Religious Rite

"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 crche 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."

Not everyone has such grandiose ideas. Some Denver fashion designers suggest that the city not just back up and take off one accessory, but take off the whole damned outfit. Nicole Beckett with Agogo Threads requests a simple "blue, blue Christmas," while Deb Henriksen of Equillibrium Clothing would like just evergreen garlands with white lights, richly colored bows and a "lit life-size manger scene -- but not a cheesy one. Beautiful, natural, meaningful."

Even more minimalist in its desires is the Anti-Defamation League. "We would have no holiday display at all," says Bruce DeBoskey, regional director of the ADL's mountain states office. "ŒSeason's greetings' is a euphemism for the religious holidays of this particular season. It's the only season for which we offer greetings. This is a season where many people celebrate different religious observances. ADL believes that these religious observances are wonderful and need to be honored in the home, in the house of worship and in the heart -- not in the public square."

If the public square is going to have decorations, they should at least be interesting. That's the belief of the designers at Belmar, the surprisingly artistic urban development in Lakewood. "In my opinion, holiday decor is really an open field in terms of doing new and interesting things," says Eliza Prall, the marketing director behind the Belmar Christmas trees made of recycled license plates. "People take the same approach everywhere. So if I were to be charged with the opportunity to look at something at the City and County Building, I wouldn't think it has to be nostalgic and traditional. If you look at the country, there are very few programs that have stepped forward and done something unique. You really have to step back and start all over again -- different materials, different methods."

Although Prall doesn't have any specific suggestions for fixing Denver's best-known eyesore, Curious Theatre Company marketing director Mare Trevathan Philpott has one: "What I want to see are those alien uber-sculptures adorned with light-up Rudolph headbands."

Now, that's marketing. And Lynne Bruning, proprietor of the shop The Girl's Gotta Have It!, goes Philpott one better. "If I could make the light display over," she says, "I'd say get rid of the camel, get rid of the ass, get rid of the mother, and, yes, the three kings have to go! I am happy to take the gold. Being a tried-and-true New England WASP, I have always found the display laughable. But if that's what people want and it does not impact me, go ahead, turn our second-most-important governmental architectural edifice into a multicolor religious mythical parody on the magic castle. But honestly, now. This controversy is a great opportunity for change. If it has to be lit, please do it in a way to bring our community together. If we as a people need anything this holiday season, it is a way to come together, communicate effectively and make a positive change for Denver."


KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Amy Haimerl

Latest Stories