On Nov. 29, House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert recommended that the “Holiday Tree” erected every year be renamed the “Capitol Christmas Tree,” as it was originally called fewer than 10 years ago. The name was originally changed to acknowledge and accommodate the other holidays celebrated during the holiday season, namely Kwanzaa and Chanukah. Similarly, the annual fir tree erected in Boston Commons is being called a “holiday tree” for the first time. Many Christian leaders and politicians have mistakenly denounced such actions as religious persecution and as attempts to prohibit Christians from celebrating their holiday and expressing their religious beliefs. While such persecution may occur in other areas of society, this is not one of them. Instead, labeling a Christian symbol as a neutral one for all holidays denigrates the traditions of non-Christians by assuming they will associate with it.
A spruce tree covered in decorative lights and ornaments is a Christmas tree — not a Chanukah tree, not a Ramadan tree, not a Kwanzaa tree. Mind you, there are no such trees in Bethlehem, and even if there were I’m sure that a young couple delivering a child in a stable would not have put one up. Spruce trees have no religious meaning, no theological symbolism and certainly no characteristics that predispose them to be adopted by any particular religion. A Christmas tree is such only through association. That is, a decorated spruce tree is called a Christmas tree because it is what many Christians, and not members of any other religion, use to celebrate their holiday. Jews do not put up “holiday trees,” and neither do Muslims or Buddhists, so calling it a “holiday tree” is an outright lie. A dreidel is not a “holiday top”; neither is a kinara a “holiday lamp” — to call them such would not in any way neutralize their meanings and would certainly insult and infuriate Jews and African Americans.
Non-Christians should be insulted that some politicians believe giving an undeniably Christian symbol a non-religious name would honor other religions. A Christmas tree is not a symbol used to celebrate Chanukah, Kwanzaa or Ramadan, so to associate it with these holidays ignores their traditions, validity and value. To claim that renaming a symbol firmly established as Christian helps to accommodate Jews, Muslims, Buddhists and secularists is to force religious traditions on those groups. To think that non-Christians will embrace the spruce tree now that it is neutrally called a holiday tree is ignorant and offensive. If the goal is for public officials to avoid endorsing any one holiday, then put up symbols for every holiday and call them by what they are. Don’t put up “holiday trees” and “holiday candle sticks” and give children “holiday spinning-tops”; put up a Christmas tree, a menorah and a kinara. Acknowledge and embrace each holiday’s distinct meaning and tradition — or don’t show anything at all. At least universal prohibition would honor the traditions of every religion. If a tradition is meaningless, there is no reason to ban its display. Don’t denigrate all holidays by refusing any of them the distinction they deserve.
It doesn’t make sense for people to be offended when Congress puts up a Christmas tree but not when it puts up a holiday tree. Either way, they are displaying a symbol that is uniquely Christian. To advocate that a name change solves the problem of state-endorsed religion is bogus. If one is offended by Christmas trees but not by holiday trees, it is not because one values other holidays equally. It is because one values none of them at all.
Greg Phelan is a junior in Morse College.