Christmas Wars 2019: Protests, Lawsuits and a Cup of Cheer
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- With the holiday season in full swing, it’s time for my own annual tradition — dispatches from the Christmas wars:
Over the years, this roundup has often featured battles over Nativity scenes on public property, and those skirmishes are still being bitterly fought. But this season has seen many of the fights move out of the courts and into church congregations, which have found themselves divided over what many perceive as a political — some might even say left-leaning – tilt in the way the scenes are crafted. (Think Baby Jesus floating in plastic-clogged water while the Three Wise Men drown; or Mary, Joseph and Jesus separated and kept in wire cages.) Useful fodder for theological disputes, to be sure, but, fortunately, not the subject of litigation.
Christmas displays are also making unhappy international news. In Hong Kong, the shopping malls have decided to avoid expensive and ostentatious Christmas decorations this year, for fear that pro-Democracy protestors will tear them down or even burn them. Elsewhere, the mayor of Strand, a municipality in Norway, has asked a local Pentecostal church to remove the Star of David from its public Christmas display, and replace it with a “traditional Christmas star,” on the ground that the former is “a national symbol both for the Jews and for the State of Israel.”
Plainly, both these battles are really over other issues. The Hong Kong story is simply sad; the Norway story is deeply troubling.
That’s not to say that there’s no been litigation in the U.S. this year about Christmas displays on public property. In an Indiana case, the court went so far as to scrutinize the distance between the figurines representing Santa and the baby Jesus, as well as their relative size and arrangement in the display. That a judge might go into such detail is the predictable fruit of the strange hybrid strains the Supreme Court, in a series of impenetrably complex decisions, has sought to engineer into a single constitutional plant. (Sorry: Still wishing the New Yorker would bring back its old “block that metaphor” inserts.)
While we’re on the subject of Nativity scenes, in Parker County, Texas, an unknown woman was caught on video, stealing the figurine of the baby Jesus from a pricey lawn display. The owners of the house were sanguine: “Maybe somebody needs Jesus more than we do.”
Let’s go now to the true spirit of Christmas — the secular variety, anyway — to wit, the holiday boon enjoyed by retailers. The National Retail Federation estimates that the average consumer will spend over $1,000 during this season. Total consumer spending in the U.S. during the holidays is expected to exceed $1 trillion.
A tiny corner of this shopping spree caused a ruckus in St. Charles, Missouri, where local store owners sued after the city erected barriers that narrowed a downtown street and eliminated some 100 parking spaces. The mayor justified the barriers as a safety measure, noting that Christmas crowds were spilling from the sidewalk into the street. The merchants complained that if people couldn’t park, they wouldn’t shop, and pointed to a precipitous drop in sales when the barriers went up on Black Friday weekend.
Early this month, a local judge ruled in favor of the retailers. The barriers will stay down. Still, the mayor had the last word. “I hope the merchants prosper,” he said. “I hope they do well, but I don't want anyone hurt.”
The holiday season is also the season of streaming, and for the third year in a row, the Hallmark Channel, home of crowd-pleasing holiday fare about finding romance while trapped in an unexpected blizzard, earns a place in the column – this time due to its own bizarre misjudgment. Within the space of three days, the good people at Hallmark decided to drop a commercial featuring a same-sex wedding after complaints from traditional-values groups, then decided to reinstate the commercial after an online uproar. Hallmark executives might feel whipsawed, but the only real question is how in the name of Peace on Earth they failed to predict that cancelling the ad would provoke a fury on social media. Even if they reasoned that Hallmark viewers trend conservative, anybody who’s been paying attention should have foreseen this particular tsunami.
On the lighter side of streaming, this year I perused a number of lists of the best Christmas movies of all time. Most — including, for instance, Esquire, Vulture, and Rotten Tomatoes — correctly ranked “It’s a Wonderful Life” as number one. (No, no, this is science, not opinion.) We should demand a recount, however, from the Today Show, which mysteriously placed the Frank Capra classic at number three, and also managed somehow to drop the original “Miracle on 34th Street” to ... wait for it ... ninth?! Still, I will admit that Today’s champion, “Elf,” is among my absolute favorites.
Meanwhile, in a case that ordinarily would never make the news, an appellate court in Missouri used the holiday crush at the post office to give a woman convicted of drug and child endangerment charges an unexpected Christmas present. Julie Mae Kirk had filed what is known as a motion for post-conviction relief, arguing that her conviction should be set aside. The lower court refused to consider Kirk’s petition, on the ground that it was filed too late. The court received the motion on December 21, 2017, but as a matter of law it had to be filed within 180 days of her conviction, which would have meant December 19.
This month the Missouri Court of Appeals ruled for Kirk, largely because of the time of year when the case arose: “Given the Postal Service’s own estimates of delivery times, and the fact that Kirk’s motion was mailed during the height of the Christmas season, the more likely scenario is that Kirk's motion was mailed on or before December 19.”
All of which is to say that the difficulty of getting everything delivered on time during the holidays can sometimes work in a litigant’s favor.
Finally, WalletHub has just released its rankings of the best cities for Christmas celebrations. Let’s put aside any discussion of the methodology. (Okay, let’s not put it aside. Among the many metrics the site used were churches per capita, bakeries per capita, and bars per capita.) Atlanta and Orlando took the top two spots, but don’t worry, New Yorkers: your city finished first in the category of “Traditions & Fun.” And the west coast wasn’t forgotten: Seattle ranked first and San Francisco eighth in residents’ generosity.
And if the true spirit of Christmas is found in giving, that’s the list that matters most.
Automatically disqualified is any ranking formatted as a click-through gallery rather than a scroll-down list.
The Rotten Tomatoes ranking is based on viewer sentiment not editorial judgment.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of law at Yale University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. His novels include “The Emperor of Ocean Park,” and his latest nonfiction book is “Invisible: The Forgotten Story of the Black Woman Lawyer Who Took Down America's Most Powerful Mobster.”
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