ST. PAUL – In the trenches of the War on Christmas, the troops are ready for their assault.

Their weapons are green beans, apple pies and frozen turkeys.

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“People have to do God’s work, because there is no God to do God’s work,” said Eric Jayne, president of the Minnesota Atheists, as his crew of nonbelievers packaged food in a food-shelf supply warehouse earlier this month.

The group calls its charitable activities the “War on Christmas.” It advocates taking the religious aspects out of the holiday, making Christmas a cultural – not spiritual – event.

“Christians do not own Christmas,” said Jayne, who lives in Apple Valley.

Whether it’s war or not, many Christians don’t like the idea of atheists elbowing into a Christian holiday.

The Rev. Paul LaFontaine, a spiritual director at St. Paul Seminary, said it’s preposterous to take Christ out of Christmas. “For the Christian, the mystery of the nativity of Christ is central to the season,” he said.

He was surprised several years ago when he first saw atheist billboards challenging Christmas as a Christian holiday. “I thought, ‘Gee, who are they trying to convince? Us or themselves?’ ”

“I am not going on the attack myself. They are free to believe what they want,” LaFontaine said. “But, yes, I do kind of hope they leave us alone.”

As wars go, this one is pretty wimpy.

There are no bullets or bombs, or even loud voices. The atheists’ weapons are good deeds that demonstrate that they have Christmas spirit – without the religious component.

This season, they participated in a walk against hunger, made presents for the poor and packed food for the hungry.

Jayne said he is not anti-Christmas. “It’s good for the economy,” he said. “You encourage people to go out and buy gifts for people.”

He celebrates Christmas in his own way. “I have a Christmas tree in my living room. I drink eggnog. We all get fat on the holidays like everyone else,” Jayne said.

“But we celebrate only the good parts.”

If atheists oppose religion, why don’t they declare war on Hanukkah? Or Ramadan?

“It’s not the prominent religion here,” said atheist Steve Petersen of Shoreview, as he worked on the food-box assembly line. “If we lived in a Muslim country, then we would.”

The atheists say they also are responding to what they call the bogus war on Christmas. That war, Jayne said, is a fabrication made up by conservatives, particularly commentator Bill O’Reilly of Fox News. Many conservatives are offended by the use of “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” and by rules against Christmas icons on tax-supported public property.

“There is no war on Christmas. It’s ridiculous. We are making fun of it,” said Jayne. “It’s a war on the delusion that there is a war on Christmas.”

Back in the yuletide combat zone, 10 atheists were hard at work at the Food Group warehouse in New Hope.

The crew assembled boxes and put them on conveyor belts. Down the production line, others filled them with turkey, chicken, green beans and apple pie.

Tom Sullivan of Minneapolis shook his cold fingers between loads. “People of all faiths and nonfaiths can do what we can to help,” he said.

On the assembly line, the atheists explained why their self-declared war isn’t a war.

“When we do good things, we don’t attribute that to being religious,” said Petersen, who wore an “I’m Your Friendly Neighborhood Atheist” T-shirt.

Peterson admitted that religion can encourage people to do good things, especially at Christmastime. “But you can do bad things because you believe in God, too,” he said.

At the other end of the line was Jayne, stamping cardboard boxes with a “Food Group” stamp.

“We are joyful and happy. We have Christmas spirit, and we celebrate the spirit of Christmas,” Jayne said

The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service.