A Contemporary Christmas Carol, Part 1

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I will honor Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach. Oh, tell me I may sponge away the writing on this stone! – A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens

A Thousand Meanings

The Internet always seems to provide some gems when you are mining for them.  Two thumbs up for a paper entitled “An Image and Its Thousand Meanings” submitted by Lena Fujii in the course COMM 3210: Human Communication Theory, at the University of Colorado at Boulder, Spring 2008. “Whether we consciously or unconsciously see the wide array of images in our daily lives on magazines, newspapers, television, or advertisements on cars, buses, and even airplanes,” she wrote, “we live in a world consumed by aesthetic beauty. When an image captures and intrigues our eye, it expresses cultural values and ideologies that one may not see directly.”  She explained that “denotation is the literal meaning or reference of a sign,” whereas “connotation is the meanings suggested or implied by a sign.”

Atomic Bomb Dome in Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park

Discussing Roland Barthes’ semiotic theory “The Photographic Message,” Ms. Fujii showed how the above photograph of the “Atomic Dome” in Hiroshima could send conflicting messages:

The main object of the image, the A-dome, is half demolished and very dull in color, symbolizing a lifeless monument. But with the contrast of the blossoming flowers, bright blue sky with no clouds in sight, and the natural beauty of the trees … [t]he connotative message that is produced through this image is the rebirth of not only nature, but Japanese society as a whole to bring Hiroshima back to the beautiful city it once was.

Then came these observations:

Roland Barthes semiotic theory of “A Photographic Message” presents a unique insight of images and their visual and hidden meanings. Barthes’ theory is useful when analyzing the objectiveness of a photograph. The text and image relationship also makes the viewer understand how the two can add meaning to one another.

The main weakness in Barthes’ theory is that shared meaning isn’t always shared. In “The Photographic Message,” the sender and receiver are assumed to have the same cultural knowledge. For example, if one has no historical and cultural knowledge of Japan, they would assume that the demolished dome is the result of a fire or tsunami, not an atomic bomb. But with the text, it is evident that the dome is the outcome of an atomic bomb and today, it is a monumental symbol of peace.

That’s an excellent point, I think:  How one displays an object in a photo and what one says about it greatly influences a person’s emotional reaction to it.  But the viewer’s cultural background, including I would add the viewer’s moral background, also plays a big role.  We cannot expect, for example, that an Anglo-American like  me would have the same emotional reaction to this photo as Ms. Fujii or, certainly, any Japanese resident of Hiroshima.

The War Over Christmas

I had thoughts such as these in mind when I encountered a Facebook message posting a Fox News article with the following photo, under the following title:

County Displays Crucified Santa on Courthouse Lawn

I was immediately repulsed, as I expect most viewers were, by this picture.  Not only is there a skeletal Santa on a cross, but it’s presented in a casual pose which seems to detract from the message the presenter likely had in mind for this display.  To my sensibilities, that’s tawdry and in bad taste.  I found the photo offensive, and it violated some of my most treasured childhood memories.  I thought: “Just leave Christmas alone!”

So I apologize to others like me who find this photo offensive, but that may be the main reason I have to post it and wade into the thick “ethosphere” of the story.  There’s so much here to talk about, and nearly every insect in the hornet’s nest of my mind has taken flight!

Todd Starns of Fox News reported a swift and negative reaction to this display:

A Christmas display outside the courthouse in Leesburg, VA featuring Santa Claus crucified on a cross was torn down by an angry resident in spite of arguments by elected leaders that the display was Constitutionally protected free speech. 

“I am shocked that the county would allow such a thing as a crucified Santa on the courthouse lawn,” Elizabeth McGuirk, a mother of three told Leesburg Today.  She [said] it would “seriously disturb my children.”

“Disgusting, outrageous and absurd,” Supervisor-elect Ken Reid told MyFoxDC.com. “This fellow crossed the line. I’m worried about kids seeing this at the parade Saturday.

The display was erected by Jeff Heflin, whose application was submitted and approved by the Loudon County Board of Supervisors.

“The county would not dismantle it, the county gave [its] permission for it to be there,” Supervisor Steven Miller told the local newspaper. “We had the same thing happen a year ago when Ed Myers put up some vulgar parody lyrics of the “Twelve Days of Christmas.” Well those came down within an hour and that’s vigilantes.”

The Loudon Times reported that Heflin described his display as “art work of Santa on a cross to depict society’s materialistic obsessions and addictions and how it is killing the peace, love, joy and kindness that is supposed to be prevalent during the holiday season.”

“It was meant to show the over-commercialization of Christmas,” said Jonathan Weintraub, of the NOVA Atheists. “I agree. It is over commercialized. People should keep their hands off the display, all the displays.”

The display was torn down by an unidentified local resident, according to the Loudon County Sheriff’s Dept. So far, no one has been arrested.

There are a few more important details from other articles, including two published yesterday in Leesburg Today.  The first, Displays Go Up And Down At County Courthouse, reported:

Around 10 a.m. Monday morning, Middleburg resident Jeff Heflin Jr.’s display was partially erected—a skeleton wearing a Santa costume affixed to a cross. The display is meant to “depict society’s materialistic obsessions and addictions and how it is killing the peace, love, joy and kindness that is supposed to be prevalent during the holiday season,”according to Heflin’s application.

However, by approximately 1:30 Monday afternoon, it appeared the installment had been defaced, with the mostly disrobed skeleton laying on the ground next to the cross.

More displays are expected to be put up as the week goes on, including several planned for Dec. 10 by area atheist groups.

And The Imperfect Parentwhich published the above photo in “War on Christmas comes to Virginia: Display drama on courthouse lawn,” had this to say:

A battle over free speech and Christmas is taking place on the Loudoun County courthouse lawn in Leesburg, Virginia. * * *

Loudoun County Supervisor Ken Reid, who was a part of the rule to allow the displays, told the Washington Examiner that Skeleton Santa was “clearly designed to provoke angst and offend people.”

“Just the way Christians have rallied against anti-Semitism and support Israel, I, as a Jew, will return the favor and help lead the fight to stop this mockery of Christmas and Christian beliefs,” Reid added.

Brooke Rogers, a resident of Leesburg, told ABC she thought the display was “really disturbing” and “[hoped] no children saw it while it was up.”

An atheist display also went up in front of the On-the-Cross Santa, featuring an over-sized satirical letter to Christians from Jesus.

Rick Wingrove, the Virginia director of American Atheists, reportedly sided with Heflin and the other displays, saying if one was going to be allowed, they all should.

And finally, there is this background from Leesburg Today in yesterday’s “Debate Continues Over ‘Crucified’ Santa, Courthouse Displays”:

Under rules adopted by the Board of Supervisors, 10 displays have been allowed in 10 specific locations on the courthouse grounds, with applications accepted on a first-come, first-served basis until all the spots are taken. This year, all of the applications were submitted by March and a majority of them came from atheists or those promoting “reason over religion” this holiday season. Two displays will promote the “Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.”

But it has been the “crucified Santa” submitted by Middleburg resident Jeff Heflin Jr.–meant to “depict society’s materialistic obsessions and addictions and how it is killing the peace, love, joy and kindness that is supposed to be prevalent during the holiday season,” according to Heflin’s application–that caused the biggest controversy this year.

Some of the people who spoke Monday night said the display was a direct defamation of their religion [and] were the same people who spoke out in 2009 saying the banning of displays went against religious freedom.

A Painful, Soulful Reckoning

For openers, I share the reported view of Elizabeth McGuirk, Brooke Rogers, and Supervisor Ken Reid that it is inappropriate to expose young children to such a presentation.  It could cause undue trauma.  I still remember, when I was five years old, how traumatic it was that Santa did not bring the toy I had asked him for when I sat on his lap down at the American Legion Hall.  My belief in Santa was a big deal!

Let’s give our youngsters the kind of protection society, until recently at any rate, has usually demanded for them.  There has to be a better way to protest materialistic obsessions and demonstrate support for “the peace, love, joy and kindness” of Christmas than potentially scaring the daylights out of impressionable children with a skeleton in a Santa suit.

Beyond that, however, I find myself siding with Heflin.  It’s interesting (and certainly important) to try to understand the degree to which the photos and text may have been used to manipulate the connotations and imagery, per Roland Barthes’ semiotics, to maximize our sense of outrage.  If our outrage is over the top, then so might be our condemnation of what would nonetheless be free speech.

It’s not clear, from my personal perspective, that much might have been done to make this particular photo of Santa on a cross less repulsive, as Ms. Fujii’s discussion suggested, by changing the approach to taking the picture (varying the angle or the distance, for example).  I don’t think so, but others might disagree. It is noteworthy that the photo showing the companion exhibit featuring a satirical letter from Jesus to Christians was taken after the skeleton and cross were torn down.

Regardless, it does appear that Fox News was not inclined to cut Heflin or the County any slack:  “County Displays Crucified Santa on Courthouse Lawn,” the headline screamed; but Fox News neglected to point out that it was not even a finished display, nor did it look like Santa, so casually draped on the cross, had actually been “crucified.”  We don’t know how Heflin intended the finished display to look.  Regardless, the extreme negativity of the text affects the impression we get from viewing the photo.

The basic objection of the locals, as we’ve discussed, was that the display would be inappropriate for young children.  That seemed to provide no basis for Fox News or The Imperfect Parent to heap aspersions at the County, no employee of which ever got a chance to view the finished product, but they did.  It’s almost as if Fox News and The Imperfect Parent bear some sort of inherent animosity toward government, and look for opportunities to attack it.

Simply put, their reports suggest that the County was crazy to have imagined that anything as revolting as this skeletal Santa could have been a candidate for free speech.  Indeed, the Fox News article seems to be implying something like this:

Heflin wants to blame commerce for killing the Christmas spirit, but is “Santa” really dead?  Well, if so don’t blame the marketplace, and certainly not the wealthy.  The only problem with the Christmas spirit, if there is one, is that government has improperly given Heflin and others of his ilk a public platform on which to spread their atheistic angst.  It’s the County that has crucified Santa.

If this is the Fox News attitude, I frankly find it worrisome.  It could easily be a different story elsewhere in Virginia.  According to my quick check, Leesburg and Loudoun County are very close to DC, on a main commuter line, not too far from where my sister works in Frederick, MD.  According to Suite 101, “critical rates of both rural and urban poverty are widespread throughout the state”: Although “[t]here are 22 counties and 10 major cities experiencing critical poverty rates in Virginia,” Loudoun County is not among them.  In Leesburg in 2009, the percentage of residents with incomes below the poverty level was well below the Virginia state average.  There were no young boys living in poverty in 2009, and not many young girls.

This is the kind of community, it appears, that can afford to pay more attention to what young kids look at when they walk past the courthouse than to where they’re going to get their next meal.   Proactivity levels are low there.   There is an Occupy Leesburg with no website, and an Occupy Leesburg Together with, it appears, only the bare minimum of two members.  The organizer’s icon shows her holding a sign that says “Change Takes Time.” Yes, indeed it does. [1]

This is FOX country, folks, a bedroom community.  No wonder public officials are falling all over themselves claiming, with respect to the County’s lawn display policy, that it wasn’t their idea, and personally, they find it revolting.

But I digress: Shall we wade farther out into these murky waters?

I confess that am not a Christian, and I reject all forms of “supernatural” faith.  Nor, of course, have I believed in Santa Claus, ever since my 6th birthday on Christmas Eve, 1950.  (In truth, I think I held on to the Tooth Fairy legend a bit longer.)  But how many adults actually do?  Adults who assert they have a deep belief in a deity, it seems, will most likely concede they do not believe the mythology underlying the Santa Claus story.  Bill Maher, in his movie “Religulous,” famously used people’s disbelief in Santa Claus to poke fun at any belief in a supernatural deity:

Bill Maher: If Santa Claus can hit every house in the world.
Steve Berg: No, we don’t believe in Santa Claus.
Bill Maher: Of course not, that’s one man flying all around the world and dropping presents down a chimney. One man hearing everybody murmur at him at the same time, that I get.

There is, nonetheless, a special place in my heart for Christmas, and for the togetherness this holiday has always meant to members of my family.  “Love and Joy” was my late mother’s favorite carol, and I understood why.  Today, I think, we need that feeling of togetherness more than ever, and all year long.  So I’m torn in two directions.

But my personal beliefs and feelings are not controlling here.  Kudos to Loudoun County for honoring free speech and allowing exhibits that may offend me, or anyone else, on the courthouse lawn.  I am not personally amused by “Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster,” but atheist activists are entitled to speak their mind and to believe, if they do, that their exhibition of a skeleton Santa on a cross implies no lesser interest than yours or mine in the promotion of peace, joy and togetherness.

Reid’s objections to Heflin’s exhibit, that it “mocks” Christianity (which it doesn’t) and was designed to “provoke angst” and “offend” people, are invalid.  Adults simply don’t need, and are not constitutionally entitled to, the same protection as little children from being offended by this sort of speech.  In saying this, I recognize that the cross is the fundamental symbol of Christianity, prominent in every Christian church, and a staple of religious jewelry.  In that context, the cross seems to have lost its identification and meaning as an instrument of torture and execution.  Is it possible, then, that removing the cross, even as metaphor, from the deep recesses of its religious imagery makes it a bit too real for Christian adults to handle?  Possibly.  And perhaps crucifying Santa may seem so offensive simply because crucifiction itself is barbaric and horrifying to modern sensibilities.  But as at least one commenter in the fascinating comment chains that are springing up beneath this story observed, Heflin is not to blame for the role of the cross in Christianity.  Nor should it disqualify his statement as protected speech.

My wife and I were deeply offended when a busload of social misfits costumed as Hitler, Groucho Marx, and Uncle Sam were brought in to disrupt my Congressman’s town hall meeting on health care reform last year.  We were sickened as they tried to shout everyone else down and jeered and booed at people who told their stories of cancer and other serious illnesses.  But any sociopath had a right to be there and to be heard, without nullifying the rights of others, and as an adult in a free society, I could not be heard to argue otherwise.

Religious objections to Heflin’s display should be considered entirely without merit.  The belief of little children in Santa Claus is mythological fantasy, not religious belief.  But even assuming that it is religious belief, Heflin and other atheists have as much right to protest religion as religious people do to protest atheism, especially given the constitutional separation of church and state.

Time was, no adult would have any reasonable basis for complaining, on their own behalf, about this display.  Today, alas, Americans are witnessing a steady decline in their freedoms.  More and more, it seems, free speech is honored and protected only if it is inoffensive, convenient, and non-threatening to the powers that be.  To me, the image of retaliation against a skeleton in a Santa suit pales in significance to the many horrifying images we have recently seen of peaceful protesters, sitting or kneeling on the ground, being brutalized or pepper-sprayed in the face by local police officers ostensibly hired by government to protect all citizens and to keep the peace.

However heavy-handed and tasteless Jeff Heflin’s metaphor may seem, it is sad to see it so mercilessly attacked as contrary to adult sensibilities.  Maybe it would help us all to remember the true meaning of Christmas.  Maybe we’d see his “crucified” skeletal Santa in a different light.  And maybe we’d see ourselves in a different light.

*    *    *    *    *    *

The Spirit stood among the graves, and pointed down to One. He advanced towards it trembling. The Phantom was exactly as it had been, but he dreaded that he saw new meaning in its solemn shape.

“Before I draw nearer to that stone to which you point,” said Scrooge, “answer me one question. Are these the shadows of the things that Will be, or are they shadows of things that May be, only?”

Still the Ghost pointed downward to the grave by which it stood.

“Men’s courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead,” said Scrooge. “But if the courses be departed from, the ends will change. Say it is thus with what you show me.”

The Spirit was immovable as ever.

Scrooge crept towards it, trembling as he went; and following the finger, read upon the stone of the neglected grave his own name, EBENEZER SCROOGE.

“Am I that man who lay upon the bed?” he cried, upon his knees.

The finger pointed from the grave to him, and back again.

“No, Spirit! Oh no, no!”

The finger still was there.

“Spirit!” he cried, tight clutching at its robe, “hear me. I am not the man I was. I will not be the man I must have been but for this intercourse. Why show me this, if I am past all hope?”

For the first time the hand appeared to shake.

“Good Spirit,” he pursued, as down upon the ground he fell before it: “Your nature intercedes for me, and pities me. Assure me that I yet may change these shadows you have shown me, by an altered life.”

The kind hand trembled.

“I will honor Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach. Oh, tell me I may sponge away the writing on this stone!”   – A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens

JMH – 12/7/11 (rev. 12/8/11)


[1] Speaking of which Leesburg Today reported on 12/6/11 that the County decided not to change its holiday display policy, despite the ferocity of the debate.  One proposal, to create a holiday display similar to the one found on the National Mall that is put up by the National Park Service, was rejected for now: “County Attorney John R. Roberts told the board that a government-sponsored display would be permissible under the law, but the county would have to proceed with caution. ‘You can put up a government-sponsored display that includes religious elements, but you have to be careful. It cannot look like you are endorsing a specific religion,’ he said.”

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3 Responses to A Contemporary Christmas Carol, Part 1

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