Some years ago we explored the sticky question of a municipal, state, or federal entity celebrating the Christmas holiday with the public display of an overtly denominational religious symbol, such as a manger scene. The consensus at the time (in 2011) was that the best recourse is to abide by the Plastic Reindeer Rule. This decision by the Supreme court in 1984 refers to a Pawtucket, Rhode Island, case (Lynch v. Donnelly) wherein the court ruled that the city did not violate the separation of church and state principle when it included a Nativity scene among a number of other seasonal and mostly secular holiday decorations (e.g., life-size Christmas reindeer, giant candy canes, a wishing well, a Jewish menorah, etc.) displayed in a public park.
No doubt this Solomonic decision by the Supreme Court left both religious and non-religious advocates equally unhappy. Yet that is the essential wisdom of Solomonic judgments: Everybody wins if nobody wins!
Fast-forward 39 Years After the Plastic Reindeer Rule
Were we to describe today’s cultural and political zeitgeist in the United States, the concept of controversy would likely emerge as one salient characteristic. From the recent brouhaha over Dr. Seuss’s books to the inexplicable appeal of non-fungible tokens, there is a plethora of polarized opinions on just about every topic under the sun. It is hard to imagine something as endearing and familiar as the Christmas Nativity ever being discussed within the context of controversy; and yet here we are.
What is even more surprising is that the church-and-state-separation argument is not a recent controversy. In fact, it dates back to the very birth of the United States. The Founding Fathers at the time, all too familiar with the blood-soaked history of Europe’s religious wars, opted for a secular solution to maintain the peace. It was a principle, as things turned out, more honored in the breach. Inevitably, as American society became increasingly secular, Church and State were headed for a clash.
Even after the Supreme Court handed down its 1984 decision in Lynch v. Donnelly, interpreting the Establishment Clause of the 1st Amendment remains a gray area to this day. The so-called “Plastic Reindeer Rule” that arose from this decision was intended to quell any discord that might arise over display of holiday decorations with religious motifs.
Birth of the Plastic Reindeer Rule
The Plastic Reindeer Rule dates back to a time when a city-owned public Nativity scene in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, ignited some unexpected controversy. It wasn’t a run-of-the-mill squabble over the location, or the dimensions of the crèche, or the color pallet of the decorations, but rather the question of official religious endorsement. To complicate matters, virtually every city and town in the U.S. followed the same holiday practice.
In their five–four vote, the majority of the Justices declared that the Rhode Island display did not violate the Establishment Clause. An article on The Reindeer Rule by The Federalist Society reports that the presence of secular motifs such as reindeer and a sleigh along with the crèche fostered a “community spirit of goodwill in keeping with the season.” Over time, several other cases of a similar ilk have been brought forth and debated in earnest around the country.
Will Christmas Reindeer Fly in Again to Save the Day?
A timeless movie classic from yesteryear, Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer is always a good place to kickstart the holiday season. A poll by The Hollywood Reporter deemed it “the most beloved holiday film.” Maybe Rudolph can work his magic in our conflicted time as well!
Whether today’s conservative-leaning SCOTUS will weigh in again on the Reindeer Rule remains to be seen, as does our nation’s collective reaction to cultural confluences. Will we become even quicker to take umbrage over seemingly innocuous expressions of traditions and demand a watering down of our oldest and most cherished holiday symbols?
Whichever direction the blizzard blows, one thing seems clear: the Christmas reindeer’s presence promises magical moments in every home over the holidays. Children and adults around the world recognize the iconic Christmas reindeer as harbingers of cheer and bonhomie. As the holiday season draws nearer, let the Christmas reindeer be a joyful reminder for all that brings us together. Let’s believe in the magic that binds us.
To help promote the peace, think about ordering one of our life-sized Christmas reindeer to watch over your outdoor Nativity crèche this holiday season!