Missing The Forest For The Christmas Tree
December 2, 2005 - 1:40pm ET
Popular This Week
Also Worth Reading
Gasp. I’m finding myself agreeing with conservative columnist Jeff Jacoby. And Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert. From Boston to Capitol Hill , conservatives are a-flutter about whether evergreen trees erected in public spaces should be called “holiday trees” or “Christmas trees.” They are adamant that these fixtures of the season be declared “Christmas trees.” And I agree.
Where we part company is the conservatives’ insistence that calling a decorated evergreen a “holiday tree” is somehow anti-Christian. On the contrary. It’s pro-Christian, in that it unwittingly promotes the Christian holiday symbol as the symbol for a season in which several religious and cultural groups celebrate a holiday. The well-meaning but misguided efforts by public officials to call evergreen trees strewn with ornaments a “holiday tree” are tantamount to declaring Christmas the nation’s official winter religious celebration—which is what Christian conservatives want. We all know the evergreen tree is associated with Christmas, regardless of how often it is pointed out the tree has its origins in pagan traditions.
The debate we should having is whether Christmas trees belong in public at all, not whether they should be called Christmas trees or holiday trees. Dancing around the issue by playing with the name of the tree is plain disrespectful to Americans of other religions, and those who don’t believe in any religion.
You’d think the Constitution’s defenders would seize on this opportunity to trumpet the rights of religious minorities. But their most prominent spokesperson sees it differently. Speaking out in favor of the “holiday tree” label, Barry Lynn, the executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, told USA Today that “using the term ‘Christmas tree’ excludes people of other faiths and backgrounds.” No, Barry, pretending that a Christmas tree can somehow be divorced from its religious connotation simply by giving it a generic name excludes people of other faiths and backgrounds. To offer up the most widely recognized symbol of Christmas as a generic symbol of the season and somehow think people of other faiths (or no faith) won’t still see it as a Christian icon is disingenuous. It undermines the religious plurality on which this nation is based.
Here’s where I scare myself by agreeing—again—with Jacoby. He argues that calling a Christmas tree a "holiday tree" shows prejudice toward Americans of other faiths:
It's discriminatory, too. Hanukkah menorahs are never referred to as ''holiday lamps" —not even the giant menorahs erected in Boston Common and many other public venues each year by Chabad, the Hasidic Jewish outreach movement. No one worries that calling the Muslim holy month of Ramadan by its name—or even celebrating it officially, as the White House does with an annual ''iftaar" dinner—might be insensitive to non-Muslims. In this tolerant and open-hearted nation, religious minorities are not expected to keep their beliefs out of sight or to squelch their traditions lest someone, somewhere, take offense.
Of course, Jacoby goes on to declare his support for the public display of the Christmas tree. Okay with me, if we also use our public space for recognition of other religious and cultural holidays in December and throughout the year (Ramadan, Diwali, Kwanzaa, Rosh Hashanah, the list goes on and on). Those are hard questions, but questions we should be wrestling with if we want this American experiment to work. In a nation where so many are religious, and one religion dominates, how do you preserve a secular society and respect religious freedom and diversity?
The theocrats think they’ve won if we start calling public displays of evergreens in December Christmas trees. But they’re wrong. The defenders of the separation of church and state are the winners if those ubiquitous conifers are labeled what they are—a symbol of Christmas. It’s a step toward honesty. And it opens the door to a real conversation about what it means to live in a society that values religious pluralism.
Help us spread the word about these important stories...
Email to a friend
Views expressed on this page are those of the authors and not necessarily those of Campaign for America's Future or Institute for America's Future