POSTED ON NOVEMBER 30, 2011:
A Tale of Two Parades
The real war on Christmas pits politics, money and commercialism against the rest of us
December is a magical time of year, filled with saints and miracles, lights and wonder, candy and feasts, friends and loved ones. Throughout the world, people celebrate cultural incarnations of Christmas, not to mention Thanksgiving, Boxing Day, Advent, Chanukah, Kwanzaa, winter solstice, the feast of St. Stephen, Epiphany and a host of saints' days.
For most of Tulsa's existence, citizens gathered along chilly sidewalks in the heart of downtown to watch the annual Christmas parade help kick off the shopping season and draw attention to once-popular downtown department stores.
Though local department stores like Brown-Duncan, Froug's and Renberg's are now relics of a bygone era, the annual downtown parade remains a bright spot in our holiday season.
In recent years the parade continued to be a rich part of our history and traditions -- a time to pour hot cocoa out of a thermos, pull the fleecy blankets from the trunk and set up camp for a few hours to watch enchanting floats, loud and thumping marching bands, big, bright balloons and flowers and funny costumed characters.
In 2009, the name "Tulsa Christmas Parade of Lights" (as it came to be called for nearly 20 years once electric provider PSO began producing the event as corporate sponsor) was changed to the "Tulsa Holiday Parade of Lights". The parade's organizers have said the new title is more inclusive of the abundance of religious, secular, cultural and nature-inspired feasts, festivals and parties that have fallen and collected, like snow into a drift on the darkest month of the year.
Like a sudden blizzard, Tulsa's holiday parade became a flashpoint for the annual national media frenzy over the "war on Christmas."
This year, a new parade with the word "Christmas" in the title will kick-off across town and the two will go head-to-head for an audience on the same day and time: Dec. 10 at 6pm.
And the battle for the Holidays is on.
War on Christmas Declared Over...
Since the early 2000s, Fox News personalities like John Gibson, former anchor of "The Big Story," and host of "The O'Reilly Factor," Bill O'Reilly, have whipped up their conservative, well-meaning listeners into a red-and-green frenzy over this perceived "war." Each year, the conservative cable news outlet indulges in puffed-up righteous indignation over isolated incidents of "trees of illumination," White House "holiday" cards and "O Cold Nights," among other perceived slights against Christmas.
And each year, the media pits the same two (largely fictional) archetypes against one another to score political points. On one side of the ring, they've placed victimized suburban Bible-clutchers in a death match against villainously smug and sneering urban atheists.
But many of those battles happened years ago. Gibson's book on the subject, geared toward his conservative base, The War on Christmas: How the Liberal Plot to Ban the Sacred Christian Holiday is Worse Than You Thought came out six years ago.
A two-year-old slate.com article proclaimed the war "over" in 2009. A Slate reporter analyzed Google trends for the phrase "war on Christmas" between 2005 and 2009. Mentions of the war peaked between Dec. 2005 and 2006, with a Nexis search finding 431 articles (nationwide) that included the phrase.
In 2007, about 187 articles evoked the phrase; in 2008, there were 155, and in 2009, a mere 97.
This year, even O'Reilly doesn't appear to be mustering his usual bluster over the war on Christmas, though he said he's reluctant to declare a cease fire.
During the Nov. 17 edition of "Factor," O'Reilly told his two on-air guests, Republican strategist Margaret Hoover and Fox anchor Gretchen Carlson that he's been a "passionate defender" of Christmas and has seen a lot of "wins" in the war.
However, as Hoover indicated moments later, about 95 percent of Americans celebrate Christmas, 51 percent with a strongly religious background. Hoover also told O'Reilly she thought the war on Christmas was "largely receding" through his efforts.
Then again, it's easy to win a war you invented yourself.
O'Reilly admitted he still gets "annoyed" by little things, like a retail sales associate telling him "Happy Holidays" rather than "Merry Christmas."
"I am that small," he said. Hoover alerted O'Reilly to his new moniker, as dubbed by the New York Times, the "senior deacon in the church of perpetual outrage."
In the past, O'Reilly has asked his audience to boycott a variety of retail outlets, including Target, after perceived "anti-Christmas" behavior.
This past was prologue to the swirl of national attention into which Tulsa was drawn this time last year.
...But No One Told T-Town
In late 2010 Tulsa was dragged into the annual war after Fox News shone a spotlight on T-Town, calling the parade name-change a "topic of national controversy."
But when the word "Christmas" was originally dropped from the downtown parade name in 2009, well, not much happened. The parade permit application in 2009 listed the parade's title as the "PSO Parade of Lights," and in 2010, the application listed the event as "McNellie's Holiday Parade of Lights."
Between 2004 and 2008, the applications all read "PSO Christmas Parade of Lights."
Enter Mr. Conservative Lightning Rod Jim Inhofe.
In 2009, U.S. Senator James Inhofe (R) stayed in Washington, D.C., embroiled in Congress' deliberation over the Obama health care plan. No one took much notice he wasn't part of the parade.
Over the past 30 years, Inhofe had frequently ridden his horse in the parade, but some years other obligations kept him home or away, according to current Holiday Parade of Lights organizer, Larry Fox.
But once Tulsa and its parade came to the attention of Fox News, Inhofe heaved lumps of coal and sticks at organizers. He and his horse stayed home, and Inhofe said he wouldn't return until the parade's organizers reinstate the title to include the word "Christmas."
He stated at the time, "I am hopeful that the good people of Tulsa and the city's leadership will demand a correction to this shameful attempt to take Christ, the true reason for our celebration, out of the parade's title. Until the parade is again named the Christmas Parade of Lights, I will not participate."
Caught somewhere in the middle was Mayor Dewey Bartlett Jr., who stated, "If it was up to me, I'd call it a Christmas Parade, but I also understand that we have a diverse community, and I'm sensitive to the importance of the many cultures and traditions that make up our city."
While the mayor toed the line with his careful rationale, Inhofe was pulled up into the national media and helped fan the frenzy over the parade. On Dec. 6, 2010, the holiday parade's Fox answered questions about the name change via satellite on Fox News' early-morning show "Fox & Friends."
Fox dismissed the controversy with a wave and said Inhofe's refusal to participate was based on "a silly reason."
In a later interview, Inhofe scoffed at Fox's accusation of silliness. "Last time I checked, Gretchen [Carlson]" he said, "Christmas meant the birth of Jesus Christ. And that's what we're celebrating. That's what I'm celebrating. That's what my 20 kids and grandkids are celebrating."
Overall, Fox said Inhofe's boycott of the parade did not hurt attendance.
Urban Tulsa Weekly helped take up the banner of reason last year, participating in a big way to help support the downtown parade with our huge Macy's Parade sized paper dog balloon, Fido. (See Cover.)
New District 4 City Councilor Blake Ewing, also a downtown restaurateur and entrepreneur, said he didn't think the parade rhetoric wars would affect turnout this year, either. "If anything, all of this attention about the parades will bring more people out to both parades," Ewing told UTW, while also noting, "The weather affects this way more than anything else."
Yes, Tulsa, There Is a Second Parade
Meanwhile, across town, a small group of Tulsans decided to pick up where Inhofe left off. The "Tulsa Christmas Parade," to be held along Olympia Ave. in Tulsa Hills Shopping Center, was announced in late October.
Mark Croucher, the new head of the corporation (Tulsa Christmas Parade LLC), told KJRH, "This is Christ. And Christ stood up for us; it's time we stood up for Him."
David Arnett, founder of Tulsa Today, an online news organization, said he started the parade after first negotiating with the organizers of the Tulsa Holiday Parade.
He says he offered $25,000 to add the word "Christmas" back into the parade's name. But in this case it appeared Christmas wasn't for sale and organizers declined. So Arnett began setting up his own parade across town. It will course through the busy, burgeoning Tulsa Hills Shopping Center located near 71st St. and Highway 75.
"What I care about is the freedom to practice my own religion with my own family, or publicly as I prefer," Arnett told UTW.
The parade has had dozens of interested community businesses and also announced a premier sponsor, Oklahoma Wesleyan University, and honored the university's president, Everett Piper, as the parade's Grand Marshall.
Other sponsors include: Mix 96, Whistler Media Group, Tulsa Today, Red Dog Construction, Eddie Huff Insurance, W.H.Y. Insurance Agency, Posh Boutique, Tulsa Wealth Advisors/Raymond James and MyChristianTeaching.com.
The kitchen manager for Tulsa Hills' Buffalo Wild Wings, Nathan Ruttman, said the Christmas parade will conflict with the restaurant's "busiest night of the month." Ruttman, a longtime Tulsan who has never attended a parade, is most concerned about how the parade will affect the restaurant's UFC Fight Night, but is excited about the new area addition and expects it to be "an interesting night."
Tulsa Hills and the new parade are in District 2, where brand-new city councilor Jeannie Cue said she thinks the attraction of a parade will increase business in southwest Tulsa. "I'm thrilled to death over the area growing," she said.
"The only sad thing is I wish the days were not conflicting," Cue said, because she wanted to attend both parades.
But as District 2's new councilor, she'll be cheering on the Tulsa Christmas Parade from the sidewalks this year.
Despite local support, Arnett acknowledged he's taking a leap of faith with this new venture. Aside from his Tulsa Today work, he said, "I haven't had a paying job since last November. And I've put my own money into the parade."
So when people say he's doing this for political reasons, Arnett said he gets a little frustrated. "I'm floating them my own money," he said.
Cease Fire or Rhetoric Riot?
"None of us could have anticipated last year's media frenzy. Everyone from Fox News to the New York Times to Conan O'Brien to Jon Stewart and the Daily Show had something to say. We may not always share the same opinion in Oklahoma, but we don't need outside help. It's not their parade. It's ours," said Vince LoVoi in an open letter to Sen. Inhofe.
LaVoi is publisher of This Land Press and is presenting sponsor for the Tulsa Holiday Parade of Lights.
In the letter, LoVoi wrote, "Senator, This Land invites you to rejoin the parade on this special evening. It's important to our community."
Inhofe has yet to respond to LoVoi's letter, nor has he reached out to Tulsa's new Christmas parade.
Inhofe's communications director Jared Young released this statement: "Senator Inhofe supports Christmas parades around the state that refuse to bend to political correctness by keeping Christmas in the title."
Our vote says Senator Inhofe will likely avoid the media spotlight and furor this year by remaining in Washington, D.C., on the weekend of Dec. 10.
You See, Charlie Brown
The conservative, often anonymously written Tulsa Beacon made a snarky statement about the Tulsa Holiday Parade of Lights still being located in downtown, where there are "almost no retail shops."
This is opposed to Tulsa Hills Shopping Center, where big-box stores better represent the true reason for the season -- commerce. Money, honey.
The annual downtown parade was originally about drawing Christmas shoppers to Tulsa's department stores, and not so much about celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ.
The featured character in every Christmas parade isn't an infant Jesus, but jolly old Saint Nick (an American version of the "mysterious visitor" myth). The saintly character who leaves commercial goods and treats for well-behaved children is a separate tradition altogether, celebrated mostly by children and the retail sector (and not the religious sector).
The unidentified Beacon writer evoked the years-old war on Christmas, indicating that the parade's name change was "an attempt to remove Christianity from a celebration of Christmas."
In its next anonymous breath, the Beacon made the statement about downtown's lack of retail shops. So, what are they fighting for, exactly?
Piper, the Christmas parade's Grand Marshall, said, "As the president of Oklahoma Wesleyan University, I eagerly join with all those in Tulsa who want to celebrate the history, tradition and reality of Christ's Mass."
The tale of these two parades reveals the disconnect most profoundly illuminated in an old Christmas special, aired each year on network television stations, "A Charlie Brown Christmas."
When everyone's favorite kid curmudgeon, Charlie Brown, rails against the commercialization of Christmas, at long last, Linus Van Pelt clutches his little blue blanket, walks alone to the center of the wooden school stage and gives a moving monologue about the true meaning of Christmas.
Far from the presents and decorations and myriad materialistic must-haves pushed on us by retailers, Linus recites from the book of Luke in the Bible: "Fear not: for, behold, I bring you tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a savior, which is Christ the Lord...
"You see, Charlie Brown -- that's what Christmas is all about."
Linus' words are simple. They are a revelation. What makes Christmas a Christian holiday is simply the belief that Dec. 25 is the day to celebrate the birth of God. The spectacle, the decorations, the songs, the presents and candy, no, not even our beloved parades constitute the true meaning of "Christ masse."
Changing the name of a parade does not take the Christ out of Christmas, just as wishing someone "happy holidays" does not debunk faith in a savior.
When Linus stands alone on the bare stage, the fussy arguments over parades and presents and greetings seem very far away.
The new poster image for the Tulsa Christmas Parade LLC features a jolly Santa, a Christmas tree and train, a teddy bear, a flurry of fluffy snow and presents. And bright bows and boxes! Historically, Christmas parades have boosted retail business and Christmas spending, while inspiring the wonder and fun of the holiday season.
"Keeping Christmas in the [Heart] of Tulsa," is the tagline for the parade that will send floats and bands marching down Olympia Ave. in southwest Tulsa.
To best serve the retail roots of a Christmas parade, Tulsa Hills is where it's at.
But Christmas itself, as Dr. Seuss mused in his beloved book, "The Grinch Who Stole Christmas," doesn't require parades at all.
"And the Grinch, with his Grinch-feet ice cold in the snow, stood puzzling and puzzling, how could it be so?" reads the classic tale. "It came without ribbons. It came without tags. It came without packages, boxes or bags...
"Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn't before. What if Christmas, he thought, doesn't come from a store? What if Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more?"
Down through the centuries, there was a little holiday that popped up over and over again. Through the reigns of Roman emperors and all over ancient Europe, this festival, sometimes called Natalis Invicti, sometimes the feast of Nativity, sometimes Christ masse, emerged and refused to go away.
General consensus owes the celebration of Christ's birth on Dec. 25 to a Roman solar cult that celebrated their high feast on the same date. No one knows what day upon which Jesus was born.
Through the years, Christmas has been condemned and outright forbidden temporarily in some places. In 1644, an Act of Parliament banned the celebration of Christmas, and even deemed plum pudding and mince pies "heathen."
The holiday was soon restored, though dissenters sardonically called Christmas "Fooltide."
Celebration of the holiday was never intended to include theological debates. Those might be best saved for Easter. And though we may never know the true date of Christ's birth, the recollection is an undeniably important and valuable holiday in American culture today.
For the past 200 years, Americans have decorated their homes with ivy, holly and evergreen branches; we've hung festive wreaths on our doors and lit candles in the window.
The first entirely secular holiday songs began appearing as early as 1784, when "Deck the Halls" was written. "Jingle Bells" entered the canon of non-religious holiday songs in 1857.
Since that time, a gradual secularization has occurred around America's most popular holiday.
And wouldn't a holiday by any other name smell as sweet? In Tuscany, Italians colloquially nicknamed their Christmas celebration simply "ceppo," meaning block or log (as in a Yule log for a warm and toasty fire).
Inclusive language doesn't dispute the popularity or spirit or meaning of Christmas, but it does widen the scope of our yearly celebrations to include everyone's traditions.
This year, for the first time in the history of Tulsa's downtown parade, our Jewish and Muslim communities will also participate.
Same Holiday Date, Same Holiday Time
Early to mid-December are the most popular dates for holiday parades throughout Green Country.
On Dec. 10, Owasso, Collinsville, Sapulpa, Grove and Okmulgee will feature their own holiday spectacles on the same date as Tulsa's two competing parades.
The 76th annual downtown Holiday Parade of Lights will feature professional floats, big helium balloons, marching bands from out-of-state, animals and Miss Oklahoma, said holiday parade organizer Fox. Despite a new parade in town on the same time and day, Fox said the holiday parade has received even more float applications than usual this year.
Also on Dec. 10, running ahead of the Holiday Parade will be an afternoon Jingle Bell Run, and Winterfest and an annual Holiday Market will kick off at the BOK Center. "It'll be a great day to be downtown," said Fox.
New councilor for District 4, Ewing, will ride in the downtown parade on a trolley with other new councilors, he said.
Since the downtown parade's inception, Tulsa has spread far beyond the boundaries of midtown. The creation of the new south Tulsa Christmas parade may be borne out of ideological differences, but perhaps the sprawling T-Town metropolitan area can support two parades.
For thousands of years, midwinter has remained a special time of year to celebrate, with feast and festival, the things that are most important to us. This means, in many times and in many ways, we respect life and nature, the sun and the solstice; we ward off the cold and unforgiving winter darkness with friends and festive meals and little gifts; and we celebrate our religious beliefs with special church and synagogue services. Over hundreds of years, our rituals and traditions have been folded and re-folded into a uniquely American celebration.
Most of us can agree on the important parts of this holiday season, like time spent with family and friends, or creative light displays, uplifting music, nostalgic memories, cozy blankets and roaring fires and seasonal decorations.
We love our Christmas specials, Charlie Brown. We like slip-sliding on ice skates downtown. We love the feeling of our fingers wrapped around a warm cup of cocoa or coffee, and the myriad of little things that help us survive the dark, ice-cold winter. In the end, no matter what holiday you celebrate, everybody loves a parade. Or in our case, two parades.
Happy Christmas, Kwanzaa, Chanukah, Advent, Feast of St. Stephen, Boxing Day and Winter Solstice!
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