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City Council, Opinion, Columnist

Nativity Scenes Or Naïve Activity Scene?

Steve Stajich, Columnist
Santa Monica Mirror Archives
Steve Stajich, Columnist

Posted Jun. 2, 2012, 2:58 am

Steve Stajich / Mirror Columnist

It’s June, always a great time to get riled-up early about whether or not those nativity scenes with the mannequins should return to Palisades Park this Christmas. Before I launch into any discussion about that, you are probably owed a few disclaimers.

Full disclosure: I grew up Methodist in Wisconsin. Because of my age, I was a kid at a time when there was never any issue that the birth of Jesus might be represented in people’s front yards by means of molded plastic figurines with light bulbs in them. We never had any of those in our own front yard, which instead featured flood lights and a plywood cut-out of the ubiquitous Coca Cola Santa, sans Coke bottle.

Second disclosure: My favorite statement on the meaning of Christmas continues to be the animated “A Charlie Brown Christmas” TV special. It’s charming, beatnik hip, appealing, and funny. And it still manages to capture a true spirit of the holiday season if not the only spirit of the holidays for all. It may not surprise you to learn that initially execs at CBS Television were not big on the show. Then it aired as a special on Dec. 9, 1965 and drew in 15.4 million viewers, placing it second in the ratings that week after the western series “Bonanza.” We’ll return to the Peanuts gang in a moment.

It might be time to deal with some hard truths about the Palisades nativity scene dust-up. The decorations themselves, first displayed in 1953 and by mere dint of that somehow “traditional” for Santa Monica, now have a somewhat dingy and even bizarre appearance. To protect the mannequin scenes, each is covered with storm fencing that causes the entire display to look like the figures are being held for questioning. Any uplifting impact the display might have is, by my lights, mitigated by its real appearance.

America in 1953 was more like the Wisconsin neighborhood of my youth. Times have changed. We now recognize and accept that the time of the year we call “the holiday season” involves celebrations of all kinds, not just the story of the nativity. Yet I feel that any attempts to mitigate the Palisades display with balancing displays reflecting other views, whether fairly realized by a lottery or not, are doomed to only reduce the potential for the entire tableau to echo any sort of joy.

In dealing honestly with the Palisades display issue, it should be recognized by all sides that a city park public land venue holiday display that leans heavily on any one religion or religious view has an inherent advocacy or even proselytizing intent: It’s just naïve to think otherwise. But it’s in this simultaneously clear yet often murky area that Santa Monica struggles with the Palisades nativity issue. The Christian holiday of Christmas becomes “Christmas time,” and that “time” becomes a default zone in which representations of the nativity seem natural and even correct. And then because that’s been the case for decades, attacks on nativity representations become attacks on “tradition.”

A few years back the folks that manage the Third Street Promenade invested in holiday decorations that featured a theme of ice and snow, beautifully evading any religious issues. While Christmas reds and greens appear here and there in the Promenade’s display there’s also a lot of blue ice and silver white snow, blue and silver/white being traditional Hanukkah colors. The Promenade loves the holiday season for obvious reasons, and most definitely does not intend to put-off any potential shoppers. I now find their wily navigation of potential conflicts to be contemporary and pleasing. I like the downtown temporary ice skating rink, open to skaters of all faiths, even better.

But a person who likes traditional holiday representation might quibble. And I don’t think we need more plastic ice floes installed in Palisades Park. So what are we to do about the Palisades nativity scenes? There’s a quandary in the City asserting that the nativity scenes be banned, because it will feel like a loss of freedom of speech no matter how you parse it. Yet I strongly disagree with those who assert that the loss of the nativity scenes would cause Santa Monica to lose a sense of community.

Allow me to call on Linus from the Peanuts gang to help me make a modest proposal. In the aforementioned TV special, Linus uses his endearing scratchy voice to remind Charlie Brown “what Christmas is all about.” True, he then quotes from the Gospel of Luke. But Linus ends on this: “… and on earth, peace, good will toward men.”

Linus of course meant women as well as the LGBT community; back in 1965, Linus was pressed for time. But how about peace as a theme for any display in Palisades Park? Could students be persuaded to contribute new displays that spoke to the global yearning for peace? Could Santa Monica artists be involved in the creation of new works for the season inspired by the simple notion that all unite in a wish for peace on earth? I don’t know for certain that these new displays would all be cheerful or even bright. But they would, unlike our now perennial debates over the nativity scenes, be filled with a beautiful hope.

Post a comment


Jun. 2, 2012, 8:24:45 am

L. McCann said...

When I first caught sight of the nativity scenes I thought it to be a contest between churches. I looked for the honorable ribbons to test my opinion as to which should come in first, second and so on. Honestly, they all got a "thumbs down" from me. Tacky and tasteless, raggedy and superficial. Caged mannequins is a scary visual no matter if it is a mannequin meant to look like Jesus. Sort of Sci-Fi if you ask me.

Jun. 2, 2012, 1:05:03 pm

Bill Egan said...

L. McCann is right. Thus, one person in Santa Monica has some artistic sensibility. One would think people in your city would be embarrassed to have those tacky mannequins in a Nativity display. How is it that in nearly 60 years the churches haven't come up with artistically rendered Nativity figures? You should be ashamed to have those department store rejects on display in Palisades Park. I'm in favor of cities displaying Nativities in December, but the raggedy stuff you people display needs to go into a dumpster.

Jun. 2, 2012, 5:56:33 pm

Mike smith said...

You are kidding, of course. If we went for a "peace" motif, it would then be called a "political" statement. Half the political Right called the movie AVATAR communist. I can only imagine what our present "warrior class" would say.... you know the ones, like the five sons of Romney, none of which signed up for military service during our ten years, two front war. :)

Jun. 3, 2012, 2:38:52 pm

Goward said...

Jesus is not a fantasy or a story, He is not on your level to say if you like Him or not, God is the Judge not us, and we are the ones on His voting ballet not the other way around. A few people in the past tried to Crucify Jesus before, they thought they would end Him you know how that worked out, He Arose from the dead, and now He sits at the right hand of power with all power in His hand. Every eye one day will see Him and every knee will bow to then confess that Jesus is Lord. We are not fighting over art it is about the meaning it is about the truth, and it is about the devil causing people to hate God so they will go to Hell, Jesus is the Light and those that deny Him walk in eternal darkness.

Jun. 4, 2012, 12:23:23 am

wolflen said...

and on earth, peace, good will toward men.” Linus of course meant women as well as the LGBT community; steve..are you saying that the LGBT may have other choices than "men and women".. wolf can see it now...steve being tarred and feathered at a city council meeting

Jun. 4, 2012, 5:06:31 am

Helen Coleman said...

in God We Trust, and in saying that, I trust that God opens the eyes of those who are not in favor of the Nativity scenes. Our Nation was built on trust. What an exciting and happy time to visit the scenes--ALL OF THEM. Let us not turn our backs on love, peace and happiness. We owe it to ourselves and our beautiful City.

Jun. 6, 2012, 12:00:10 pm

Santa's Letter Elf said...

For those who like the existing display, maybe you coudl store it somewhere sheltered for the community (like a historical display) as it sounds like keeping it outside for many more years will destroy it regardless of who values it or not. That keeps the memories and tradition alive and opens the way for a new display in your park. A display of peace sounds lovely. Much better than different religions fighting over a park display. Or have a Santa display as Santa, while associated with Christmas, is not actually part of any one religion and is more about children, magic and love. Santa is a non-political display and symbol of peace, too.

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