It's the most festive time of the year. Time to pull the decorations down from the attic, gather around the tree and have a good old-fashioned fight about the separation of church and state.

It's the most festive time of the year. Time to pull the decorations down from the attic, gather around the tree and have a good old-fashioned fight about the separation of church and state.


The argument has become a modern holiday tradition, like hitting the outlet stores at midnight on Thanksgiving to catch the super door-buster bargains.


Some are in it for the intellectual exercise. We First Amendment fans enjoy working over the distinction between the "wall of separation" between church and state. The words are from a letter Jefferson wrote, not in the Constitution itself, and led to the Establishment Clause, which doesn't prohibit religion in the public square, but requires all religions be treated the same.


Some are in it for the outrage. Some Christians, goaded on by Fox News, have become convinced that there is a "war on Christmas," that Christians, who make up about three-quarters of the population, are "under assault" by religious minorities who get to put their holiday decorations wherever they want while Christmas decorations are shoved into the closet.


For all of us, the holidays are a chance to take a break from our daily concerns. For those sustained by conservative outrage, it's a chance to take a break from cussing Obama and Pelosi and ACORN, and cuss secularist school principals and the ACLU instead.


This is a season for sentiment and nostalgia, when we think back fondly on Christmases past. Unfortunately, some people can't separate nostalgia for the past from contempt for the present. Why aren't they singing the old Christmas carols? Where did all these menorahs come from? Christmas just isn't what it used to be.


Every year, the news provides new fodder for our holiday arguments. This year, the North Andover selectmen discovered, months after adopting a one-day-only policy for holiday displays on the town common, that Hanukkah lasts for eight days. For that matter, there's nothing traditional about putting up a creche for one day and disassembling it the next.


When a local rabbi brought the problem to their attention, selectmen overreacted and ordered a "Merry Christmas" sign removed from the fire station, which got everyone upset, including the rabbi.


Holliston dealt with a similar problem six years ago, after selectmen made the mistake of denying permission for a menorah to be erected on town land. After consulting with lawyers from all sides, they determined that the law says the town may set aside space for privately owned holiday displays -- in Holliston's case, in front of town hall -- but can't deny any group the right to put a display there.


But what about the electric cross that had graced the tower at the fire station for 70 years? The rabbi had never complained about that, and his lawyer never asked it be taken down, but it still violated the policy and, arguably, the First Amendment. It's a religious symbol, on a public building, maintained by public employees.


So when a firefighter asked if they could put the cross up this year, selectmen said no. (You may be wondering, by the way, why fire stations appear so often in these holiday decoration controversies. My theory is that it has something to do with firefighters having free time and access to ladders.)


Of course everyone got upset at the selectmen, who blamed the potential for costly litigation. Some people blamed the rabbi, who hadn't complained either -- in fact he wrote a column supporting the cross and all expressions of faith in the public square.


Then there's the Taunton man who alleges his son was suspended from second grade, and ordered to see a psychologist, because he drew Jesus on the cross in response to an assignment to draw something that makes him think of Christmas. If true, the school is wrong on several fronts -- but the school says the story is untrue. The official denials calmed the outrage a little, but the story already had people fuming who'll never come within a thousand miles of Taunton.


Then there's the Newton South High School student who refused to study Bible passages for his English class because he's an atheist. The school made an accommodation. There's the North Shore school that put on a holiday gift sale, but forbade any gifts with a holiday theme from being sold, which fired up a few Boston talk radio jocks.


And let's not forget the school Christmas ... er, holiday ... make that winter concerts, which have become a political/religious/legal minefield for music teachers. Does including a Jewish folk song make it OK to sing the "Hallelujah Chorus"? Is a Kwanzaa song really necessary, and does anyone know one? The Rutherford Institute is petitioning the Supreme Court to take up the case of a Washington state school superintendent who refused to let the high school orchestra play "Ave Maria" at graduation exercises even though no words would be sung or included in the program. Will our school get sued if we include "Silent Night" in the winter concert?


As a former high school chorus member, here's where I draw the line. Great music should stand above politics.


Of course, my chorus days came in a more innocent age. At my high school's Christmas concert, as we all sang "Silent Night," students dressed as shepherds, wise men and the Holy Family, slowly took their places on stage in a living nativity, behind a cheesecloth screen that gave the scene an ethereal look.


The living nativity is a beautiful tradition, one I enjoy every Christmas Eve at my church, which is where it belongs. It wasn't till years after I'd graduated that I heard from my Jewish classmates how uncomfortable they felt participating in a Christian ritual as part of their school program.


They were silent then, but they'd object if the same program were put on today, and I can't blame them.


Face it: We live in communities more religiously diverse than a generation or two ago. Surveys find non-believers more numerous than ever, and more willing to stand up for their right not to be drawn into other people's religions.


Fifty years ago, nobody would have thought to complain out loud about a lighted cross on top of the fire station. You don't have to be a Christian to be a Holliston firefighter, of course, and they don't ask your faith when your smoke detector goes off.


But town officials shouldn't be condemned for worrying that the cross gives the impression that Holliston is a town for Christians only, or that it constitutes an unconstitutional endorsement of one religion over all others. Selectmen suggested putting the cross in front of town hall, next to the menorah. There's talk that next year, firefighters may put it high in a tree near the station, but on private property. Sounds good to me.


For all the complaints about a "war on Christmas," I've seen no shortage of Christmas decorations. Churches, stores and front lawns are ablaze with angels, Santas, wreaths, lights and inflatable Simpsons, from the sacred to the downright strange.


Old traditions fade and new traditions are born. The choir director drops a number he's tired of hearing year after year and adds a new one. The decorations that seemed sublime 25 years ago start looking a little tacky, so we change. As the community changes, so should its traditions, so everyone feels welcome. People shouldn't get all bent out of shape about it.


Nor should we walk on eggshells when talking to our neighbors. Even people who sound hostile on talk radio or obnoxious in letters to the editor or online comments tend to be civil, even friendly, when they meet you face to face. We needn't worry that someone is going to pull a Bill O'Reilly and jump down our throats for saying "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas."


For that matter, I've never heard of a cheery "Merry Christmas" being greeted with a growling "I don't celebrate that."


Celebrate whatever you want this December -- or don't. And when in doubt, there's the greeting a caller to my office signed off with the other day: "Have a good one."


Rick Holmes, opinion editor of the MetroWest Daily News, blogs at Holmes & Co. (http://blogs.townonline.com/holmesandco). He can be reached at rholmes@cnc.com.