It was not my fault that I was the mayor.
That part was the previous mayor's fault. He ran off with the town clerk. Left her right smack when Betty was sitting at church. Told her he had a headache that morning and was staying home. Good woman, Betty. She came home and found the note. They ran off with all the petty cash at City Hall, too.
Anyhow, I had gotten on the Town Council a couple years back, and it was my turn that year to be chairman, and if I didn't take the mayor's job now that it was vacant, it was going to go to Simson. If you know Simson, which I do not expect you to, since you have come from out of town to ask me about all this, you would understand.
So I was the mayor. Which means what happened was my fault. I am sorry to say it.
See, we used to have this summer festival that fell off a few years back, but it was always a lot of fun. So one day at the council meeting I piped up and said we ought to have a Christmas in July festival.
Everybody thought that was just fine, and we named a committee and got the thing going. All the businesses on Main Street agreed to put up decorations. We told Jim the public works director to hang the tinsel and such on the street lamps. The fire department was in charge of the parade; the high school agreed to make a float; Ronnie the police chief, who always played Santa because he had the natural assets for it, even rigged up a suit with some sort of internal cooling system.
"We'll have a creche, like we always do," Simson declared flatly about three weeks out.
"A creche?" I asked. "You mean, Mary, Joseph, a manger and all that?"
"Absolutely," he said. "It's Christmas, ain't it? Isn't that the meaning of the whole thing?"
"It's Christmas in July," I said. "That's not exactly the same thing. It's more of a summer festival, you know."
But Simson said he was tired of the War on Christmas and that this was what was wrong with our country today, and everybody else agreed or else did not want to fight him about it. Not only that, but we passed a resolution urging all the store owners to say, "Merry Christmas," instead of "Happy Holidays," although I did manage to get it changed to "Merry Christmas in July."
So we hauled the manger out of storage and put out a casting call at the grade school like we always do. Simson's boy Ralphie got to be Joseph, and one of the Scott girls got to be Mary, and we arranged the usual assortment of wise men, shepherds, livestock from local farmers and the rotation of the Baby Jesus, who was always played by a collection of whichever newish babies were in town. We also had a menorah, although the only Jewish family around had moved out a few years back. It was a gaudy sort of thing topped with multicolored Christmas bulbs, but we always threw it in out of ecumenical spirit, placed off to the side.
When the ACLU called, I was next door getting a cup of coffee, and they rushed over from City Hall to fetch me.
"We understand you are putting a creche up on public property," said the ACLU lawyer, who was very nice. "We feel that this violates the separation of church and state."
"I imagine it kind of does," I said. "We've been figuring that one year or another this issue was going to come up. But you know, this is Christmas in July." I seemed to be saying that a lot, adding a hopeful tone, but it did not seem to do any good.
"Nevertheless," she said.
"You want me to tell everybody to take it down?" She said that yes, she did.
This did not go over well at the council, as you can figure, and Simson led the charge with a big speech with all the things that he had said before, plus more. I allowed that I could see the ACLU's point, since we were talking about public property bought with tax dollars, and nobody should have to pay tax dollars to put on a religious display, and Simson said if I felt that way maybe I shouldn't be the mayor. This got me riled up, and I said I was just saying what I thought, and if they decided I shouldn't be mayor they could vote me out right then, but nobody took me up on it.
The next day the first TV news crew from the city showed up and interviewed folks at the restaurant and ran a story, and I'll be darned if one of the networks didn't pick it up, and suddenly we were nationally famous. CNN said we were a "microcosm" or something like that. You do not want to know what they said about us on the Internet.
In the next week I got letters from Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, which was against the creche, and the National Ecumenical Council, which was against it, as was the American Association of Atheists, and you can guess how they felt.
It got to be so big that somebody even asked the president of the United States about it, and he said he respected all faiths but valued our Constitution, and nobody was exactly sure which side he was on. The governor said he was sick of the War on Christmas; the lieutenant governor announced he was going to lead a protest march on the day of the parade; the County Commission passed a resolution supporting the creche. I also got a letter from an outraged citizen saying we needed to include some symbol of Islamic faith as well, which I passed along to the committee, with the suggestion that it not be placed right next to the menorah. Somebody got up a national e-mail campaign and crashed our computer at City Hall, which was due to be replaced anyway.
Meanwhile, the creche went up as planned.
Each evening the youth of the town took their places, sweltering in their robes, defiant with the certitude of their years. The TV trucks came every night and turned on their lights, which made the conditions worse. I do not know whether the original wise men were plagued by mosquitoes. Some of the kids fainted from the conditions every couple of nights and we had to bring in stand-ins. Since Simson owned the house just behind the square (he owns quite a bit of land in the town, you know), he put up yard signs that made all the TV shots saying, "We Still Pray" and "Fight the War on Christmas."
But you are here to ask me what happened.
Well, what happened was the atheists got a parade permit, and I could not say no to them, according to our lawyer, even though it was the same day as the Christmas in July parade, although I could at least keep the parades spaced out.
The day before the festival the ACLU went down to the county courthouse to file a lawsuit, but Judge Thomas declined to issue a temporary restraining order, and since the state Supreme Court was on summer vacation they were still scrambling around to find somebody to appeal to, so it looked like things were going to come off as scheduled.
Americans for Israel sent a fellow who checked into the motel out by the interstate to keep an eye on the representative of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. He was in the room next to the ACLU lawyer. The Ku Klux Klan announced it was going to monitor the atheist parade, in full uniform. (I didn't know they were even still around.) The governor urged all patriotic Americans in the area to show up. Some guy on Fox News called me a "pinhead" and said I was the Stupidest Man in America. Which was possible.
It was an ugly scene the next morning, therefore, when I took the microphone to kick off the Christmas in July festival, with TV helicopters beating the air overhead. I welcomed everybody as pleasantly as I could and said we were glad every single person was there, and I hoped they would patronize the restaurant and local shops while they were in town.
"Obviously, we disagree on some things, because we are Americans," I said. "I hope we will all be good Americans today and respect each other's viewpoints." Which set off a few boos.
The Christmas in July parade started off right on time, with the high school float leading the way, and the marching band right behind playing Here Comes Santa Claus, and the fire truck sounding its siren every block, and Ronnie the police chief sitting in the back of a convertible wearing his internally cooled Santa suit. As the whole shebang made its way down Main Street and past the creche on the square, from where I looked up, I saw — I swear to goodness — the atheists marching down the street coming from the opposite direction on a collision course!
I grabbed the assistant police chief. "I thought we had this all worked out," I said.
"I did, too," he said. His panicked look did not inspire confidence.
Upon seeing the atheists, the Klan guys quickly organized and started their own march down the sidewalk, apparently ready to intercede. The ACLU lawyer was taking photographs of everything. I tell you, I did not know what to do. Some leader in a crisis I am. At this point I would guess that the two parades were probably a couple hundred feet apart and closing fast.
It was exactly at that moment that Ralphie Simson set the creche on fire.
It was an accident, you know. Poor Ralphie just keeled right over, it being around 11:30 on a hot July morning. He took with him the oil lamp hanging over the manger that, I don't know why, was lit even in midday, and there was a lot of straw around, you know, so the thing caught real quick.
Fortunately everybody was perfectly safe, human life-wise — the Scott girl grabbed the Baby Jesus and the wise men ran off, although one of them tripped over his robe and skinned his nose. The Israel guy and the Islamic-relations guy knocked down the fence to let the animals out. We had a fire truck right on hand, which you would think would have been a good thing, except that there was no water in it for parade purposes, and so Susan the restaurant owner yelled out that she had a long hose across the street, and somebody else did, too.
So next thing you know we were all running hoses across the street. The Klan guys were manning one and the atheists had one, too, and we seemed to be making progress, when the Grand Poohbah or whatever they call him got too close to the flames and his robe caught on fire. The fellow ran yelling across the street, ignoring everybody's shouted advice to hit the ground and roll around. He ripped off his robe and for some reason that I absolutely cannot fathom tried to stuff it into a garbage can in front of City Hall. The can caught fire, not having been emptied that day because of the holiday, and it began throwing sparks up into the air, and some of them caught on the dried old wreath we had hung on the newly lacquered door of City Hall, and one thing led to another.
Every living soul there pitched in to fight it, I can report, but our City Hall, which was on the National Register of Historic Places, burned to the ground before we could get the fire truck up and running. The restaurant served everybody on the house afterward, and most folks stayed around, all sweaty and sooty, and some of them even seemed to get along a little.
Anyway, you are here from the insurance company wanting to know what happened. I suppose you could say it was all Ralphie Simson's doing, but I hate to see the young fellow get the blame for it, no matter who his father is.
How about writing down, "act of God"?
This story previously appeared in Bay magazine.