Rockower Archive: Salvaging Holiday Spirit in Mobile (January 2004)

(Editor’s Note: This article won a first place Rockower Award for Excellence in News Reporting from the American Jewish Press Association.)

An attempt to broaden the scope of a children’s holiday parade in Mobile last month backfired on organizers, who were shocked to see their gesture of good will interpreted as an attempt to remove Christmas from public life.

Last summer, the board of Mobile Christmas Parade Inc., a non-profit group, approached the Jewish community with the idea of including Chanukah in the downtown parade. To reflect the inclusion of Chanukah and Kwanzaa, the parade’s organizers also changed the name from the Mobile Christmas Parade to the Jolly Holiday Parade.

Rhonda Davis, program coordinator for Main Street Mobile and the parade, said the motivation was simply “we love our children, and we love all of our children.”

Changing the name of the parade was “a natural thing to do and the right thing to do.” The board was “just absolutely thrilled” that the Jewish community would have a Chanukah float in the parade.

Less than two weeks before the Dec. 20 parade, that name change would spark a heated controversy, causing the parade to be canceled temporarily.

Bringing in Chanukah

After the board decided to approach the Jewish community, Jill Haynes organized the effort to design a float.

The North Carolina company that supplied floats for the parade did not have a Chanukah float, Haynes said, and she had difficulty getting them to understand how a dreidel looks. Her committee decided to order the company’s blue and white snowman float, build their own dreidels, and substitute the dreidels for the snowmen after the float arrived in Mobile.

Ben Meisler, a board member of Main Street Mobile, sponsored the Chanukah float. Many parade board members are also on the Main Street board, which promotes Downtown Mobile.

Haynes consulted with Rabbi Steven Silberman of Ahavas Chesed, who had to wrestle with an issue of his own — the parade was scheduled for Shabbat morning.

Weighing the positives of involvement in the broader community, Silberman felt it was “nearly allowable” to violate Shabbat by participating in the parade. “By taking this step, we would be extending ourselves into the community at large, doing our part to extend Jewish life in a different way, and to help set aside boundaries.” It was also a chance for Jewish children in Mobile to show Jewish pride.

Silberman scheduled that morning’s Shabbat service for downtown, so those participating in the parade could also take part in services.

Planning continued for the parade’s first-ever Chanukah float. T-shirts were ordered with dreidels on the front, while dreidel and Chanukah gelt costumes were also created.

In late November, Davis held a planning meeting with about 60 groups that were involved with the parade. “Nobody had anything negative to say” about the name change.

On Dec. 9, Davis appeared before the Mobile City Council to mention the parade, and also mentioned the name change. That is when the trouble began.

Removing Christmas

The Dec. 16 council meeting was dominated by discussions of the parade’s name change, though the parade was not on the meeting’s agenda.

The council voted 5-0 to ask the parade board to change the name back to what it was before. Councilman Ben Brooks threatened to pull city funding from the parade if Christmas was not in the name. Meisler said the city had not funded the 2003 parade anyway, having cut the $20,000 allocation earlier in the year.

Kelly McGinley, host of “Re-Taking America,” a radio show in Mobile, said it was another example of an “assault on Christianity.” McGinley is currently the plaintiff in a lawsuit claiming that the removal of Chief Justice Roy Moore from office was a violation of her rights as a voter.

Another radio personality, “Uncle Henry,” also made the name change an issue on his show, saying it was “more proof that political correctness is going too far.” Meisler said “he got everybody fired up about it, and people just got madder.”

Davis said “you would never think that a parade would cause such an upheaval.”

Meisler figured the name change hit a raw nerve among some Christian fundamentalists, given many current social issues. In recent months, both Moore and his Ten Commandments monument were removed from the Alabama Judicial Building, the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance are being questioned, and more people are using a generic “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.”

“Nobody was trying to take the Christ out of Christmas,” Meisler said. Besides, the parade had previously been called the Santa Claus Parade, and has never had religious displays or floats.

Boycott threats were made against businesses that sponsored floats.

McGinley said Christians balked at changing the parade’s name, causing “the organizers and the media (to claim) the children were in danger and needed extra police protection on the Hanukah and Kwanzaa floats. They even tried to cancel the parade to ‘protect the children’.”

Meisler said the security concerns were no joke. “There were personal threats made against people on the committee” and some parents feared for the safety of their children.

Silberman said “I would never mock, especially in these days, the need to provide security at any public event.”

Davis also noted that it would not be good for the children in the parade if there were protests along the parade route.

The decision to cancel the parade the morning of Dec. 18 came after several of the high school bands started withdrawing. There was reportedly pressure from some school board members for some bands not to participate.

When Meisler found out the parade had been cancelled, he called Mayor Mike Dow to tell him “we can’t let the naysayers get away with doing this.”

As the GMAC Bowl was in Mobile that day, the national media picked up on the story.

That afternoon, Dow returned to town and called Meisler back. There was a 4 p.m. board meeting of Main Street Mobile, which Dow attended. The decision was made for Main Street to reorganize the parade. Dow came up with a compromise name, the Mobile Christmas and Holiday Parade,” which Meisler called “a fair compromise.”

The Main Street board “pulled together and got the parade back together” that evening and the next day. While at the GMAC Bowl, Dow placed several calls letting people know the parade was back on.

Meisler said they also had to contact the North Carolina float suppliers and let them know to turn around and come to Mobile after all.

Davis said “if it had not been for the leadership of Ben Meisler, we would not have had the parade.”

The volunteers managed to get just about all the groups coordinated again for the Dec. 20 parade, less than two days after the parade was reinstituted.

Unfortunately, when the parade was rescheduled, it was pushed into the afternoon, making a large gap between the Shabbat service and the parade.

The parade itself was a success. About 25 children were on the Chanukah float. Haynes said “overall, it really was a wonderful experience for our children.”

Haynes, who had been named to the parade board after the decision had been made to invite the Jewish community, said the controversy was mostly about the name change, not about the inclusion of Chanukah.

Still, there were some who brought up the issue of Chanukah — and more so, the inclusion of Kwanzaa. In a commentary, McGinley said “Hanukah is a great miracle and was celebrated by the Messiah and should be celebrated by all Christians along with all the feasts of Israel. But to bring it to the level of the Birth of Christ Jesus is ridiculous. It is a minor holiday in Jewish families when compared to the Passover and Yon Kippur (sic). I have no problem with a Hanukah float in the Christmas parade, but does the name really need to be changed?”

McGinley was scheduled to address the Mobile City Council on Jan. 13 to “expose” Kwanzaa.

Overwhelmingly, though, the Chanukah float received a positive reaction.

Silberman said “Many people have come up to Jewish families over the last few weeks and commented on how much they enjoyed seeing a Chanukah float, and they were pleased to have Jewish participation.”

Meisler said the Chanukah and Kwanzaa floats were “two of the prettiest, and received the loudest cheers when they went by.”

“It was really great to see the kids being able to be proud of who they are,” Haynes said. The children yelled “Happy Chanukah” from the float, and Haynes said many in the crowd would yell “Happy Chanukah” back to them.

She said one parent told her that their children had often asked in the past why they could not be included. Meisler said having the Jewish community involved in civic events like this “is important, regardless of whether it is controversial.”

As for next year’s parade, plans are up in the air. Following the uproar, Davis resigned her position with the parade, and Haynes resigned from the board, as did many other board members.

Almost a month after the parade, Davis said, “we are all still very raw and upset by it all.”