After nearly two decades of celebrating “Christmas on the Canal,” an annual holiday tradition in upstate New York, an atheist activist’s threat recently led to a loss of government funding and the event’s cancellation — until the local community rallied to save the revered celebration.
Before this year, “Christmas on the Canal” unfolded without incident or complaint for the past 17 years in Spencerport, N.Y., a small village outside Rochester.
The holiday celebration typically includes carols, a tree-lighting ceremony, a nativity and other festivities (Spencerport is my hometown, so I know the celebration well).
But Elaine Spaziano, the event’s founder and organizer, said last week that an atheist activist’s complaint and fears over a perceived violation of the separation of church and state led both the town of Ogden and the village of Spencerport to pull their funding and support for it this year.
The move has shocked some in the community, but it seems the situation has been coming for more than a year. First Amendment concerns first emerged in 2012 when a local resident, whom Spencerport Mayor Joyce Lobene identified as an atheist, complained over the presence of ministers and public prayer at a 9/11 commemorative event.
Lobene said that as a result of his frustration, she was compelled to make changes to that event — but that the problems didn’t end there.
“That same man that same year called (about) ‘Christmas on the Canal’ and he had a petition … he was going to take us to court,” she said. “We spoke to our attorney and we spoke to the town attorney. We both donated money (to ‘Christmas on the Canal’) and both attorneys said we can’t do it anymore.”
Lobene said the town initially approached Spaziano and asked her and the “Christmas on the Canal” organizing committee to consider changing the event’s name to “Holiday on the Canal” to make it more universal.
Spaziano took the proposal to the board, but they weren’t interested in taking the government up on the offer.
“We went back and forth … and what I said, ‘I have had a great 17 years.’ It is about Christmas for all of us,” Spaziano said. “We took a vote. I (said I would) do whatever the majority rule is (but that I was out) if there was no nativity, no Christmas.”
In the end, the board voted not to change the name and declined to remove the faith-based elements like the nativity and the annual blessing that has always been performed by a local clergy member. Spaziano said that making these concessions would have changed “the very foundation of the whole event.”
See pictures from a past “Christmas on the Canal” event:
Spencerport and Ogden officials subsequently decided to pull funding, leaving Spaziano and her planning committee without money to put on the event.
While Lobene, who actually served on the “Christmas on the Canal” committee in past years, is a Catholic who says she loves Christmas, she said the government’s hands were tied.
“Christmas is important to me, but I’m also a public official who took an oath and the oath says we have to (follow the Constitution),” Lobene said. “I’m disappointed we can’t have Christmas on the canal.”
So, with no money in the bank to fund the event, “Christmas on the Canal” was officially canceled — but the story didn’t end there.
On Oct. 27, Spaziano penned an op-ed for the local Suburban News titled, “Goodbye to ‘Christmas on the Canal.’” In it, she told the public the event was coming to an end.
“From that point, within a week (of the article’s publication) we were inundated with calls of concern, support, offers to help,” she said. “Checks started coming in.”
And then Spaziano said something else happened — something that led her to realize the importance of continuing with “Christmas on the Canal.”
After canceling the event, she spent time one night walking around Spencerport, praying and saying her goodbyes to the celebration she had put on for nearly two decades when something unexpected happened.
“I was walking back to my car and all of the sudden I heard church bells ringing. I listened closely and as I got closer — it was dark there wasn’t a soul around. There were no lights on in the church and the song that was ending was ‘My Country ‘Tis of Thee,’” she said. “I just stood there and the next song that came was ‘O Beautiful for Spacious Skies.’”
Spaziano believes that these songs were encouragement directly from God — and confirmation that “Christmas on the Canal” must go on. Others on the planning committee, she said, had similar experiences. So, with public support and a last-minute rallying cry, they decided that the show would go on after all.
“We do have these freedoms. We’ve got to fight for these freedoms,” she said. “The joyful news is the community as a whole — businesses, individuals, a little boy with his change … it will be a community supported event.”
Spaziano later announced in another article in the Suburban News that the event was back on and slated for Dec. 8, and thanked the community for pitching in. Now, she said, “Christmas on the Canal” is well on its way to being fully funded.
“I think that it’s almost a revival of sorts. People are going to know they almost lost Christmas in their village,” she said. “I want our country to know that there are ways to keep these events in your villages and towns. You just need to know how.”
Spaziano’s event will me somewhat amended. Without the village’s support, the tree lighting has been nixed and Spencerport officials will instead host a separate “holiday tree lighting” on Nov. 30 — a secular event being organized by Lobene. At one point, Spaziano said that the village was calling the event “Holiday on the Canal,” it is unclear whether the new secular event will move forward with this name.
“The mayor took our tree lighting away — she said that it really belongs to the village. She says the tree belongs on village property,” Spaziano said.
TheBlaze reached out to David French, senior counsel at the conservative American Center for Law and Justice, who said lawyers for the town and the village were possibly wrong for how they handled the situation.
So long as “Christmas on the Canal” contained the “right mix” of secular and Christmas themes, public funding might not be actually be unconstitutional.
“The key is that there would be a mix of elements that demonstrate the breadth of the holiday within the community … things like Santa, the Christmas tree reflect the experience of some in the community (who may not be religious),” he said. “That kind of broad based celebration should be constitutionally fine.”
John Whitehead, an attorney and the founder of the conservative Rutherford Institute, said there isn’t a simple “yes” or “no” in these cases.
“The main case on this is (a 1989 case that) … involved the Christmas display in front of the county office building,” he said. “Although the court held that the display of a crèche in this case violated the establishment clause, the court also held that the ‘government may celebrate Christmas in some manner and form, but not in a way that endorses Christian doctrine.’”
Whitehead said the Supreme Court ruled that nativities can be displayed so long as secular elements balance them out and so long as the event doesn’t uniquely promote Christian doctrine.
“I want our country to know that there are ways to keep these events in your villages and towns.”
A 2012 event advertisement shows that “Christmas on the Canal” included Santa Claus, entertainment, a living nativity, a children’s craft tent, a horse drawn hayride, a tree-lighting ceremony and a Christmas card initiative for U.S. troops last year — a mix of both secular and religious elements.
With the Greece vs. Galloway Supreme Court public prayer battle unfolding just one town away, Spencerport officials likely have elevated fears about possible litigation. Lobene admitted that she is watching that case closely to see what happens and how the results will impact other local municipalities.
But it seems that, at least this year, “Christmas on the Canal” will continue in the tradition it always has.
You can get more information about the celebration here.
Featured image via Shutterstock