Santa clauses

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 23 December, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 23 December, 2006, 12:00am

If there is something in New York's DNA that defines the city's position in the world, it must be its diversity. This is a place where students speak 116 languages on the campuses of the City University; where a subway artist can play famous melodies from more than a dozen countries on his violin; and where temples, churches, synagogues and mosques co-exist in the same neighbourhood.

But, like a lot of things that are almost too good to be true, diversity can also occasionally have a downside. Tolerance for difference, you see, doesn't always stretch to dear old Santa, who may be stunned to find many chimneys have been sealed. The controversy over Christmas, and whether non-believers are having its traditions forced down their throats, has occasionally flared in recent years. But this year it has become a source of increasing conflict, especially given New York's well-meaning attempts at political correctness.

The official greeting in department stores and public places is just as likely to be 'happy holidays' as 'Merry Christmas.' A Christmas tree was called a 'holiday tree' during one lighting ceremony. One mother in upstate New York complained of Santa performing at her child's school, and forced it to invite Frosty the snowman as well - to make it less 'religious'. The Nativity scene was replaced by a mishmash of religious and cultural offerings in a Staten Island mall. In a village in Westchester county, the local government even decided to take away all the holiday decorations in a public park - including a menorah and the lights on a tree - because of an attempt by one man to include a Nativity scene.

Sometimes people want their own holidays to be recognised the way Christmas is. Muslims rallied last month to ask the Department of Education to observe two of their most important holy days by closing the schools. The Asian community attempted something similar two years ago, when some schools scheduled their mid-term tests during the Lunar New Year.

Education authorities maintain that there is no room for further school holidays. But the city does have a symbolically important way to comfort ethnic and religious groups - by offering a suspension of its parking regulations on the various holidays. The growing list of these local holidays has now stretched to 34 days, including the Lunar New Year.

It's just that Santa is perhaps too famous, and therefore attracts too much attention. Shelton Brothers, a brewer in Massachusetts, can attest to this. The New York State Liquor Authority worried that the Santa and Rudolph on the brand's logos might lure youngsters into drinking. The authority eventually backed down, but not before a month's worth of sales had been lost. That should create an opening for another pillar of a God-fearing, God-ignoring city - the lawyers.