Last Saturday a Chicago tradition continued. It was the 25th anniversary of the Chicago Nativity Scene in Daley Plaza. Cardinal Francis George was on hand to bless the crèche and several small children, including some of my grandchildren, helped to place the Baby Jesus in His manger.
The “God Squad” erected the stable and positioned the life-sized figures. The bell choir from Santa Maria Del Popolo in north suburban Mundelein, under the direction of Debbie Titus, accompanied carols—and the crowd loved it.
This is a sweet and nostalgic tradition. But it is one that only continues because of the perseverance of a few dedicated people who firmly believe in the First Amendment.
For as long as anyone could remember, there was a Nativity Scene displayed in the lobby of Chicago’s City Hall. It was sponsored by the plumbers’ union. But in 1985 the city’s attorney, at the behest of the American Jewish Congress, ruled that the Nativity Scene could not be displayed in City Hall—public property.
In response, Bill Grutzmacher and Pastor Hiram Crawford purchased their own Nativity set, obtained a permit and erected it in Daley Plaza, with volunteers to guard its safety. City Hall ordered the figures to be removed and sent city employees to demolish it. They were throwing the figures in a trash dumpster when Jim Finnegan, Joe Scheidler and a few others rushed to the scene to save what they could. The entire episode was caught on TV news cameras.
That shocking event led to a federal lawsuit, won in 1987 by the proponents of religious freedom against the ACLU, American Atheists, and the American Jewish Congress. Every year since the Nativity Scene Committee, now headed by Jim Finnegan of Barrington and Terrance Hodges of Chicago, brings the beautiful depiction of the night of Jesus’ birth to the center of Chicago — Daley Plaza.
Thousands of Chicagoans and visitors have an opportunity to see the only public display of the reason for the Christmas season in downtown Chicago. It has now become such a tradition that each year on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, after the God Squad finishes its construction work, TV, radio and news crews converge on the site for the official beginning of the Christmas season.
The Nativity Scene seems as American as apple pie. Every Christian home displays a crèche, many of them on front lawns. But like so many of the freedoms we take for granted, this one must be guarded with vigilance.
If you live in or near Chicago, visit Daley Plaza and its beautiful Nativity Scene. If you’re not in Chicago, make sure there is a public display of the purpose of Christmas in your town. It is important to the future of America.