The Reindeer Rule: Why You'll See Rudolph in Any Public Christmas Display

iStock.com/ekash
iStock.com/ekash

The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment says “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” But in practice, not everyone agrees on what abiding by that clause means in real-life situations. For instance, can a courthouse or a public park feature a nativity scene?

According to the Supreme Court, maybe not—or at least not unless it includes a menorah and a plastic reindeer, too. In the 1984 case of Lynch v. Donnelly, the court established a precedent that became known as the “reindeer rule," a legal standard that has governed public displays of holiday cheer ever since.

The case hinged on a Rhode Island display that was owned by the city of Pawtucket but was located in a park owned by a nonprofit organization. The annual display, which dated back 40 years, included a nativity scene (also known as a creche or crèche) in addition to other Christmastime symbols like reindeer pulling Santa’s sleigh, a Christmas tree, and a “seasons greetings” banner. The justices ruled in favor of the nativity scene, arguing that there was a secular argument to be made about including the religious reference:

The display is sponsored by the city to celebrate the Holiday recognized by Congress and national tradition and to depict the origins of that Holiday; these are legitimate secular purposes. Whatever benefit to one faith or religion or to all religions inclusion of the creche in the display effects, is indirect, remote, and incidental, and is no more an advancement or endorsement of religion than the congressional and executive recognition of the origins of Christmas, or the exhibition of religious paintings in governmentally supported museums.

In the case, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor put forth a legal rule of thumb called the “endorsement test,” writing that governments can run afoul of the Establishment Clause by appearing to endorse a specific religion or a belief, rather than being inclusive of a variety of beliefs. “Endorsement sends a message to nonadherents that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community, and an accompanying message to adherents that they are insiders, favored members of the political community,” O'Connor explained.

According to the National Constitution Center, “Court observers at the time saw the presence of the reindeer as broadening the purpose of the display.” And so the reindeer rule was born.

Then, a 1989 Supreme Court ruling in reference to two holiday displays inside and outside the Allegheny County courthouse in Pittsburgh made this standard even more clear. A nativity scene inside the courthouse that prominently displayed a banner that read, in Latin, “Glory to God for the birth of Jesus Christ,” with no secular objects on display, was ruled unconstitutional. Meanwhile, a display outside the courthouse with a menorah, a Christmas tree, and a sign that declared the city’s “salute to liberty,” as the case ruling puts it, was allowed to stay. With the overtly Christian indoor display, nothing counteracted the government endorsement of “a patently Christian message.”

As Justice Harry Blackmun wrote in his opinion, “Although the government may acknowledge Christmas as a cultural phenomenon, it may not observe it as a Christian holy day by suggesting that people praise God for the birth of Jesus,” while the menorah display combined “with a Christmas tree and a sign saluting liberty does not impermissibly endorse both the Christian and Jewish faiths, but simply recognizes that both Christmas and Chanukah are part of the same winter-holiday season, which has attained a secular status in our society. The widely accepted view of the Christmas tree as the preeminent secular symbol of the Christmas season emphasizes this point.” This ruling only applies to government property and government sponsored displays, though, which is why it's completely fine for private entities like churches to erect public displays of nativity scenes on their property.

Though the reindeer rule seems pretty clear, it hasn’t stopped towns from testing the boundaries of the court’s ruling over the decades since it was established.

In 2014, Cherokee County, Texas, for instance, got into a spat with the American Humanist Association over the constitutionality of a nativity scene in front of the county courthouse. The state attorney general publicly supported the county, and there was no forced removal of the display. That same year, similar controversies took place in towns in Virginia and Arkansas. Some cities have groups like the Thomas More Society and the American Nativity Scene Committee, which work to get Christian displays erected in public places across the country, to thank for their nativity scenes. The former calls nativity scenes “classic free speech.”

But some towns have proven to be a little more inclusive of other holiday decor—or at least wary of litigation. The Florida Capitol building in Tallahassee, for instance, has approved holiday displays that include not just nativity scenes, but privately funded decorative contributions from the Satanic Temple, Seinfeld fans (a Festivus pole), and Pastafarian followers of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

But the U.S. remains a very Christian country, despite its longstanding religious freedom laws, and according to a 2014 Pew Research Center survey, 44 percent of American adults think Christian symbols are OK to display on government property, even in the absence of symbols from other faiths. It should be noted that a Pew survey that year on religion found that 71 percent of Americans identified as Christians, though the percentages of residents practicing other faiths or identifying as atheists has been rising. Still, that doesn’t mean that nativity scenes get total respect in America. Plenty of baby Jesuses get swiped out of their mangers every year.

How 7 Places Around the World Celebrate Thanksgiving

wiesdie/iStock via Getty Images Plus
wiesdie/iStock via Getty Images Plus

Thanksgiving seems like a holiday that's as American as apple pie, or pumpkin pie for that matter. But actually, there are variants of this day all around the world. Their meanings, dates, and customs may vary, but they all revolve around the concept of gratitude.

1. Germany

A religious holiday that often takes place on the first Sunday of October, Erntedankfest is essentially a harvest festival that gives thanks for a good year and good fortune. In rural areas, the harvest aspect might be taken more literally, but churches in cities also hold festivities. This might include a procession with an Erntekrone, a harvest crown made of grain, flowers, and fruit. Although turkeys are making inroads, fattened up chickens (die Masthähnchen), hens (die Poularde), castrated roosters (der Kapaun), and geese (die Gans) are favored for the feast.

2. Japan

Kinrō Kansha no Hi is a national public holiday that Japan celebrates every November 23. Derived from ancient harvest festival rituals named Niinamesai, its modern meaning is more tied to a celebration of hard work and community involvement, hence its translation: Labor Thanksgiving Day. While Niinamesai's traditions reach back thousands of years, Kinrō Kansha no Hi was created officially in 1948. It was intended to celebrate the rights of workers in post-World War II Japan. Today it’s celebrated with labor organization-led festivities, and children creating crafts and gifts for local police officers.

3. Canada

Arising from the same European origins of harvest festivals that led to the United States's version, Canadian Thanksgiving was first celebrated in 1578, when English explorer Martin Frobisher gave thanks for his fleet's safe travels in present-day Nunavut. Parliament made it a national holiday in 1879. But in 1957, Parliament moved it from November 6, declaring, "A Day of General Thanksgiving to Almighty God for the bountiful harvest with which Canada has been blessed."

4. Grenada

The West Indian island's version of Thanksgiving shares no origin with America's, and yet would not exist without the United States. Held on October 25 every year, Grenada's Thanksgiving marks the anniversary of the 1983 U.S. military invasion to restore order after the death of socialist leader Maurice Bishop. American soldiers who were stationed in the country the following month told locals about their upcoming Thanksgiving holiday, its signature feast, and its intention to focus on gratitude. To show their own gratitude, the people of Grenada worked in secret to surprise the soldiers with meals like those they longed for, complete with turkey and all the fixings. Today, the holiday is celebrated in formal ceremonies of remembrance.

5. Liberia

A variation on America's Thanksgiving can be found in the West African nation of Liberia, which was founded in the 19th century by freed slaves from the U.S. The holiday is celebrated primarily by Christians on the first Thursday of November. Liberians fill their churches with baskets of local fruits like bananas, papayas, mangoes, and pineapples; an auction for the baskets is held after the service, and then families retreat to their homes to feast. Concerts and dancing have evolved as a distinctive part of Liberia's Thanksgiving traditions.

6. The Netherlands

Before the Pilgrims boarded the Mayflower for the New World, they lived in Leiden in the Netherlands, where they settled after leaving England to escape religious persecution. They lived and worked in Leiden from 1609 to 1620. The Dutch have claimed influence on several elements of colonial American life from this contact, including civil marriages, ladder-back chairs, and wood-planked house construction. Some even suggest the Pilgrims’ Thanksgiving found inspiration in Leiden's annual commemoration of the breaking of the Spanish siege of 1574. Regardless, the people of Leiden still celebrate the American settlers who once lived there with a non-denominational church service on the fourth Thursday of November. Afterwards, cookies and coffee are offered [PDF].

7. Norfolk Island

Like Grenada, this small and remote Pacific Island that sits between Australia and New Zealand owes its Thanksgiving to contact with the U.S., specifically with its whalers in the mid-1890s. It began when American trader Isaac Robinson proposed decorating the All Saints Church with palm leaves and lemons, hoping to attract whalers to a Thanksgiving service/celebration. Though Robinson passed away before the following Thanksgiving, the tradition caught on. Now on the last Wednesday of November, families bring fruit and vegetables to the church to celebrate, tying cornstalks to pews, and decorating the altar with fresh flowers. Where they would once recollect their offerings afterwards, now these are sold to raise money for the church.

Food for Fines: Many Communities Let Residents Pay Parking Tickets With Canned Food Donations

Warren_Price/iStock via Getty Images
Warren_Price/iStock via Getty Images

Depending on where you live, paying off your parking tickets could be a chance to give back to the underserved members of your community this holiday season. Towns, cities, and universities across the country are embracing food for fines programs: initiatives that allow residents to settle their parking debts by donating non-perishable food items.

Accepting canned goods in lieu of cash parking ticket payments isn't a new practice. Lexington, Kentucky has been running holiday food for fines drives since 2013. Even in larger cities, like Las Vegas, such programs have proven successful. Recently in Muncie, Indiana, the local police department used it as an opportunity to collect pet supplies instead of pantry staples.

The model has become more popular in recent years, and this holiday season, it will be easier than ever to find a food for fines program near you. In Bay Village, Ohio, a city located about 15 miles west of Cleveland, officials are looking for non-perishables to provide to the local Bay Food Ministry. Individual items are worth $5 in owed parking fines, with the town waiving up to $25 per person.

Universities are also hopping on board the trend. At the University of Colorado Boulder, students can donate five items to have their parking tickets forgiven. Bloomsburg University in Pennsylvania has already collected more than 100 cans from students through its own food for fines program.

Many of the initiatives will run through this Friday and conclude ahead of Thanksgiving week, so if you have a parking ticket you need to pay off, contact your local parking services office soon to see if it's participating.

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