Dispatches from the Creation Wars

More Fake War on Christmas Nonsense

I’m sure you’ve all heard by now about that school in Wisconsin that Falwell’s legal group threatened with a lawsuit because they allegedly changed the words to “Silent Night” to be “Cold in the Night”. Bill O’Reilly has been fuming all over the place about this. Mathew Staver, of the misaptly named Liberty Counsel and part of Falwell’s “Friend or Foe” campaign, threatened a lawsuit against them saying

People are outraged. We sent a demand letter asking them to immediately change the song and allow the actual lyrics of “Silent Night,” and if they do not, if they insist on this ridiculous course of action, we’ll file a federal lawsuit.

And of course, Bill O’Reilly had to raise the nonsense level even higher:

In Wisconsin, an elementary school changed the name of ‘Silent Night’ to ‘Cold In The Night.’

There’s just one problem – it’s all a bunch of crap. Totally false. Here’s the truth:

Diane Messer, administrator of the Dodgeville School District, said the holiday show is titled “The Little Tree’s Christmas Gift” and was copyrighted in 1988. It’s about a family that goes to buy a Christmas tree and uses a collection of familiar Christmas carol melodies to tell the story.

“Somebody totally misunderstood and had the belief that one of our teachers took it upon herself to rewrite the words to ‘Silent Night,”’ she said. “This program is well within our district’s policy which allows us the use of both religious and secular content in our curriculum and in our productions and performances.”

Messer said the program has been performed “several times” over the last 18 years and the school district has no immediate plans to address the Liberty Counsel’s concerns.

“It’s a misunderstanding and people have drawn all sorts of absurd conclusions from it,” she said.

The Little Tree’s Christmas Gift is a Christmas play often performed both in schools and churches around the country. It was written by a church choir director, in fact. Is it part of some grand anti-Christmas conspiracy? Judge for yourself. Here’s the song list:

1. The Little Tree’s Christmas Gift (Overture)
2. Buy Our Trees! (The Tree Men’s Song)
3. Please Make A Deal For Me (Tree Buyers’ Song #1)
4. Please Make A Deal For Me (Tree Buyers’ Song #2)
5. Cold In the Night (The Little Tree’s Song)
6. O Little Tree With Slender Branch (Family’s Song)
7. Here We Come A-Caroling / O Christmas Tree (Carolers’ Songs)
8. Underscore Tree Music
9. Christmas Tree Song
10. Deck The Halls / We Wish You A Merry Christmas (Audience Participation Carols)

The song “Cold in the NIght” is sung by the little tree, which is so small and scraggly that they nearly turned it into firewood. The little tree is shivering in the cold and sings this to the tune of “Silent Night”. It’s not a slam on Christmas or an attempt to “secularize” it, it’s a song in the middle of a play that is all about Christmas.

And here’s the worst part. After getting buried with thousands of phone calls and emails, the school district caved in and removed the song from the program rather than telling these people to get a life and go away. Chalk up another victory for rank demagoguery and delusions of persecution.


  1. #1 Matthew
    December 15, 2005

    Even if this were true, how could that possibly be something for a federal lawsuit? Is it illegal to use the melody of one song with the lyrics of a different song?

  2. #2 Matthew
    December 15, 2005

    Even if this were true, how could that possibly be something for a federal lawsuit? Is it illegal to use the melody of one song with the lyrics of a different song?

  3. #3 Qoheleth
    December 15, 2005

    Of course, the original lyrics to that song began not with “Silent Night, Holy Night,” but with “Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht.” Will Falwell be suing to prevent people from singing it in English?

  4. #4 Ed Brayton
    December 15, 2005

    Matthew wrote:

    Even if this were true, how could that possibly be something for a federal lawsuit? Is it illegal to use the melody of one song with the lyrics of a different song?

    Of course not. They essentially threatened them with a mythical lawsuit without any legal grounds. The irony is that the religious right often accuses the ACLU of using lawsuit threats to “intimidate” schools into doing what they want, but as a general rule when the ACLU does file suit they typically win them. So there is at least valid legal grounds for the threat; here there isn’t.

  5. #5 llane1@unl.edu
    December 15, 2005

    I think we’re talking “moron’s crusade”

  6. #6 PaulNoonan
    December 15, 2005

    This post is simply great, Ed. As I occasionally deal with Wisconsin conservatives it actually made my life easier today.


  7. #7 SharonB
    December 15, 2005

    More evidence, in my book, that Christian attorney is an oxymoron; a perfect blend of scribe and Pharisee.

  8. #8 Gretchen
    December 15, 2005
  9. #9 Ed Darrell
    December 16, 2005

    Liberty Counsel’s threats of suits should be regarded as nuisance threats, if the facts show that the school was simply using the play as written by its author.

    Is the lawyer for Liberty Counsel licensed somewhere? Does that state investigate ethical lapses of lawyers?

  10. #10 CPT_Doom
    December 16, 2005

    This is my favorite quote in the article:

    They’re discriminating based upon a religious viewpoint,” Staver said. “It sends a tremendous disconnect to a young person when you’re familiar with the song ‘Silent Night’ and tune and all of sudden you learn the same tune with totally secular words.”

    I know exactly how he feels – every time the British sing “God Save the Queen” to the tune of “America the Beautiful” [/end sarcasm]

  11. #11 dkew
    December 16, 2005

    The nutters are scribbling about the secularization of Christmas again, as they always do at this time of year, but it’s more virulent than usual, because the nutter bosses are stirring the pot, claiming there’s a “War on Christmas”. This year they’ve seized on the salutation of “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” as proof that the ACLU’s Jews, atheists and Communists are running American commerce and government. Our local paper (the Worcester Telegram) is running a raft of them.
    Dianne Willliamson, our favorite local columnist, points out that evangelicals need to feel they’re being persecuted, so they’ll generate a problem if there isn’t a real one (6 Dec 2005). This applies to the current Creationist hoopla as well – the IDiots complain of conspiratorial persecution whether they are ignored or discussed.

    We took the kids to Old Sturbridge Village (Sturbridge MA) for its Christmas Stroll. OSV has been in major financial difficulties for some years (like most other living-history museums, I understand), and is trying all sorts of things to break even. Christmas celebrations were anachronistic to the 1800-1840 time frame of OSV, so it had resisted the temptation to cash in until recently, but now it does it up prettily with strings of little white lights along the fence lines, and electric candles in the house windows.

    Anyway, I was sure it would be pleasant to visit in the evening, with a foot of new snow, and it was. I’ve always been impressed with how much the intrpreters can tell you when you catch them in a calm moment, and was again. We knew that it was actually illegal to celebrate Christmas in 17th Century Puritan Massachusetts (and until 1856, I read), and 200 years later it still was a minor holiday. We learned that in the 1820s-1830s the business and literary community in New York City was actively promoting Christmas as a family and gift-giving holiday, because until then (and for how long?) it was in fact a day for drunken Irish and German gangs to riot and loot. In New England, small gifts were exchanged on New Year’s Day. The country’s ideas of the “traditional” and “proper” way to celebrate Christmas were deliberately designed to commercialize and pacify the holiday, and that’s why the motifs are so Victorian. There is a Pulitzer-nominated history book, The War for Christmas (Stephen Nissenbaum, 1997) that explains the history (so I guess the fundie The War on Christmas parodies the prior book title, as it lies about current events.) Another interpreter explained that Christmas foods and traditions were ethnicly specific until recently, using her Polish and French Canadian background as examples.

    So, are the wingers being dishonest or just ignorant? Both, of course. Before the recent concepts of what Christmas is supposed to mean to Christians, there were many other traditions of the proper way to celebrate it, as well as a tradition that it should NOT be celebrated. My Puritan ancestors knew that the Catholic church had hijacked ancient celebrations of the Solstice, that there was paganism in the trappings and revelry, and that there was no Biblical justification for the date. Yet Falwell and the other power-hungry scum-suckers rant about the atheists taking over when decorated trees are called “Holiday Trees” instead of “Christmas Trees”!

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