The incident began as a neighbourhood spat over a Christmas display.
Before it was over, Canada’s Department of National Defence had to call in top officers, theologians and lawyers to decide what to do about “Dead Santa.”
The display last December on a house at Canadian Forces Base Cold Lake in Alberta, featured a toy skeleton in a Santa suit. But Santa wasn’t just dead; he was the apparent victim of human sacrifice, “splayed” with arms and legs spread out and pinned inside a pentagram, or five-pointed star sometimes linked to devil worship.
Christmas lights added kitsch to the intended shock value.
The whole thing was nearly two metres wide, mounted on the front of a house in a part of the base where military families with young children live.
An officer’s house, to boot.
And he wouldn’t take it down.
Papers released under an access-to-information request now show the philosophical quandaries that followed the display of “Dead Santa” in the presence of kids.
First, a chief warrant officer told the officer that the neighbours were upset. It was a low-key approach. But when the officer refused to budge, and as social media picked up the story, a complaint went up the ladder to the wing commander.
The wing commander, Col. Dave Moar, emailed to a lieutenant-colonel that the display “is only meant to shock and/or offend people.”
He added: “I would like you to ask (not order at this time) [name deleted] to show some respect for his neighbours by removing the dead Santa figure. I would ask you to appeal to his desire to portray himself, the Corps of officers, the Wing, and the CAF in a respectful and professional light. By living in the PMQs (permanent married quarters) he has agreed to be a good neighbour.
“I’m hoping that by simply appealing to his professionalism as an officer that he will re-think his decision. If not, I will look at my next available measures. … Please don’t delegate this.”
The lieutenant-colonel visited the officer in question and told him that his display probably threatened “good order, morale and unit cohesion.”
But the documents show that the officer still wouldn’t retreat.
This presented a series of puzzles to DND, which probably echo nightmares at many civilian employers.
Was the display racism or hate speech? No.
And what’s a pentagram, anyway? The star, they discovered, is a symbol in neopagan worship, but also belongs to Wicca, to Freemasons, to the national flags of Ethiopia and Morocco, and the flag of the Dutch city of Haaksbergen.
Also, this figure is part of trigonometry, and was specifically studied by famous mathematicians John Napier (who developed logarithms in the 1600s) and Carl Friedrich Gauss (in the 1800s.)
The officer with the display claimed it was no worse that Halloween decorations. And he said it was protected as religious expression.
That brought in the philosophers at DND. They dismissed the Halloween argument pretty quickly, but religious freedom? That’s protected.
They decided that federal rules allow freedom where there is “sincerely held belief” in a religious faith. So did Dead Santa meet that description?
No, said DND, after consulting the Process for Religious and Spiritual Accommodation Flowchart, supplied by the office of the chaplain general in Ottawa.
Enter the military lawyers from the office of the judge advocate general.
The rest of the package of access-to-information papers is blanked out because of rules on legal confidentiality, but Santa came down.
DND says that the officer took down the dead Santa display “in consultation with legal and chaplain support.”
“The agreement respected the RHU (housing) resident’s right to religious expression, while removing aspects of the display which were upsetting to neighbouring residents.”
It says checks on the situation have continued.
The Forces will track Santa’s arrival this year, as always.