Tuesday, December 12, 2006

On Christmas Trees

I was working on a puzzle last night while SodaBoy watched some TV, and overheard some heated debate about a Rabbi suing to have Christmas trees removed from an airport in Washington state. SodaBoy was flipping through channels and did not stay on the Faux News station, so I didn't hear the full story, but it got me thinking a little bit. My initial reaction was that it was a frivolous lawsuit: Christmas trees are not a religious symbol. Decorating with lights and greens has been a holiday mid-winter tradition for thousands of years. That was my gut reaction, but I was not comfortable with it.

It's just not consistent with my normal feelings about this kind of thing. I firmly believe in separation of church and state, and I feel very strongly about it. I wrote last month about my ill ease at being forced to vote in a church, and I support the lawsuit of a Florida man fighting his local election board over that exact issue. I vehemently oppose the teaching of "intelligent design" in the science classrooms of public schools; I also see no room for prayer in public schools. I don't think the ten commandments should be displayed in courthouses or other public spaces.

All these things smack of government endorsement of religion. Thanks, but no. I'll stick with my first amendment. So as I thought about all these things, my own inconsistency was disturbing me. Shouldn't I be opposed to the display of religious artifacts in public facilities? Well, yes, and I am. My stumbling block was the classification of the Christmas tree as religious: to me it is more of a pagan display than anything else. I bounced my concerns off SodaBoy. He pointed out that the very language is part of the problem. Christmas is a Christian holiday; calling a decoration a Christmas tree makes it by default religious. There is that problematic detail.

I got online this evening to look further into the matter.

First of all, leave it to the television to get every.single.detail about the Seattle airport case WRONG. Rabbi Elazar Bogomilsky did not sue to have Christmas tree removed; he merely wanted to see the inclusion of a menorah. Which his organization had volunteered to both provide, and set up. The Port of Seattle chose to remove the trees instead of allowing the erection of a menorah. This caused a huge uproar. People wanted their trees back. The Rabbi graciously withdrew his suit yesterday, since he'd never intended for the trees to be removed, and last night airport staff reinstalled the trees. Still no menorah though. Read more here.

Secondly, I am not the only one who doesn't find Christmas trees to be a religious display. It turns out the Supreme Court agrees with me. Both Christmas trees and menorah displays "are part of the same winter-holiday season, which, the court found, has attained a secular status in US society." The case was decided in 1989. So this entire media hoopla was entirely pointless. The Port of Seattle was completely unreasonable in denying the request to display the menorah, and utterly irresponsible in their decision to remove the trees in the first place. It's non-issue: put them both up, and stop stirring up anti-Semitism.

So the Supreme Court says I shouldn't feel guilty about not objecting to Christmas trees or menorah displayed in public. Greens and lights, baby, bring it on. Here is our own personal holiday tree:

Photo by SodaBoy

And as for the Rabbi Bogomilsky, I wish him all the luck in the world. Now that I've taken the time to learn more about the situation, and understand his good intentions, I can't help but support his cause. No menorah display in the airport might seem like a petty little first world problem, but if no one fights against these unjustices, we will all be the the poorer for it.


Erin said...

My thoughts exactly!

What a pretty bit of greenery you have.

turtlebella said...

I hadn't heard about this hoopla, but I am sure there was much angst over what people surely thought was another battle in the "war on Christianity." ugh. Completely lame. And lame that Seattle went to such extremes. Like they couldn't have done a wee bit of research and found what you did about the Supreme Court.

On a side note, I find it interesting that both christmas trees and menorahs are secular symbols. My husband and I are both (non-evangelical, non-proselytizing) atheists but I saw this really beautiful menorah for sale and wondered, would it be really bad and hypocritical for us to have it in our house? the sqvirrel (my husband) said sure, cos we could have a christmas tree (we don't but only cos we go to his parents for xmas and don't want to leave a fire hazard in the house for a couple of weeks) and we don't celebrate the religious aspect of christmas either. But it still made me uneasy since we were both raised christian. But now! Well, now I know that the Supreme Court thinks it's okay...The Supreme Court said I could! That's my line, and I'm stickin' to it! :)

Mary Stebbins Taitt said...

It is ESSENTIAL to fight for freedom of religion and expression and separation of Church and state is essential for religious freedom. Without, there is persecution and denial of rights. It's still going on and creeping back in. I'm with you and with the Rabbi on this one, and definitely DOWN on Seattle--I though Seattle was supposed to be enlightened. HUH? I guess I was wrong! WOW

And yes. you have a nice tree!

Sara said...

Welcome, Turtlebella! Thanks for stopping by. I'm glad to provide you with the rationale for getting a menorah. They are beautiful indeed.

Mary, I admit to being surprised that all this took place in Seattle, as I also have an image of it as a liberal city. But I guess there are useless bureaucrats everywhere.

Sara said...

A very nice tree!

Christmas trees are far enough from the religious meaning of Christmas that one of my forbears, a Dutch colonist in New York state, was criminally punished for having one by the English when they took over New York with their Puritan government. Christmas trees were seen as signs of Creeping Paganism for a long time by the really evangelical groups.

JF said...

It is indeed a very pretty tree!

I have to say I feel very ambivalent about religious displays in public places, due to childhood trauma. When I was a kid in the South, there was 'equal time' for other religions: we sang I Have A Little Dreidel every year in the Christmas concert; there were class trips to buy Christmas trees, and then we cut out paper menorahs.

Of course display is different from active imposition, and if you're going to display anything you should have to give equal access, but the whole thing makes my skin crawl a bit.

As for menorahs: well, I think they're pretty! Think of it as a decorative thing like a small Buddha, turtlebella. :) (Though honestly, growing up with the Temple rededication story makes it really, really hard for me to think of them as secular. Supreme Court nonwithstanding.)

Sara said...

Sara and JF, thanks for stopping by. Nice to see you!

I have seen people from both the Christian and Jewish traditions eschewing the public displays of both trees and menorah from positions of faith. Some Christians (like those who punished Sara's ancestors) don't want trees displayed because they feel they are a distraction, and some Jewish people don't want menorahs displayed because they don't want to dilute the powerful religious meaning it does hold for many people.

Unfortunately there is no way to please everyone. I guess I'd rather err on the side of inclusion though.

I was raised in a family of non-observant Christians, and went through a period of exploring various faiths as a tween. I settled on agnosticism. My knowledge of Judaism is pretty limited, but I really like the imagery of the menorah, and I like the metaphor suggested by the miracle of the oil, about perseverance against adversity.

Glad everyone likes the tree. It is the biggest, fattest tree we've ever had. I wasn't sure we'd have enough lights. It might eat the couch.