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Christmas carols -- or else

November 13, 2009

In recent years, the Christmas season has been associated as much with political and legal squabbles as with mistletoe, street-corner Santa Clauses and (in some exotic parts of the country) snow. Who can forget the Supreme Court decision holding that nativity scenes on public property are constitutional so long as they are accompanied by candy canes or snowmen? Or the charges by conservative culture warriors that secularists have declared "war on Christmas" by encouraging citizens to wish one another "Happy Holidays"?

Now comes a proposed California ballot initiative that would require -- not allow, mind you -- the state's public schools to offer Christmas music during what anti-Christmas subversives refer to as the holiday season. The initiative reads, in part: "Each public elementary and secondary school shall provide opportunities to its pupils for listening to or performing Christmas music at an appropriate time of year."

"Christmas music" presumably includes not only secular songs such as "Frosty the Snowman" and "Jingle Bell Rock" but also spiritual classics such as "Away in a Manger" and "O Little Town of Bethlehem." Parents with religious or other objections would be given the option of keeping their children away from the performances. The no-shows would be provided with an "appropriate alternative." (Opera? Folk songs? A Sondheim medley?)

Merry Susan Hyatt, the substitute teacher who is spearheading the petition drive, is optimistic that she can garner the 434,000 signatures required to put the initiative on the ballot. "We got 25 signatures in just two nights," she gushed to the New York Times. At that rate, we can expect the Christmas carol referendum in about 95 years -- assuming those Grinches at the American Civil Liberties Union don't sidetrack it in the courts. (It is, of course, blatantly unconstitutional, favoring as it does not only religion but a particular faith.)

Still, unlikely as it is to succeed, the pro-carol initiative reinforces the idea that the liberal thought police are determined to destroy our country's beloved religious traditions -- particularly Christian traditions. Forgotten in such fulminations is the Jewish or Hindu 6-year-old who might feel uncomfortable singing (or even remaining silent during) a hymn to "the little Lord Jesus." That doesn't mean schools have to freeze out Frosty.

Public schools can't ignore the influence of Christianity on Western culture. It would be absurd to say, for example, that a high school choral group couldn't perform Handel's "Hallelujah Chorus." Unfortunately, this ballot initiative doesn't allow for the sort of common-sense distinctions best left to individual schools, and there's a seasonal term to describe its implication that Christmas is under siege: humbug.

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