By Mary Sanchez

Baby Jesus is at the center of a stir in Washington State. Or rather, his manger and replicas of the Holy Family are at the heart of a controversy.

With each Christmas comes this predictable storm: a fight about the public placement of religious symbols and the ensuing argument that the meaning of Christmas is being belittled and downgraded by the nonexistent War on Christianity. Some are even using the term the "extermination of Christmas."

Bah humbug.

Christmas is not being eliminated, it is just being asked to share space. The governor of Washington opened the barn door when a lawsuit forced her to authorize the use of private funding for the nativity scene to be placed at the Capitol. That lent room for protests about fairness, and soon an atheist organization legitimately claimed its space on the public square as well.

So, up went the sign by an organization called the Freedom From Religion Foundation. Placed next to the nativity, it reads: "At this season of the winter solstice, may reason prevail. There are no gods, no devils, no angels, no heaven or hell. There is only our natural world. Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds."

It's a good thing babies don't read. But many other people can. And at least one person was offended enough to overlook the Eighth Commandment and steal the atheist sign. It was later found in a ditch and given to a country music station, which helped get it back to its original spot.

By now, hundreds have attended protests, more rallies are being planned, and a slew of other requests are being fielded for more displays to be erected. It might get crowded before this is settled.

First, let it be said that those who take issue with the "Happy Holidays" brand of political correctness do have at least one valid point: It's a Christmas tree. The "holiday tree" also tied up in the dispute at Washington's Capitol is unmistakably, indisputably nothing other than the thing millions of Christians erect in their living rooms every year and call a Christmas tree. To call it anything else is a snow job. And that lends credibility to those who point to some shadowy conspiracy to expunge Christianity from late December.

To people like Gary Cass, for example, who runs the California-based Christian Anti-Defamation Commission. "We are the majority," he says. "But you can't say 'Merry Christmas.' You have to say 'Happy Holidays.' "

The truth is, you can say anything you want. You can wish everybody you meet a happy Hanukkah, Eid al-Adha, Kwanzaa or yes, winter solstice. Chances are you wouldn't do that, at least when addressing people you don't know, unless your objective were to offend or confuse most of them. Which is precisely why so many people merely say, Happy Holidays.

Admittedly, the heavy use of vague umbrella terms winds up offending some who regard it as an effort to equate other beliefs to their own or, worse, to cast their faith out of the picture. And, let's face it, December 25 is the day recognized by most Christians as the birthday of Jesus. The shopping frenzy, the "holiday" sales, the red and green decorations — all stem from that fact. Why deny it?

To do so just gives people like Cass an excuse to work themselves into a lather. The whole debate, he argues, exposes the limitations of "tolerance" as our highest philosophical value. "The expressions of the majority somehow have to be held captive by the tyranny of the minority," he says.

In other words, some Christians are fine with tolerating other faiths, as long as it is clear that theirs is king of the religious mountain. The irony is, if we all just lightened up and let Christmas be Christian, there might be less Christian jingoism and more room for others to celebrate their own faiths and traditions. Religious holidays, after all, ought to be expressions of our best human attributes, not our petty differences.

Mary Sanchez is an opinion-page columnist for The Kansas City Star. Readers may e-mail her at msanchez@kcstar.com.