I sit in the back row at church, partly out of humility, but mainly because an old basketball injury makes kneeling difficult, and I don’t want to look like a wimp.

That I am anywhere in church is a minor miracle. As recently as five years ago, I envisioned a happily agnostic, fully ironic second act for my perfectly post-modern life, but my plans have obviously changed.

At the traditional Catholic church I attend, the average family consists of a mother, a father and about five or so kids – often more. One thing I have observed in the last five years is that little boys squiggle more than little girls. No great revelation, this. What is revealing is that here the boys learn to stop squiggling.

The fathers patiently discipline their sons throughout Mass. By the age of 4 or 5, the sons are able to discipline themselves. By 6 or 7, the boys and girls can follow along with the Mass even though it is in Latin. By 9 or 10, the boys can kneel on the hard stone floor of the altar for 90 minutes without flinching. They make good soldiers. Several of the older boys are.

By contrast, I attended a church wedding recently at which a few of the young lads in attendance danced around noisily and blurted out boyish absurdities that only their mothers mistook to be charming. I can’t imagine the boys had ever been to church before or any other place where they had to keep their yaps shut.

Down the road, I would bet a hundred bucks and my kid sister that the hyperactivity rates among these squiggling little agnostics will exceed that of their churchgoing peers by at least a five-to-one ratio, maybe more.

Historical evidence supports my case. In my fourth grade class, for instance, there were 66 kids, one teacher … and not a drop of Ritalin. The teacher – a nun, no surprise here – would whup the ADD or ADHD out of anyone who dared to display the symptoms.

This was not the most enlightened pedagogy to be sure, but it worked. We were a full grade-level ahead of the public school down the street despite the fact that our classes were twice as large, and that none of our parents – and few of our teachers – graduated from college. And although the public-school kids then did have Christmas pageants, ours were much bigger and better. Heck, we could have 50 or so shepherds per class.

Culture shift

As I looked around at my church’s Christmas decorations this particular Sunday, I came to another conclusion.

People have finally stopped repeating the hoariest of all seasonal cliches, “Christmas is just getting too commercial.”

There is one good reason why: Christmas no longer is getting too commercial. It is merely growing extinct.

The Colorado American Civil Liberties Union, for instance, is threatening to sue a local school unless it bans all references to Christmas in its annual holiday program, including secular songs such as “Jingle Bells.” The ACLU claims to be doing this in the name of the school’s Jewish students.

For similar reasons, a Sacramento principal has prohibited instructors from uttering the word “Christmas” in class or in written materials, and a school superintendent in Yonkers, N.Y., has banned holiday decorations that say anything more provocative than “season’s greetings.”

In England, lest it offend Muslims, the Red Cross has reduced its store displays to snowmen and tinsel. “Our neutrality is as important on the U.K. street as it is in a conflict zone. We simply cannot put it at risk,” explains the Red Cross. Indeed, given this thinking, one wonders when the Red Cross will simply rename itself “The Red” and reduce its logo to a crimson dot.

If this all seems exaggerated, check the “seasonal” cards you receive and see how many of them refuse to use the “C- word,” you know, the one national holiday that dare not speak its name.

Real camels

Although we did have swell Christmas pageants at school, our many shepherds tended many cardboard sheep. At Radio City Music Hall in New York, the shepherds tended real sheep, the wise men rode real camels, and the overhead star was as big and bright as the ball that dropped on Times Square. It was almost like being in Bethlehem, just a heck of a lot more comfortable. The show taught us the meaning of “awe.”

All of this took place in a city more multicultural then than America is now. At the time, New York City had nearly 3 million Jews, one of whom, David Sarnoff, presided over Radio City. He was hardly unique among Jews in making Christmas come alive for Christian kids.

There were – among many others – George Macy, whose parade officially launched the Christmas season; Irving Berlin, who wrote “White Christmas”; William Perlberg who produced “Miracle on 34th Street,” and Daryl Zanuck who financed it. On a humbler level, there were the thousands of Jewish cops and nurses and bus drivers who picked up shifts so that their colleagues could go home and celebrate.

Although they have not been in a position to shape our national Christmas culture, Muslims praise Jesus Christ as a prophet of God, one as sinless as Muhammad. Given this affection, one cannot imagine them protesting the celebration of his birth, especially in a largely Christian country that has welcomed them and allowed them to prosper.

In reality, the cultural mayhem being wreaked in the names of Jews and Muslims has little to do with either Muslims or Jews. A holiday display in Madison, Wis. – a trend-setting city – perhaps best captures the driving force behind the anti-Christmas movement.

Posted by the Freedom From Religion Foundation in the rotunda of the state capitol building is a 23-by-30-inch billboard that reads, “At this season of the winter solstice may reason prevail. There are no gods, no devils, no angels, no heaven or hell. There is only our natural world. Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds.”

Yo, Grinch – jump back!

To be fair, the rotunda also features what appears to be a Christmas tree. But appearances here are deceiving.

“We call it a ‘holiday’ tree,” said Brian Hayes, deputy secretary for Wisconsin’s Department of Administration. “We’re trying to be sensitive.” Way to stand up for your culture, Brian. This year “holiday tree,” next year “the enslaved mind tree.”

The consequences

For the kids at my church, Christmas is not as endangered a species as it is in Wisconsin. Their parents will make sure that Christmas remains a vital, spiritual experience. And with half a dozen siblings and a stay-at-home mom, there is little risk of it being “too commercial.”

It is the unreconstructed little squigglers that I worry about.

With the encouragement of the culture and the full throated support of the ACLU, they will consume a dumpster full of raunchy teen movies, Internet porn, tawdry reality television, preposterously self-pitying hip-hop, and violent video games that promise to be “more fun than shooting your neighbor’s cat,” garnished with generous helpings of psychotropic drugs – prescription and otherwise – and all this before they are old enough to start their own families.

One has to wonder, though, just what it is they will pass on to their kids come Christmas a generation hence. And I’m not sure I want to be there to find out.

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