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U.S. City Ponders Winter Holiday Decoration Plans

It's getting to be the winter holiday season in the United States, and in towns and cities across the country, local governments are once again wrestling with the question of how — or whether — to officially observe religious holidays. Voters in Berkley, Michigan, for example, recently voted down a plan to have a traditional Christian nativity scene, or crèche, displayed at City Hall. And in the Western city of Fort Collins, Colorado — while officials insist that Christmas is alive and well — recommendations from a community-based task force may soon make signs of the Christian holiday harder to find in the public square.

Task force member Seth Anthony is one of 15 people who spent the summer reviewing the city's holiday display policy.

"It was difficult," Anthony says, "because every member of the task force came in with their own sort of ideas of what an ideal holiday display would be."

With both religious and secular interests represented, Anthony says there were many impassioned discussions leading up to the group's recent proposal. "Once we sort of agreed on baseline goals for what we want to accomplish in the holiday display —celebrate our commonality, recognize our diversity, bring joy to the holiday season — it really sort of came together after that."

Policy differences have surfaced in the past. A request to include a Jewish menorah for Hanukkah in the city's holiday display was turned down in 2005 and again in 2006. A more detailed review of what should or shouldn't be placed on city property began this August, at the urging of Mayor Doug Hutchinson.

"What's at stake is making Fort Collins a more inclusionary city," Mayor Hutchinson says, "and that is what — for the last two years — we've been hearing about."

But it could be that the only way Fort Collins residents will be able to catch the official holiday spirit will be by going to a city-owned museum. The main suggestion of the task force is the creation of an educational and multi-cultural display on museum grounds that, according to Mayor Hutchinson, will depict both non-religious and religious traditions:

"One of the items in the suggested display is a (Christian nativity) Crèche," Hutchinson explains. "And if we have the right kind of balance so it meets the Supreme Court test of a mixture of secular and religious symbols — we can certainly do that."

Museum staff would be responsible for designing the annual display, which task force member Seth Anthony says would run from November through the end of January. He says in addition to Christmas, the display will recognize Hanukkah, Diwali, Solstice, Kwanzaa and a wide range of other seasonal traditions celebrated by Fort Collins' diverse ethnic and religious communities.

The task force recommendations also cover the interior and exterior decorating of city buildings. Garlands of greenery are okay — but buildings cannot be decorated with ribbons or ornaments. Lights need to be white — and symbols of winter, such as snowflakes and icicles, should replace more traditional decorations such as a cross or candy cane.

Chip Steiner, the executive director of the Fort Collins Downtown Development Authority, or D.D.A., thinks the task force proposal wouldn't be that difficult to implement. "If the recommendation is a celebration of light — basically white lights and snowflakes and things, that's all we have anyway. So you would not see any change downtown." Steiner predicts that not everyone will be happy with this one-size-fits-all holiday policy. "You receive criticism because you're not allowing a menorah," he says. "We receive criticism because we're 'taking Christmas out of Christmas.' It just depends on what perspective someone's coming from. You can't make everyone happy and that's one reason you talk about having white lights and making it pretty generic."

Because many downtown buildings are privately-owned, not city property, storefronts are already boasting garlands of green, red and gold, depicting bows, candles and a Christmas tree. The downtown plaza itself is owned and managed by the DDA and is not covered by the task force recommendations.

A leader of the city's Jewish Community, Rabbi Yerachmiel Gorelik, says the Old Town Square is the center of Fort Collins' holiday festivities — for all faiths and traditions. He hopes the Downtown Development Authority will align its policies with the city's, if the decorating suggestions are approved when the group meets again in late November. "We hope the D.D.A. will follow the city's lead and allow for a similar display (of Jewish tradition)," the Rabbi says, "which is what we've been asking for all along, essentially."

That will likely hinge on the decision of the city council and Fort Collins Mayor Doug Hutchinson. "There may be some strong opinions about parts of this," Hutchinson predicts, "and we may make some adjustments." He sees the process as a giant step towards a city-sponsored observance of the winter holidays that's more inclusive of different cultures. But the mayor admits the devil will be in the details — and believes it could be a few more years before the task force suggestions actually become city policy.