.

Marcia Kamine, a deputy city attorney for Los Angeles, said a court hearing into McCalden's lawsuit is scheduled for Jan. 18--long after the Christmas tree and menorah are gone from the rotunda. She said recent court rulings have allowed the city to authorize displays of non-religious symbols such as the tree and the unlit menorah because of their "cultural, artistic or historic significance" to Los Angeles.

"Winter Solstice?" she asked Thursday. "I don't think we've ascribed to the Druid philosophy for a long time."

At the Santa Monica City Hall, City Atty. Robert W. Myers interrupted his own office Christmas party to disclose to a reporter that he has decided to waive the insurance requirement for Atheists United so they can legally set up their display this week. Myers said Prairie would be informed of the decision today.

Myers said local churches and the Santa Monica Nativity Scenes Committee pay the cost of erecting the Christmas display, now in its 35th year. The committee even reimburses the city $112 a day in lost revenues from 28 Ocean Boulevard parking meters that are covered up so parked cars will not block the view of the exhibits.

"Our advice to city officials is they have to treat all groups alike," Myers said. The Nativity Scenes Committee is providing $1 million in liability coverage because its display is left unattended 24 hours a day, he said. The atheists will watch over their table so that any accidents can be prevented, Myers said.

Prairie, a computer analyst from Canoga Park, said his group won't try to rain on anyone's Christmas parade Saturday.

"We wish people of all persuasions a most joyful holiday season: Christmas and Hanukkah," Prairie said.

"We non-believers just want to recall an annual event that is more ancient and, by far, more fundamental. And that's the Winter Solstice."

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