The latest salvo in the "war on Christmas" has been fired -- this time over the lyrics to the venerable Christmas carol "Silent Night."
Many who believe Christmas has been overly secularized are pouncing on a Wisconsin school that will present the tune with different words, under the title "Cold in the Night."
The controversy began when the father of a student at Ridgeway Elementary School in Dodgeville, Wis., was upset with the lyrics his child brought home to learn. He told the non-profit group Liberty Counsel they are: "Cold in the night, no one in sight, winter winds whirl and bite, how I wish I were happy and warm, safe with my family out of the storm."
Offended by the new words, he was unable to convince the school not to perform the song and contacted Liberty Counsel, which provides free legal assistance in religious freedom cases.
"We first try to educate a lot of people who are confused over the law," said Mathew Staver, president and general counsel of Liberty Counsel. "This kind of a situation is not so much confusion as it is an insensitivity and an attempt to secularize Christmas, because here they're actually taking a song and mocking it, in my opinion."
Dodgeville School District officials say traditional, unaltered carols will also be sung, and that "Cold in the Night" is part of a decades-old Christmas play that students have performed in years past, and is not an attack on the religious nature of the holiday.
"There's been a tremendous misunderstanding here," said District Administrator Diane Messer. "Somebody locally, I believe, misunderstood -- even after our discussion with them -- that one of our teachers took the liberty of changing the lyrics."
Students at the school will present "The Little Tree's Christmas Gift," a musical production that tells the story of a family going out to buy a Christmas tree. Other melodies include "Jingle Bells," "We Three Kings," "O Little Town of Bethlehem" and "Chanukah." "Each one has the lyrics changed in order to tell the story," Messer said. "It's so that young children know the melodies."
"You can go to children's programs in any season and you will find adaptations of music with new lyrics to tell a story, and you can go to any music store and find music that has been adapted," she added. "Those things occur."
Staver said the history of the play in Dodgeville does not matter. "The fact is, if they've performed it in the past, they've been wrong in the past and they need to correct it," he said. "To take 'Silent Night' and to intentionally change the words as they do here is wrong. No matter if they've done it in the past, no matter if somebody else wrote the song, it's the school's actions [that are the problem]."
The incident is the latest this season in what has become a contentious debate over how Christmas should be celebrated, with some religious leaders and media commentators alleging there is an all-out war on the holiday. Liberty Counsel, with help from evangelical leader Jerry Falwell, has launched a "Friend or Foe Christmas Campaign," which Staver said aims to educate about how Christmas can be publicly celebrated and litigate for changes. Similarly, the Alliance Defense Fund has created its Christmas Project "to spread the message, 'Merry Christmas. It's okay to say it,'" according to the group's Web site.