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How not to celebrate Christmas

December 16, 2018
Randy Stapilus

The Christmas season is based in religious practice but has other meanings as well. President Calvin Coolidge called it “a state of mind. To cherish peace and goodwill, to be plenteous in mercy, is to have the real spirit of Christmas.” Clergyman Thomas Monson suggested, “Christmas is the spirit of giving without a thought of getting. It is happiness because we see joy in people. It is forgetting self and finding time for others.”

We do see this around us, and we can rejoice in it. But Christmas brings out not only our better angels but sometimes our darker selves.

Welcome to Christmas at West Hayden Estates, in rural Kootenai County, where Christmas season has brought anger, death threats, lawsuits, donkeys, gun-packing and lights. Very bright lights.

The full story of the low-grade fever that has gripped this subdivision is very well recounted in a recent edition of the Inlander newspaper (at bit.ly/2EkoQ9D).

There’s not nearly enough space here to tell it all, but in summary:

In 2014 an attorney named Jeremy Morris, who is very enthusiastic about Christmas, lived at Hayden. His Christmas decoration of his house that year — and in subsequent years — involved lots of light bulbs; many more than in most houses, reportedly as many as 200,000. (This is Las Vegas casino level.) He also planned some associated activities, holding a lighting event with seasonal food and drink and more, at least partly as a fundraiser for local charities. About a thousand families said they would come to visit and, the Inlander noted, he expanded the show a bit: “He called up a woman who owned a camel, recruited kids at Lakeland High School to sing Christmas songs and marshalled an army of volunteers from his church, Candlelight Christian Fellowship, to help out.”

Attendees evidently enjoyed it and the charities wound up with good contributions.

At least some neighbors were unhappy, though, about the bright lights, the sound, the crowds and what is described as a traffic jam in the neighborhood. When Hayden city noted that permits were needed for some of his activities, Morris decided to find another location.

This, outside of Hayden city, is at his new house in West Hayden Estates, where the local power is not a city but a homeowners’ association. Informed in advance by Morris of his plans — which he was describing also as his ministry — the HOA expressed some concerns, mirroring some of those of his former neighbors, in addition to violations of the neighborhood covenants. There was also this line in one document (which the writer probably would dearly love to retract): “I am somewhat hesitant in bringing up the fact that some of our residents are non-Christians or of another faith, and I don’t even want to think of the problems that could bring up.”

And of a sudden this became not just a matter of neighborhood comfort and aesthetics, but one of War on Christianity and War on Christmas. Since we’re talking here about rural Kootenai County, I shouldn’t need to emphasize how unlikely it is that any neighborhood in that area would want to engage in such a war. But the story line quickly became irresistible, nationally.

Before long, the Morris homestead became ground central for all kinds of fierce emotions and activities. And threats; people were talking, darkly, about all the guns they were packing. Weeks prior to the famous sit-in at the Malheur wildlife refuge in Oregon, members of the Three Percenters showed up to offer support for Morris. Morris told one federal judge that a neighbor “threatened to murder me in front of my family, threatened in explicit detail about things that could be done.”

Yes, judge, because of course this thing has been all over the court system. It may continue there for a while.

Somewhere in all this, do we still have room for: Merry Christmas. Peace on earth, good will toward men. And neighbors, too.

Former Idaho newspaper reporter and editor Randy Stapilus is the author of “The Idaho Political Field Guide,” the editor of the Idaho Weekly Briefing, and a blogger at www.ridenbaugh.com. A book of his Idaho columns from the past decade, “Crossing the Snake,” is available at www.ridenbaughpress.com/.

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