Calhoun: Wake-Up Call

A creche course in why the Nativity gets to stay on the steps of Denver's City Hall

An inventory of the annual awfulness that appears every holiday season on the steps of the Denver City and County Building (from left to right):

1) Plastic Santa in his sleigh, heading up a ramp behind four pairs of plastic reindeer, with red-nosed Rudolph in the lead.

2) Wooden stable covered with glass to protect the contents: lots of hay and eight elf-like figures imitating the Country Bears, several playing instruments — including a "Sunnyland" washboard — while two elderly elves (or are they Oompah Loompahs?) canoodle in the back.

3) Plastic snowman with carrot nose, standing by more hay.

4) Garlanded arch with two Christmas trees on each side.

5) Wooden stable covered with glass to protect the contents: lots of hay and eight figures depicting the Nativity scene, complete with Joseph, Mary and Baby Jesus, three Wise Men and two shepherds (their hands outstretched, but holding no staffs), as well as a donkey, a camel, three sheep and a very large cow. And on top, an angel.

6) More hay.

And that's not counting the six wreaths hanging from the fourth floor and the two candy-cane-supported trees tucked into the alcoves on each side and the "Merry Christmas" and "Peace on Earth" and "Happy New Year" messages on top and the lights all around that turn the entire building into something resembling a rancid birthday cake — albeit this year, a rancid birthday cake newly illuminated with energy-efficient LED lights.

"Tacky," sighs Eric Brown, Mayor John Hickenlooper's communications director, when asked for the word he most frequently hears describing the display.

Another word: "Legal."

That seasonable mashup of shlock and awe was cleverly designed to protect the city from any further suits charging that the holiday scene violates the Colorado Constitution. The most recent case, decided more than two decades ago, "has been mirrored by decisions in the U.S. Supreme Court over the last twenty years," says Denver City Attorney David Fine. Bottom line, a Nativity scene is legal on public property as long as it is subsumed by a larger holiday display that includes secular as well as religious imagery.

So that band of country-music-loving elves balances out the humans in the Nativity (even the Son-of-God one), the troop of reindeer balances out the animals in the Nativity, the Santa balances out the angel, and the snowman pushes the entire display right over the edge.

And into the safe, if gaudy, territory of secular commercialism.

The first holiday display at the City and County Building, unveiled soon after the structure was finished in 1932, was a "very tasteful mural," says historian Tom Noel, a witness in the most recent Nativity case, who testified to this city's early love of holiday decorations, as evidenced by the invention of outdoor lights in Denver back in 1919. But the display didn't remain tasteful for long. In fact, by the time Harvard-educated Quigg Newton took over as mayor, it had gotten so garish and tasteless that he brought in an artist to redesign it — and created a huge uproar in the process. "He discovered that Denverites like things that are garish and tasteless," Noel points out.

It was plenty garish by 1981, when four individuals — who described themselves as "tax-paying non-Christians" — filed a complaint in Denver District Court alleging that the Nativity scene erected on city property and funded through tax revenues was a violation of their rights. They asked that Denver not only be prohibited from displaying the scene, but forced to sell it at public auction.

Noel wasn't the only expert to testify at the 1982 Denver District Court hearing.

A Muslim religious leader testified that the display of the Nativity scene constituted ideology and was therefore contrary to the dictates of the Koran.

Rabbi Stephen Foster "testified that based on his contacts with the Denver Jewish community, a 'substantial number' of Jews would view the display of the nativity by Denver as an establishment of religion," the Colorado Supreme Court later noted. "He did not think that the placement of the nativity scene near Santa Claus and the other secular objects detracted from its religious character."

But Sue Samuelson, an expert in folklore with a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Pennsylvania, testified that the fact that the Denver Nativity scene was located right next to Santa's workshop and in close proximity to the reindeer, Santa Claus and a wreath that said "Merry Christmas" had "a profound secular effect on the nativity scene."

Then-mayor William McNichols testified that he'd received "thousands" of letters, both pro and con, concerning the display. But he also said that the display — which then, as now, remains up through the end of the National Western Stock Show, in late January — generated a season of goodwill "that is rarely matched during the rest of the year."

Note that he said goodwill, not good taste.

Ultimately, the trial court determined that the Denver Nativity scene did not violate article II, section 4 of the Colorado Constitution — which includes the so-called "Preference Clause," that no preference shall be "given by law to any religious denomination or mode of worship" — and four years later, in September 1986, the Colorado Supreme Court concurred. "Considered in the context of the larger display," the judges ruled, the Denver Nativity scene "does not violate the Preference Clause of the Colorado Constitution."

In the 23 years since that ruling, the Colorado Supreme Court's position has only been strengthened by U.S. Supreme Court decisions. But the display itself has undergone some changes. To fight filching of the Baby Jesus — by radio pranksters, not cranky atheists — the Nativity scene was covered in glass. And at some pivotal point now lost to history, Santa's workshop was replaced with those country-music elves. John Hall, who was the director of public office buildings for the city for eighteen years, was responsible for the holiday lights display for sixteen of those years — but while he can recall replacing the lights, he's not sure where the figures originated. And up in the current mayor's office, Brown could not find any explanation of the current configuration — but then, it's not easy perusing decades of files in the glow of holiday lights, even LED holiday lights.

So while the provenance of the components is unknown, their purpose is clear: to separate church and state, elves and Nativity, and keep Christmas out of the courts. Yes, there is a Santa clause.

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Patricia Calhoun co-founded Westword in 1977; she’s been the editor ever since. She’s a regular on the weekly CPT12 roundtable Colorado Inside Out, played a real journalist in John Sayles’s Silver City, once interviewed President Bill Clinton while wearing flip-flops, and has been honored with numerous national awards for her columns and feature-writing.
Contact: Patricia Calhoun

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