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Santa Monica at war with tradition, if not with Christmas

COMMENTARY

November 19, 2012|By James Rainey
  • A man walks past two of the traditional Nativity scenes along Ocean Avenue at Palisades Park in Santa Monica last year.
A man walks past two of the traditional Nativity scenes along Ocean Avenue… (Ringo H.W. Chiu / Associated…)

I can understand why the city of Santa Monica decided to end the Christmas tradition of holiday displays at a bluff-top park and why a federal judge backed the move Monday.

Still, I’m going to miss a rite as old as my '60s childhood — cruising Ocean Avenue past the long series of Nativity scenes, filled with mannequin figures that told the tale of the baby Jesus.

Every year, my brother, sister and I and my parents would fill the station wagon and drive to the broad avenue. The dogs came too.

Volunteers built the scenes close to the edge of the park closest to the street, normally known for its forget-me-not view of the Pacific. Around Christmas, families like ours would glide past the displays, taking in more than a dozen biblical scenes that had been fitted inside a series of large green wooden shed-like enclosures.

As traditions should, the Santa Monica Nativity scenes brought a comforting sense of continuity from one Christmas season to the next. If you could get to Ocean Avenue in the weeks around Christmas, you knew Jesus and his family would be there to greet you.

More cynical times would dictate that the Nativities eventually would have to be protected with cyclone-style fencing, to keep vandals from attempting to reconfigure the greatest story ever told. Before the fencing, wiseacres might tear off one of the wise men’s beards or tape it to Mary’s chin. The manger donkey could end up in a compromising position.

Our yearly tour of the Santa Monica Nativities would be highlighted by my father’s dramatic reading of the story of the Christ child’s arrival. The bearded mannequins offended or threatened one of our dogs, Mugs, who would punctuate the readings with nearly constant barking.

Now all that’s gone, partly because times change things but also because the law says one good religious display in a public place invites another, or at least another alternative. Atheists objected that the Nativity tradition. So, last year, the city decided the best way to resolve the standoff was to use a lottery to randomly assign 21 plots for holiday season displays. The atheists won 18 spots. A Jewish group snagged a spot for a menorah. The Christian group had its expansive multi-scene display reduced to just two spots.

The Christians felt their tradition had been “hijacked,” as one said. One atheist group simply left its spot empty. Santa Monica found itself going to a lot of trouble to accommodate some groups that didn’t give much in return.

So this year the city decided it wouldn’t accommodate any holiday displays in Palisades Park. That led to the legal challenge from the Nativity group that Judge Audrey B. Collins ruled on Monday. Collins denied a request from the Santa Monica Nativity Scenes Committee to return to the Nativity tradition.

The ban on holiday representations in the park is not absolute. The city would allow groups to install such scenes again, as long as an attendant remains with the display. The idea is that people won’t put up something offensive, if they are required to stand by their work.

The city also has no say over churches, homes and other private locations, where Santa Monicans can display all the Christian iconography they want. So it would be hard to argue — though some surely will — that the city has launched a “war on Christmas.”

Still, it will be hard to be in Santa Monica in December without the slow cruise down Ocean Avenue past those frozen figures, totems of many Christmases past.

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james.rainey@latimes.com

Twitter: @LATimesrainey

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