Saturday, December 19, 2009


Over the course of a year, I, like many people, donate money to various good causes and charitable organizations. There is one, however, that I enjoy helping out so much that I actually look forward to each Christmas season when I will be able to send them money again.

I am referring to the Santa Monica Nativity Scenes Committee which manages the construction and placement of that city’s Christmas crèche display. This tradition was started in 1953 and it continues to this day where Wilshire Boulevard ends at Palisades Park which is located just north of the world famous Santa Monica Pier in Southern California.

What makes Santa Monica’s Nativity display so unique is “the number of booths which present the drama of Christ’s birth.” Whereas most Nativity displays in other cities have a single scene depicting the birth of Jesus, in Santa Monica, there are a total of 14 booths which can be viewed in sequence as one drives south along Ocean Avenue. The first scene shows ‘The Annunciation’, when the Virgin Mary met Elizabeth and John the Baptist leapt in the womb, and the story continues to unfold, ending with the Holy Family’s return to Nazareth. The classic Nativity scene which shows the baby Jesus in the manger surrounded by Joseph, Mary, angels, shepherds, cows and sheep is the seventh of the fourteen scenes in Palisades Park.

The Santa Monica Nativity Scenes Committee has been dogged by a variety of problems and forced to overcome a number of challenges through the decades. There was the issue of Proposition 13 in 1978; a threatened lawsuit from the un-American Madalyn Murray O’Hair and her un-American ‘American Atheists’ organization and, of course, that communist front organization the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU); and there was the dark days of financial crisis beginning in 1979. But one of the most frightening challenges came in 2002 and the proposal of a new city ordinance which would have banned the Nativity Scenes from being constructed in a public park. What made this particularly unnerving was Santa Monica’s notorious reputation for Liberalism. Back when I lived there, it was often referred to by conservatives as “The Socialist Republic Of Santa Monica” and “The People's Republic Of Santa Monica.”

I and other Nativity Scene supporters had received a November 24, 2002 letter from Committee Co-Chairman Reverend Clarence Crites which stated in part:

You may have recently heard a few rumors that the city was planning to deny The Nativity Scenes Committee a permit to use the Palisades Park for erection of its Nativity Scenes. We are happy to report that we were given a reprieve for this year so that the City Council could have time to more closely examine the language of the Ordinance that would curtail park usage. It appears that the Council is willing to take a more favorable stance for us on the issue in light of the 49-year pageant history. While we have the green light this year, it is still an issue that must be decided for next year and all further years. Your favorable thoughts expressed to the members of the City Council, the City Attorney, and the City Manager could be a helpful influence in their decision.

I immediately responded by writing letters to City Attorney Marsha Jones Moutrie and City Manager Susan E. McCarthy. Here is what I wrote to them:

When my Dad passed away in 1996, my cousin Steve wrote the following in a sympathy card: “Chuck was one of the nicest people that I have ever been acquainted with. My fondest memory of him was when we would drive around Santa Monica on Christmas Eve waiting for Santa Claus to visit ... that was about thirty years ago but I still remember it well.”

My cousin was referring to our yearly tradition of going to see the Santa Monica Nativity Scenes in Palisades Park while “Santa” was visitng my Grandparents’ house with a few early presents for the young kids.

The Santa Monica Nativity Scenes hold such a special place in my personal history that, although I moved to Arizona in 1992, I still look forward to donating several hundred dollars to the Nativity Scenes Committee every year in December. It is an important part of how I keep the true meaning of Christmas alive in my heart amidst all of the colorful commercialism.

The Santa Monica Nativity Scenes are not just a significant part of my past but also a rich tradition that has bound several generations together, becoming a notable aspect of Santa Monica’s identity every Christmas.

I understand that this tradition is now in jeopardy because a very small minority are offended by Santa Monica’s custom. What a shame it will be if the vast majority of the city’s citizens are deprived of this symbol which is so unique that it was alluded to in the song ‘Christmas In Los Angeles’, penned by the Disney songwriting team of Sherman and Sherman and recorded by Lawrence Welk.

As for the legal grounds for permitting a display of this nature on public property, I am sure that you are well aware of the fact that neither the phrase nor the concept of “separation of church and state” exists in a single document of our country’s Founding Era. In fact, in the case of The Church Of The Holy Trinity v. United States (1844), the Supreme Court ruled that “our civilisations and our institutions are emphatically Christian”, and John Jay, the very first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court called America “our Christian nation.”

I do not believe that the Nativity Scenes are antithetical to America’s Constitution, and therefore I am enclosing a couple of relevant tracts on this contemporary controversy written by David Barton who is an expert on it. I hope that you will review them in light of the impact your future decision will have on this touching tradition that we have literally grown up with.

If you should wish to investigate this subject in greater detail, I cannot over emphasize the importance of Mr. Barton’s thoroughly documentd and brilliantly presented book ‘Original Intent: The Courts, The Constitution, And Religion’ which stands as a rock-solid testimony to the Christian bedrock that undergirds our Nation.

Or, perhaps you may wish to contact Mr. Barton personally. He has written numerous position papers for members of Congress on this very issue, and I am sure he would welcome the opportunity to consult with you on this. (800) 873-2845

I and a great many others hope you will be guided by the Spirit of Truth when considering this question. I trust that you will represent the bulk of your fellow citizens well.

I thank you for your time and your consideration.

Most Sincerely,

~ Stephen T. McCarthy

P.S. –- According to the largest survey of religion in America, a 1990 poll commissioned by the Graduate School of the City University of New York, 86.5 percent of Americans identify themselves as Christians.

I soon received responses from both Moutrie and McCarthy, and the latter wrote: “As we evaluate appropriate uses of City Park space and First Amendment protections we are mindful of community sentiment.”

Happily, one year later, in November of 2003, I received a letter from Co-Chairmen of the Santa Monica Nativity Scenes Committee, Clarence Crites and Hunter Jameson. They wrote:

Dear Friends Of The Santa Monica Nativity Scenes,

Thanks to our gracious Lord and your prayers and financial support, the Santa Monica Nativity Scenes, a Christmas tradition since 1954, will take place again this year.

On September 9, the City Council passed without opposition an ordinance that put the display on firm legal ground for this year and the future. The Nativity Scenes Committee worked to bring about this result, and we thank God, scenes supporters, City Attorney Marsha Moutrie and the City Council for the outcome. …

The Nativity Scenes provide a clearly visible reminder to Santa Monica residents and visitors of what Christmas really is. The scenes are a witness of God’s love for man as demonstrated in sending His Son, Jesus Christ, the Savior of the world, to live as one of us, starting as a baby. …

Thank you for your assistance in the past and for your help this year to ensure that the true meaning of Christmas continues to shine forth in Santa Monica.

If anyone is seeking a grand way to help spread the true meaning of Christmas, I can think of few organizations working to do that which are more worthy of a financial donation than is the Santa Monica Nativity Scenes Committee. This unique Christmas display must remain entirely funded by private contributions, and the Committee certainly puts those contributions toward a great, time-honored tradition that stands out like a brand new Holy Bible surrounded by soccer balls, Chinese-made Barbies, Transformers action figures, and video games underneath an artificial “Holiday Tree” on “Season’s Greetings Day.”

~ Stephen T. McCarthy


The Santa Monica Nativity Scenes: Website Home

The Santa Monica Nativity Scenes: History

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