Dec. 9, 2005 — -- 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.
And the Catholic League launched a boycott against Wal-Mart for replacing "Merry Christmas" with "Happy Holidays," and yesterday resolved a dispute it had with the Lands' End clothing catalog for using the word "holiday" instead of "Christmas." Similarly, the group Concerned Women for America has issued a "naughty or nice" list of retailers "showing which businesses are honoring the reason for the season (the birth of Jesus), which ones are not and which have mixed records."
Various municipalities also have been criticized for lighting public "holiday trees" rather than Christmas trees.
When it comes to schools celebrating Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa, the widely held standard is a 1980 court ruling, Florey v. Sioux Falls School District, which was upheld by the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The ruling says that religious songs can be a part of school concerts as long as secular songs are, too. So "Oh, Come, All Ye Faithful" would have to be followed by something like "Frosty the Snowman" or "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer."
"It's fine for the public schools to observe the religious holidays in an academic and objective manner," said Jeremy Leaming, spokesman for Americans United for Separation of Church and State. "It's not fine to do so ... in a way to advance a specific religion."
"You can include 'Silent Night,'" he added. "Just don't put on a concert that looks like something your local Baptist church would be putting on. Public schools serve kids of many different religions and no religion at all."
Messer said parents and students have enjoyed past performances of "The Little Tree's Christmas Gift," and no one has complained before. Traditional carols will be sung by students as well during the program.
She says she does not fault the father for his feelings. "I don't think it's taking things too far," she said. "I believe they're totally entitled to their opinion."
Staver said if the school does not respond to Legal Counsel's request for the program to be changed, "we will file suit" -- possibly today. Messer would not comment on the district's response but said the show will go on.
"We are planning to present the program," she said.