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Let's Celebrate

By Frank Gruber

January 3, 2012 -- I hope everyone had good holidays. Let’s face it -- the weather was spectacular.

I tried to combine all the holiday stuff of seeing friends and family, shopping, cooking, sleeping in, etc., with seeing some of the museum and gallery exhibitions that have been mounted for the Getty-instigated “Pacific Standard Time” festival about how Southern California became an international center for art.

I didn’t get to as many of the shows as I wanted to get to, but one of the best days was when we drove out to the Huntington to see the exhibit of furniture crafted by Sam Maloof, which was shown in the context of the art that was being created concurrently with his work in the Pomona Valley. The sky was clear, the mountains were a cyclorama in the distance, and to reach the show’s gallery you needed to walk across the gardens.

It was one of those congruencies of time, place and barometric pressure that make you happy to be a Californian.

* * *

It was winter-beautiful in Santa Monica, too, and one day I took a walk in Palisades Park. Admittedly, I wasn’t there only to take in the ocean views; I wanted to see what the atheists had managed to accomplish by winning, in the City’s lottery, most of the spaces in the park that the City had set aside for holiday displays.

In my Dec. 12 column (WHAT_I_SAY_Akedism,December 12, 2011,) I criticized the atheist groups not only for overwhelming the lottery with applications in a strategy to drive the traditional Nativity displays out of the park, but also for replacing the Nativity scenes with didactic signs that showed nothing of the care and attention that the churches had applied to their 14 tableaus depicting the Christmas story. My advice to the atheists was that “if you’re hell bent on making yourselves look like jerks, at least make an effort so that you don’t look like lazy jerks.”

When I wrote that column only a few of the atheists’ displays were up in the park; as simplistic as they were, I regret to report that the quality of the atheists’ displays got worse. The first atheistic displays at least tried to show some wit in the form of quotations and a few graphics (unfortunately, wit used less to make a point than to ridicule the religious beliefs of others), but the displays that appeared later turned out to be tacky signs on sticks stuck into what looked like weighted tin cans.

Here’s a picture of one:

“Generation Atheists’” contribution to Santa Monica’s holiday displays in Palisades Park. Photos by Frank Gruber

I counted six signs like these, each taking up one of the limited spaces the City made available for holiday displays.

Here’s a picture of one of the Nativity displays:

Okay, it’s hokey, but isn’t homemade authenticity part of the tradition?

I’m a longtime member of the ACLU, I’m Jewish, and as I wrote in the Dec. 12 column, I don’t even care if God exists. The traditional Nativity displays mean nothing to me from a philosophical or religious point-of-view, but nor do I consider these temporary displays in the park to be proselytizing in any serious sense of the word, or in any way to reflect an “establishment” of religion. They are the celebration of religious beliefs by people who are religious.

As someone who enjoys celebrations, I enjoy looking at the displays and reflecting on the happiness they give others.

The First Amendment guarantees the right to express one’s religion freely and there is nothing in the First Amendment that singles out religious expression as the only kind of free speech that must be made in private or on private property. I encourage the atheists to exercise their rights of expression, but it’s wrong to do so in a way calculated to prevent others from expressing their beliefs.

Meanwhile, there is so much room in Palisades Park that it’s incredible to me that the City decided to ration spaces and hold a lottery. I hope that the City Council looks into this and comes up with a plan for next year that allows for everyone to celebrate, and hopefully with as much artistry as possible.


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