Greenbelt Interfaith News

    January 1998

    Maryland City Removes Reindeer from Holiday Lights Display After Citizen Complains
    By Heather Elizabeth Peterson
    Greenbelt Interfaith News

    The city staff of Greenbelt, Maryland, thought they had done everything right: they gave the city's holiday celebration the neutral title of "Festival of Lights," they scheduled classes to teach Hanukkah and Kwanzaa crafts, and they set up a lights display consisting of such secular symbols as Santa, snowmen, and reindeer.

    Then a citizen complained that the reindeer were too religious.

    As a result of this and two other citizen comments, the City of Greenbelt removed the reindeer from their location under the Christmas tree next to the city's Municipal Building. The reindeer will be placed on display again next year, but in a different setting.

    The citizen's concern was the setting rather than the reindeer themselves, said Bo Ferguson, management analyst for the city. "The complaint was that the combination of the straw underneath the tree and the presence of the animals created a religious scene," he said. "It gave us the impression that it might be deemed offensive to some people."

    Two other people also mentioned the matter, Mr. Ferguson reported. One glanced out of the window at the tree and said, "Oh, are you putting together a creche down there?" The other asked, in a "humorous" fashion, "Are you going to hang a menorah out there?" The combination of remarks convinced the staff that it would be wise to remove the reindeer.

    "We had never intended to create a religious scene, but it appeared that people were taking it that way," Mr. Ferguson said.

    Greenbelt, Maryland, a suburb of Washington, D.C., was created as a planned community by the U.S. federal government in 1939. Its residents were seeking modest-income housing during the Great Depression and were selected by a quota system to ensure social and religious diversity. So small was the original community that the Protestants joined together to form an ecumenical church. Within a year, Greenbelt's Protestants, Catholics, Jews, and Mormons had formed an interfaith organization.

    In those years, the town held a Christmas celebration with strong emphasis on the religious aspects of the holiday. Gradually over the years, this developed into the present holiday celebration, which consists largely of secular Christmas festivities. Until 1996, the only holiday symbol in the city center was a Christmas tree; at that point, a lights display was added, including the reindeer.

    Holiday displays have created much controversy in recent years throughout the United States. On December 17, for example, a federal court judge ruled that a resident of Fairfax County, Virginia, could not place a Christmas creche in front of the county's Government Center. Greenbelt, though, has remained free of such controversies until now. James K. Giese, who was city manager from 1963 until 1991, does not recall any troubles of this sort during his time in office.

    "Frankly, in the global scheme of things it did not seem that big an issue," said Mr. Ferguson. "Some [staff members] said that it was a shame that we had to do this, but I don't think anyone wanted people to be upset by what the city was doing. The holiday season is not a time for upsetting people; it's a time of joy."

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    © 1998 Heather Elizabeth Peterson
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