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Drawing lines at holiday time

Six days from now my child will go back to school.

As she makes her way from the breezeway to the classroom, a dozen people will ask her, "How was your Christmas?"

Those who know her, or are sensitive about such things, might ask, "How was your Hanukkah?" Like every other child in the Western world, she'll be asked, "Was Santa good to you?" She'll fudge that one, I guess.

Her parents, in between cleaning up gift wrap and scooping up Legos and trying to give away plates of cookies, will breathe a sigh of relief that this holiday is again behind them.

Christmas, joyous as it is, is a church-and-state minefield, no matter what your beliefs.

I have seen Jehovah's Witnesses cringe when asked how their Christmas was.

I have heard Christian parents bemoan the schools' reluctance to get in the spirit.

I have witnessed conflicts in nice middle-class suburbs over holiday decorations. It happened in Fairway Village a few years ago. It happened in Northdale this season.

In New Smyrna Beach, a retired couple went to court for the right to hang blue and white ribbons. Ribbons!

Back home, a Crenshaw Lakes couple describes this disagreement on their street:

Jeff and Lyra Solochek, a reporter and copy editor for the St. Petersburg Times, say they were pressured to light luminaria candles on Christmas Eve in front of their house on Valley Ranch Drive.

The Solocheks, who celebrate the holidays generically but not in any religious sense, did not wish to participate.

They say their neighbors delivered the bags of sand and candles, and made it clear that they expected them to be lit. To Lyra Solochek, luminarias are clearly a Christian symbol, recalling the candles shepherds lit to guide the way to baby Jesus in the manger.

They say neighbor John Otterness told them, "we have always done this, and we always have 100 percent participation." Jeff Solochek took offense and said that if the others wanted to light candles for them, he expected them to clean it all up afterward.

At that point, they say, Otterness' son called Jeff Solochek some names. There is some disagreement as to just what was said. Otterness says the term was "jerk" and that he apologized for his son.

In the end, the neighbors lit the candles and the Solocheks cleaned up.

Otterness says he never meant to offend anyone. He doesn't consider luminarias a religious expression. "And the reason I say this is because we have so many people on our street who are not of a Christian belief, but they do participate," he said. "I'm a pastor's son. But it has nothing to do with any significance to me as a Christian."

To his thinking, they're no different from the progressive dinner in early December _ which the Solocheks attended _ or hanging flags on July 4 or the Halloween party they used to have when the street was filled with young children.

So why did it all turn so ugly?

Jeff Solochek says it was the feeling of coercion. "We don't like the idea of someone trying to force religion on us," he said.

Maybe the neighbors were pushy. Maybe the Solocheks are sensitive. Maybe those other non-Christian neighbors go along each year out of intimidation. Or maybe they genuinely enjoy the nighttime spectacle.

I can't know what is in their hearts.

I do know, as a non-Christian, that Christmas exposes this very thin line that exists between us and them. We do our best to ignore it most of the year. But beneath the surface of our mutual respect and civility, we know there are people who believe that Christians enjoy the one true faith, that the Bible has a rightful place in public life and that the concept of religious freedom is just some silly technicality.

In the weeks that follow Thanksgiving, we all do a little tap dance: Is this okay? Does that go too far? Will this offend? Do I have this right?

I saw my child wrestle with Christmas, and she handled it well. She asked, several times, why there were so few Hanukkah decorations in public places. She also enjoyed stage performances of 'Twas The Night Before Christmas and The Nutcracker, the Jim Carrey Grinch movie and the original cartoon on television. She is still singing Christmas carols.

She smiled at the famed Northdale menorah, and when we happened upon a smaller one in a restaurant lobby. All in all she had a good Christmas. No lines were crossed. "Santa" was generous.

The Solocheks are still reeling from their Christmas Eve run-in. They are firm in their resolve, as is their neighbor.

"I'm going to respect how they live," Otterness said, though he looks forward to another luminaria display next year.