LEESBURG, Virginia -- The prettiest, wealthiest suburban village in the Washington region is Leesburg, Virginia, known for its Civil War connections, its perfect Victorian downtown, its specialty shops and restaurants, its stately churches, and the crucified plastic skeleton in a Santa Claus suit that stood last December on its courthouse lawn.
"The display was erected by a local atheist, but did not speak to any strictly atheist theme," a local non-believer explained at the time to the Christian Post. "It was an art piece reflecting on the death of the true spirit of the holiday by greed and commercialism."
In response to this (perceived) abomination, which was planted just a few feet from the city's Confederate War Memorial, Leesburg authorized 10 more competing displays to be placed in front of the century-old Loudon County Courthouse. These ranged from a traditional crèche to a contribution by the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, the semi-serious sect of "Pastafarians" whose Commandments include:
-- Every Friday is a Religious Holiday
-- We are fond of beer
How did this silliness start? In 2009, Leesburg's facilities and grounds committee banned the installation of Christmas trees on public land altogether, a ruling that soon was overturned by the local board of supervisors. ("Personally," testified a man named Nicely at a raucous hearing, "I don't feel like God needs a dog and pony show. But on the other hand, if you can turn a profit on this for Loudoun County, well boo-yah to ya.")
So what should be the Most Wonderful Time of the Year in one of the loveliest towns in America had become one giant boo-yah of controversy year after year, a season characterized by one board member as "nothing but an embarrassment."
With this history in mind and a chill in the air, I drove to Leesburg to investigate the city's plans for Christmas 2012, but actually I was eager to see if anyone had waterboarded Frosty the Snowman or strung Rudolph up by the oysters.
What I found was a courthouse employee named Karen grabbing a smoke in the morning sun and recalling the madness of December, 2011:
"We looked out the window and Santa was up. Then he was down. Then he was up again. You never know what you're going to see around here."
Karen told me that she had heard that Loudon County was going to go back to the traditional Judeo-Christian traditions this year and put up a nativity scene, a Hanukkah menorah, a tree with the usual trimmings, and a miniature sled pulled by a team of miniscule reindeer.
"But no Santa," she averred. "Just the sled."
Next door, a man named Harold Brown was stringing some lights around a pair of potted pines in front of the Bachrach Portrait Photography studio. He invited me inside to talk religion, and to inspect the work of one of the most venerable firms of its kind in the country.
"You're from Canada, so you know Karsh," Brown said. "Well, we're the Karsh of the world."
Indeed, the firm had been tintyping the immortals since the 1860s. On the walls, to name a very few, were Albert Einstein, Duke Ellington, Muhammad Ali, Meryl Streep, Mitt Romney, Baby Doc Duvalier, Jacqueline Kennedy, a guy named Vlasic from the famous pickle company, Pope Benedict XVI, Rudy Giuliani, Haile Selassie, every president of the United States from Abraham Lincoln through Bush the First, and the late Shah of Iran.
"Nice guy," Harold Brown said of the Shah.
In a back room, there was a Confederate flag folded and tucked away on a shelf, waiting for the South to rise again.
"This is a Christian company," Brown annouced. "We are all believing in the good Lord. But, as my brother-in-law says, 'Not so much in Jesus, 'cause he's Jewish.' "
Brown noted that, every summer, he watches as the patch of red-brick King Street sidewalk that lies between the studio and the Loudon County Courthouse is used by a group of zealots who stand there and read the entire Bible, from Genesis through Revelation, out loud, in one continuous day-and-night-and-day-and-night marathon of holy writ.
"An atheist approached me and I said, 'If you don't believe in God, that's fine, but why do you need to draw attention?" Brown said. "I guess you can't argue with a fool, not that I'm saying that they are."
"You DO believe in God," I offered. "Why do you need to draw attention to that?"
"What could it hurt?" Brown replied. "I'd rather believe in God and find out there's not one than not believe and find out that there is."
The portraitist boasted that he was descended on his mother's side from the noble Byrds of Virginia, and that his antecedents had fought on the side of religious liberty in every conflict since the French and Indian War.
"You want to not believe? Fine," he said. "That's what my family fought and died for. But I am certain that there is a Creator. We are here for a reason. We are not a mistake."
Over at the courthouse, I learned that the Loudoun board of supervisors has approved an official government-sponsored holiday display for 2012 that is to include -- as Karen the smoker predicted -- a tree, a menorah, a sleigh with Santa Claus, and a manger. Indeed, a large area of straw already had been laid down, though this might just have been where the grass was messed up by Hurricane Sandy. All that was left was to install the artifacts and wait for the atheists to sue.
Just then, I noticed a workman climbing a ladder to tinker with a surveillance camera and I asked him if he was the guy who would be lighting up the lawn for the coming Yule.
"I'm just security," the guy up the ladder replied. "I stay out of all that religious holiday stuff. I think the current trend is to say 'Merry Chriskwanzaakah.' Or just say, 'How you doin?' "
Allen Abel is a Brooklyn-born Canadian journalist based in Washington D.C.