Skeleton Santa in Leesburg roils Loudoun County: Scenes from the Christmas War in Northern Virginia

...and after the atheists arrived. (This photo makes more sense if you read the related article.)24 Photos
(Photo: Ryan Kearney/TBD | Date: Dec. 10, 2011)

Leesburg, the seat of Loudoun County, is an all-American town in the classical — which is to say, narrowest — sense. It's largely white (71.1 percent), affluent (median household income: $91,367), and conservative (this election cycle, anyway). King Street, which runs through downtown, is a main street in all but name, with red-brick sidewalks guiding unhurried pedestrians from one antique shop to the next. It's the sort of place where, if you stopped at the Leesburg Restaurant for lunch, as I did, you might hear a blond teenager — an ROTC student wearing Marines-branded sweatpants, waiting tables alongside her mother — tell an elderly man how she couldn't stop shaking WWII veterans' hands during a trip to Pearl Harbor.

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Act III, Scene I. (Photo: Ken Reid)

I had spent Saturday morning watching the annual Christmas & Holiday Parade roll south on King. It was sunny, a comfortable 43 degrees. A Knights of Columbus pickup truck, in its bed a banner reading "Keep Christ in Christmas," dragged a trailer-hitched nativity scene of costumed young children and a woman singing "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing." There were the usual marching bands, police and fire vehicles, church groups, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, beauty queen winners ("Miss Heart of America," read one sash) and dog-rescue organizations, and hawkers handed out summer-camp pamphlets, flyers for a "Live Drive-Thru Nativity," and coupons for a "free breakfast entrée" at the local Chick-fil-A. (Here, encampments form not to protest economic inequality, but in advance of a fast-food restaurant's opening.) All the while, the hand-waving never stopped, and neither did the dominant greeting of observers and participants alike: "Merry Christmas!"

It has not been entirely merry for all. The current edition of the Loudoun Times-Mirror, lying in coffee shops and newspaper boxes around town, featured the above-the-fold headline, "Skeleton Santa display vandalized by citizen," accompanied by a photo of a plastic skeleton lying face-down in the grass, its Santa suit pulled down to its waist (not visible in the photo: the cross on which it had been strung). "It’s that time of year again," the article begins, "when holiday cheer fills the air and the Loudoun County Courthouse lawn is scattered with potentially offensive displays and outraged citizens."

If the author sounds weary, it's because this annual controversy over the courthouse lawn — which fronts King Street downtown, along the parade route — is now in its third year. In late 2009, the Courthouse Grounds and Facility Committee, a citizen group appointed by the county's Board of Supervisors, prohibited displays on the lawn, including a Christmas tree the Rotary Club of Leesburg had been putting up for 50 years, and a nativity scene a local couple had been putting up for 20 years. Predictably, there was a public outcry, and the board overturned the decision and instead decided to allow up to 10 displays on the lawn, with applicants being accepted on a first come, first served basis. So that year, in addition to the tree and nativity scene, were displays by the Loudoun Interfaith Bridges, a parody of the "12 Days of Christmas," and a banner by local atheist Rick Wingrove reading, "Let reason prevail."

Last year, the board voted to continue the rules for courthouse lawn displays, and atheists secured seven of the 10 spots, according to Wingrove, a freelance Web designer with a number of extracurricular titles: CEO of Beltway Atheists, Virginia director of American Atheists, and an organizer for NOVA Atheists. (He's also a hang-glider pilot, motorcycle enthusiast, and bathroom remodeler.) This year, with only nine lawn spots available (owing to a sickly Sycamore tree), atheists again secured seven. But, Wingrove says, "One of our guys died. That [spot] went to the next person on the waiting list, which was a religious group.”

Make that six, then: two banners from NOVA Atheists/Beltway Atheists; a "tree of knowledge"; a sign equating Jesus with Santa and the Easter Bunny; "a holiday message from the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster"; and a "letter from Jesus" that begins, "Many of you are upset that folks are taking my name out of the season. I don't care what the day is called. If you want to celebrate my birth, just get along and love one another."

Meanwhile, there will be two nativity scenes — the one that's gone up for 20 years, and another from Potomac Falls Anglican Church, which was first off the waiting list after the aforementioned death.

And then there's the skeleton Santa on a cross, which belongs in neither category.

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