Religious Rite

Denver's Christmas display could use a new coat of hay.

"It's a neon horseshoe," sputtered my friend as we stood gazing at the Denver City and County Building last year. "Your city building is lit up like a neon horseshoe. And with a baby Jesus! I didn't think these things were still possible."

She and her husband were in town visiting, and from their hotel-room window, they'd seen a strange glow and decided to investigate. When she caught her first glimpse of the spectacle, she was speechless, equally bemused and horrified by the full Nativity scene and the Santa Claus and the reindeer and the sled and the candy canes and the Christmas tree and the carolers and the doves and the angels. There's just nothing quite like it in New York, she reminded me.

No, there isn't. Rockefeller Center may be beautiful to behold, but here in God's Country, I tell her, we have a saying: Go big or go home.

Now, that's not to say the display couldn't use a little, well, refinement. Or maybe a full-on Extreme Makeover: City and County Edition. Even Mayor John Hickenlooper broached the subject two weeks ago, suggesting that perhaps the "Merry Christmas" sign should be replaced with the more inclusive "Happy Holidays."

Whoa, there, Rudolph. Them's fightin' words.

Hick was forced to issue an apology last week after hundreds of people called to complain, though he hedged his bets by saying he thought the original sign was getting old and would need to be replaced. "I was under the impression -- perhaps erroneously -- that the existing 'Merry Christmas' sign was becoming worn out and would need to be replaced soon anyway," Hickenlooper said. "Over the past several days, it has become clear to me that there is strong community sentiment to maintain the 'Merry Christmas' sign, and I am glad to oblige. My intention was never to disrespect or slight anyone or any religious tradition. I apologize to anyone who may have been offended or mistakenly felt I was being anti-Christmas. 'Hickenlooper' might have two os, but I am not Scrooge."

Tell that to Bob Tiernan, head of the local Freedom From Religion Foundation chapter and the attorney who sued the city in 1999, requesting that the FFRF be allowed to place a sign -- reading, in part, "no gods, no devils, no angels, no heaven and hell" -- on the steps of City Hall as part of that year's scene. He lost, but five years later he's just as fired up about it. "I'm sick of the whole thing," he says. "The mayor caved in to these fanatic right-wing Christians, and I have no respect for the guy. He's spineless. He backed down after raising the issue himself. I didn't used to be so adamant, because I was brought up as a Christian, but goddamnit, this is a secular country. You can't tell me the manger scene is canceled out by the Christmas tree and Rudolph. If I had my way, I'd do away with the whole damned thing, because it's turned into a controversy every year."

Every year since 1979, when the Citizens Concerned for Separation of Church and State sued the City of Denver to have the Nativity scene removed, claiming that the figures showed a governmental preference for one religion. In 1984, budget-conscious citizens in an increasingly cash-poor Denver complained of the display's costs. That problem was solved when the new Keep the Lights Foundation agreed to raise the $100,000 needed annually to erect, maintain and later disassemble the 20,000 lightbulbs and five miles of electrical wire -- and keep them juiced from Thanksgiving through the National Western Stock Show. In 1985, after a great deal of legal rumination, the Colorado Supreme Court decided the crŤche was constitutional -- as long as the Nativity scene was accompanied by what have become standard secular accoutrements.

But why should those accoutrements be standard? Local personality and flamboyant host Sid Pink definitely has designs on the building. "We all know that less is more (especially where in-laws are concerned), but my modest proposal hinges on one of Sid Pink's Seventeen Axioms: Too much is never enough (particularly considering oral sex)," he says via e-mail. "First, coat each pillar with a reflective polymer so that each one can serve as an enormous, cylindrical screen, onto which we can project a different children's Christmas special from bygone years. A series of colored strobes at the base of the plaza should serve as a great contrast to the red and green lasers bouncing off of the ten-foot disco ball hung from the center of the portico, with a fountain of dancing party lights pulsing to techno versions of our favorite religious and secular holiday tunes.

"The sprawling marble-esque staircase ought to be temporarily replaced with pressure-sensitive Plexiglas steps that light up when they bear weight," he continues. "This will add a dynamic element to the grand spectacle: the tap-dance showdown between Frosty the Snowman (Reuben Droughns) and the Archangel Gabriel (Hickenlooper), representing the commercial and spiritual aspects of Christmas. (Nightly, 7:30 p.m., followed by fireworks.) This bastion of civic pride, positioned at the geographic and political center of our state, this palatial edifice representing the sanctity of our guiding principles, is simply no place to cut corners when it comes to expressing the joys of the season."

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