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Government Display of Christmas Trees:

The Seattle airport rabbi and Christmas tree story raises the question: Would it violate the Establishment Clause for the government to put up a Christmas tree alone, with no accompanying menorah or similar gesture towards ecumenicalism? A Slate piece suggests (though perhaps somewhat ambiguously) that allowing such stand-alone Christmas trees would involve "overturn[ing] the status quo" set by the Supreme Court's Allegheny County v. Greater Pittsburgh ACLU decision:

Consider, for example, the latest brouhaha: the Seattle-Tacoma airport's decision to take down Christmas trees rather than put up a menorah as well. After a Lubavitcher rabbi pointed out that the public display of Christian symbols violated the First Amendment, the right-wing Christmas Warriors flooded him with "hundreds of hate mail messages" that were part of "a surge of anti-Semitism," according to the Anti-Defamation League. Pressured, the rabbi relented and the trees were put back, foregoing any parallel acknowledgment of Hanukkah.

The Christmas extremists can claim a yarmulke for their wall. But let the record show that they, not the rabbi, were seeking to overturn the status quo. For more than 17 years, the law of the land -- i.e., the Constitution as interpreted by the Supreme Court -- has held that public holiday displays must be fundamentally secular. To erect nativity scenes in public places, the high court held in County of Allegheny v. American Civil Liberties Union, Greater Pittsburgh Chapter (1989), is to impermissibly endorse Christianity. Yet the Court also held that governments may "celebrate the season" through joint displays of Christmas trees and menorahs, since doing so acknowledges, as Justice Harry Blackmun wrote, that "Christmas and Chanukah are part of the same winter holiday season, which has attained a secular status in our society." Far from a victory for hard-line secularism, the 1989 ruling struck a moderate compromise between the ACLU's desire that no religious displays be permitted and the Christianists' belief that a city government can proclaim glory to the Christ child.

But Justice Blackmun's and O'Connor's controlling opinions in Allegheny expressly said that "when the city's tree stands alone in front of the City-County Building, it is not considered an endorsement of Christian faith" (Blackmun) and "[a] Christmas tree displayed in front of city hall, in my view, cannot fairly be understood as conveying government endorsement of Christianity" (O'Connor), because the Christmas tree was "not itself a religious symbol." Add to that the votes of Chief Justice Rehnquist and Justices White, Scalia, and Kennedy, who would have no problem with public display of religious symbols, and you get a Court majority for the proposition that public displays of Christmas trees don't violate the Establishment Clause (at least unless there's accompanied with something else that's more overtly religious). The six Justices also went further and said that the Christmas tree is permissible even when accompanied by a menorah; but under their reasoning, a Christmas tree standing alone would be fine, too.

I think that's right. The Christmas tree does not itself have religious meaning (as opposed to a creche, which does); and while it is associated with Christmas, so are lights on trees and eggnog, and so the Easter Bunny and egg hunts are associated with Easter. Such association does not make the tree send a message of endorsement of Christianity, just as putting lights on other trees during the Christmas seasoning or having the Easter Bunny appear at a government-run event doesn't send such a message.

But even if the Court's judgment on this was wrong, it was still a judgment of the majority of the Court the last time the Court visited the question. As a legal matter, then, government display of Christmas trees does not "impermissibly endorse Christianity," and allowing such displays preserves, rather than overturning, the legal status quo.

Omar Bradley (mail):
I tend to agree with this.

First though, there's the question of whether or not the establishment clause even applies to the states to begin with. Justice Thomas briefly mentioned this in his Newdow opinion, and he does raise some good points. The establishment clause originally had 2 main functions:

1. It prevented Congress from interfering with the then existing state establishments

2. It prevented Congress itself from making laws respecting an establishment of religion on a national level

Basically, it left laws concerning religion exclusively with the states themselves and beyond federal cognizance.

Some good examples of just what this clause dealt with can be seen in Madison's veto messages concerning certain establishments as well as his famous detached memoranda essay.

To incorporate the first function through the the 14th doesn't really make any sense, but it could make sense to incorporate the second function. Mainly, a US citizen had an immunity against the federal government making a law establishing a religion(as he had an immunity against the feds making a law prohibiting his free exercise, abridging his free speech, making an unreasonable search, etc...) and through the 14th he now has an immunity against a state government doing likewise. Although,, it could be argued that he also had an immunity against having his state establishment of religion interfered with by Congress or the Federal Courts. Further, it could be argued that he had a privilege of being able to be a citizen of a state with an established religion if he so desired. Incorportaion eliminates those final two possibilities from being realized.

However, the paradox is that the two functions conflict with one another if they are both incorporated. To incoroporate the first function would lead as Thomas stated to a provision that was meant to protect state sovereignty over religion being used to remove said sovereignty completely. There was really no need to incorporate th first function as it already applied to the states. Incoroporating the second function, however, would lead to a direct conflict with the first function.

It would seem that if the stablishment clause is to be incorporated, only one of the two functions can be chosen.

Based on my research the framers of the 14th amendment did discuss the religion clauses, but they appeared to show more concern that the free exercise clause was being violated by the states and therefore a remedy was need, not so much the establishment clause.

There's also the concept that the establishment clause and the free exercise clause are inverse proportions of one another such that any establishment infringes on free exercise and any infringementon free exercise represents an establishment, similar to the rights/powers dichotomy.

In addition, the word used in the 1st amendment is "prohibited" so perhaps laws that affect one's free exercise or infringe upon to some degree without prohibiting it are acceptable. For example in the Smith case, or the Reynolds case, the laws at issue did not prohibit the person from exercising his religion, they limited his ability to to exercise one aspect of it. One can debate whether either law rose to the level of a prohibition as it was commonly understood in 1791. Plenty of laws can limit religious exerice for lack of a better term without prohibiting religious exercise. There is a distinction.

So, with this case the question is whether display of a tree a)prohibits free exercise of religion or b)constitutes an establihsment of religion(if one believes that the establishment clause was in fact incorportaed).

I don't think a mere display of a tree prohibits anyone from freely exercising their religion and I don't really think it can be said to represent an establishment since the tree has just as much claim to being a secular symbol as it does to being a religious one. Unlike say a Creche, a menorah, a sukkah, or other displays that have a clear religious purpose or function. Now if the state put out a Creche or a Sukkah or something like that, there would be a better argument.

Whether or not, under some original understanding, a display of a Christmas tree would be considered as falling under the establishment clause, or as prohibiting free exercise, I think that precedent and usus to use one of Madison's terms counsel against so holding.
12.15.2006 9:34pm
Brian G (mail) (www):
I just love this time of year. The same people spending the rest of year preaching to us about tolerance become the most intolerant bunch around.
12.15.2006 9:46pm
Eugene Volokh (www):
Omar Bradley: There are lots of plausible arguments about how the Establishment Clause ought to be interpreted; my post, though, was about what the result would be under the current Supreme Court precedents.
12.15.2006 10:03pm
Whaler Fan (www):
Where do I sign up to sue all the towns that have secular "Holiday" Trees and religious menorahs?

I'm also amused by how the theft of the baby Jesus from creche scenes at churches or from municipal property is considered a funny prank but do something similar to a menorah and you'll be rung up on hate crime charges.
These stories recently appeared in the Hartford Courant:
Stolen, Away from a manger
Nativity Jesus Replaced With Beer Can
Then see:
Menorah Vandalism Investigated As Hate Crime
And this piece eveidently posted tomorrow on the double standard:
The Holiday 'Hate Crime' Double Standard
12.15.2006 10:03pm
Per Son:
Whaler Fan:

Next time you put links, warn us before linking to a white power site (e.g. National Vanguard).
12.15.2006 10:29pm
Whaler Fan (www):
Per son:
Mea culpa. I came across that via google search and didn't scrutinize it as closely as I should have. I've never heard of national vanguard and didn't read the piece as closely as I should have to raise red flags.
I regret that my point may have been tainted by inadvertantly linking to a white power group and that I was too quick in formulating my comment.
12.15.2006 10:39pm
dejapooh (mail):
Ya know, I love this. Christmas trees have no religious symbolism? Have you noticed the first half of their name? Personally, I don't want to see a Manorrah on public property. I don't want to see a Christmas tree. I don't want to see anything. If you want it, put it up in your front yard. Don't use public areas for your religious displays.
12.15.2006 10:53pm
Daniel Chapman (mail):
What's a "Christmas tree" anyway? My family raises them and sells them wholesale. People regularly refer to balsam and fraser fir trees as "Christmas Trees" no matter what the context.

If it's lit up and decorated with angels and crosses with a star on top in the middle of a room - Christmas Tree

If it's lit up and decorated with glass balls outside - Christmas Tree?

If it's growing naturally in the front lawn and someone put lights on it - Christmas Tree?

If it's growing naturally and the snow looks really pretty on it... Christmas Tree?

Seriously... sometimes a tree is just a tree. It has no Christian meaning by itself.
12.15.2006 10:55pm
Mac (mail):
Dear Volkh,

"After a Lubavitcher rabbi pointed out that the public display of Christian symbols violated the First Amendment, the right-wing Christmas Warriors flooded him with "hundreds of hate mail messages" that were part of "a surge of anti-Semitism," according to the Anti-Defamation League."


First, to get the story straight from the Rabbi in question, he publicly stated on Bill O'Reilly that he in no way wanted the Christmas trees removed; he merely wanted a Menorah as well. Further, by the Rabbi's own words, he offered to pay for a Menorah himself. The fact that public employees were so traumatized by the thought of a Menorah at the airport that they took the Christmas trees down instead of simply allowing the Rabbi to put up a Menorah is rather astounding and one may draw their own conclusions as to the mentality and intelligence of the people involved in that decision as well as, possibly, their opinion of Jews.

Further complicating the issue is that the Rabbi is an obsevant Jew and because of the Sabbath could neither make nor received phone calls during the initial period of the controversy which led, by his words, to much confusion. He was unable to explain himself until the story was well out of control. Given the Media's inability to get a story straight, this should surprise no one.
Now, as to "right-wing Christmas warriors" may I ask exactly how you know the political leanings of those who e-mailed the Rabbi? I have a good friend in Seattle who e-mailed the city. She is a practising Christian, but is a registered Independent and more often votes Democrat rather than Republican. She was very offended and hardly qualifies as right wing anything. If you were to go onto MoveOn.org, espcially when Lieberman decided to run as an Independent, you would have found truly horrific anti-Semetic comments there as well as on other ultra left wing web sites.

80-85% of this nation is Christian and sometimes they just get tired of being discriminated against and fight back. I believe that is the right of all citizens and fail to understand why you had to demean those upset by this. Of course, there is no excuse for hate e-mail, if that is what is was. I say that as the Anti-Defamation League has been known to be rather over sensitive, at times. However, given human nature, he undoubtably received some hate mail, which is sad, especially as he seems to be such a good man. Also, the story appeared in the Media as you stated above, the Rabbi wanted the trees removed. He did not, but it would lead to many people being upset. There are kooks in every group even lawyers, believe it or not, but anyone can write an e-mail and present themselves anyway they want.

I do think that those who fight against the removal of all Christian and Jewish religious symbols from the landscape of this nation are engaged in a noble cause. I fail to see how labeling those with whom you disagree moves the discussion forward or even is very much different from those who would write hate mail to the poor Rabbi.
After all, does the fact that the Rabbi wanted a Menorah at the airport make him a right-wing Jewish Hanukah warrier? Or is it just a question of whose ox is being gored?
12.15.2006 11:25pm
AustinCityLIghts:
I agree with E. Volokh's post and would add that a so-called "reasonable observer" might not interpret a Christmas tree standing alone as endorsement. Perhaps the Christmas trees were removed because the people feared litigation.
12.15.2006 11:29pm
Elliot123 (mail):
I guess we all can have our own interpretation of a Xmas tree. If it is taken as a symbol, then it must represent something, but that something is open ended. Does it represent Christianity or winter solstice? Take your pick.

Tokyo is an interesting example. It is full of Xmas trees, yet the population is far from Christian. Would anyone claim the Japanese were celebrating Christianity?

Saudi Arabia is another good case. While Christmas is just another day in the Sharia ruled kingdom, there is a great demand for Xmas trees. Enterprising merchants market "seasonal bushes," "winter shrubs," and even "indoor greenery." They do a great business until the religious police sweep through and confiscate anything red or green sold during December. So, are the Muslim Saudis celebrating Christianity?
12.15.2006 11:36pm
NotALegalEagle:
Perhaps the Christmas trees were removed because the people feared litigation.


And rightly so since the Rabbi had engaged the services of an attorney for the specific purpose of pursuing litigation.
12.15.2006 11:43pm
plunge (mail):
Christianists play pretty fast and loose with this one. It is a religious symbol, it's not, all at their convienience. Personally, I don't think the government should be in the biz of offering space to one observance and only one observance: if you are going to have an expression space, then it needs to be an open forum, not a single view.
12.15.2006 11:53pm
Mac (mail):
plunge,

In the first place, Christians, as opposed to Christianists would have been a much better choice of words. Second, if you read Volkh's comments, a Menorah, in addition to the Christmas trees are fine, legally speaking. The Rabbi did NOT want the Christmas trees taken down, he wanted a Menorah as well, which from Volkh's assesssment, is well within his legal rights. There is no information to suggest that Christians objected to a Menorah. They objected to the airport removing the Christmas trees instead of putting up a Menorah. If you are going to insult a group, you may want to get your facts straight first.
12.16.2006 12:11am
Daniel Chapman (mail):
Heh... I stopped reading at "christianist."
12.16.2006 12:33am
Dave Hardy (mail) (www):
Ya know, I love this. Christmas trees have no religious symbolism? Have you noticed the first half of their name? Personally, I don't want to see a Manorrah on public property. I don't want to see a Christmas tree. I don't want to see anything.

(1) It's pretty much of a stretch to link a christmas tree to a religious anything, esp. since these days it's mostly seen as an inducement to spend a wad on purely secular presents. It's a pine tree with some electric lights, as often as not associated with an overweight fellow in strange outfit, whose sole supernatural association is his ability to fly and be omnipresent.

(2) If people wanted a flipping tree, let them put one anywhere they want, and stick menoras, crosses, statues of the laughing buddha, a copy of the quran, or anything else around it. Big deal. Makes them happy, does me no harm, why should I care?
12.16.2006 1:18am
FantasiaWHT:
Yeah I really don't understand the reasoning linking:

a) no religious displays
b) the Christmas tree isn't a religious display
c) if you put up a Christmas tree, you also have to put up a religious menorah.

The disconnect is rather baffling
12.16.2006 1:41am
Harry Eagar (mail):
I came out of a meeting at the county building yesterday to find a big menorah and an inflatable dreidl on the lawn. This in a county with so few Jews that when my friend's son died, he had to fly in a couple of men to make the minimum to say kaddish.

But no Christmas trees or any other holiday stuff.

Is this a great country, or what?
12.16.2006 1:49am
deenk:
Although Christmas is, of course, a christian holiday, I would argue that, at this point, it is almost completely culturally christian rather than religiously christian. Christmas trees were never really very christian - they are pagan religious symbols, as is Santa Claus. Ditto Easter. Eostre is the Nordic goddess of fertility. Her symbols are the hare and the egg. To what extent should we, on first amendment grounds, attempt to exclude holiday symbols from public displays? i would argue that nativity scenes and crosses cross the line from secular to sectarian. Despite some desultory attempts to revive druidism that have little to do with religious motivation, paganism is not a viable sectarian challenge to the first amendment.
12.16.2006 4:31am
David M. Nieporent (www):
While I have no quarrel with EV's legal analysis, I disagree with his implied premise, and the explicit premise of several posters, that Christmas trees are secular. The fact that Christmas trees aren't part of a religious ritual doesn't make them "secular"; they're a symbol of Christmas -- a Christian holiday, not a secular one. I object strongly to the notion that Christmas is secular; the claim is a (conscious or unconscious) attempt to deny the religious identity of non-Christians to pretend that it is.
12.16.2006 6:30am
Public_Defender (mail):
Is a Christmas tree Christian? It's not in the Bible, but it is a Christmas tree. You know, with the word "Christ" in it, and used as part of the celebration of the birth of Christ. In most American Christian homes, it is the central physical feature of the Christmas celebration.

It's amazing how much dishonesty (or head-in-the-sand ignorance) people are willing to engage in to try to get away with government-sponsored religious displays.

Put up Christmas trees (or better yet, creches) in your homes and in your businesses. But leave government out of it.

It's amazing how so many people who consider themselves libertarian want government to lead religious celebrations. If there's anyplace government doesn't belong, this is it.

It also seems that the faith of many politically conservative Christians is so fragile that it requires constant validation from the government. How sad.
12.16.2006 7:43am
David Chesler (mail) (www):
What a lot of posters have said, especially Dejapooh, David M. Nieporent, and Public_Defender. Christmas trees do not send the message "Christ died for you sins and if you don't accept him as your Savior you are going to Hell." But they do send the message "This is a Christian country, and if you're not Christian, your beliefs just aren't quite as important, although if you insist, we'll let you celebrate your holidays, as long as you do so when we're celebrating our holidays, and in the same way as we celebrate our holidays."

That is not so far out a view. I belong to a discussion group about American software types which focuses on immigration issues (non-immigrant visas, such as H1-B, are a big deal in our profession) and one contributor had no compunction saying that folks who come here ought to assimilate, by speaking English and adopting Christianity.

I'll believe that the pretty lights and Santa Claus and all that on my city's Commons, which are seamlessly next to a Creche which may be funded more privately, and around which the city has a wonderful town event on the Sunday after Thanksgiving (hay rides, petting zoo, singers on the city hall steps [from good amateurs to Cub Scouts who were just handed the lyrics to Rudolph] and just when it gets dark the Mayor flips a switch and turns on all the lights) when I see a sukkah on the same Common some September.

The analogy doesn't hold. (I blogged about that here last year.) Not only doesn't every religion make a public display around the winter solstice, not every religion makes a public display at all.

As David Bernstein (?) pointed out in a recent entry, chassidim such as the Lubavitchers do not represent all of Judaism. Lubavitchers and Chabad take a very "in your face" position. (This is both within the Jewish community -- they run tefillin-mobiles, actively proselytizing to coreligionist [and uncannily picking out the Jews in a crowd] to fulfill the mitzvah that day of laying tefillin -- and without.) Their approach, making sure that any public Christmas tree is matched by a Menorah that is at least as big and bright has merit ("We're here, we're Jews, get used to it") but it is not the only approach.

Secular and cultural views are also worthy of respect. Those who were not raised on it might not like traditional eastern European Jewish cooking. There is nothing particularly religious about the food, but it would be impolite to impose it on those who don't like it.

It also seems that the faith of many politically conservative Christians is so fragile that it requires constant validation from the government. How sad.

I ask here, in response to The Coalition to save Christmas in Massachusetts what is it about the [gentiles] that their holiday always needs saving?
12.16.2006 9:45am
Paddy O. (mail):
Christmas is a lot like Mother's Day. It's not primarily a Christian holy day, as much as it is a more recent commercial holiday that has as its object something worthwhile.

A Christmas tree is not a Christian symbol. Indeed, the symbolism is pagan, as Christian missionaries tended to cut down holy trees not make them an altar in each person's house. Many conservative Christians (the kind who were very politically involved, and passionate about their beliefs) prior to this century felt that Christmas was not Christian at all and refused to celebrate it.

It is a cultural symbol that coincides with religious sentiments on occasion. The Christmas religious symbol is the nativity scene, as shown by Christian art for centuries. Christmas trees are a German cultural import that honors whatever it is that Christmas means to the broader culture. That's precisely why these things show up in decidedly non Christian contexts. That's why the equivalent to the menorah isn't a tree but a nativity. The tree represents the holiday, not the holy day.

If you ban the tree then you are basically arguing against it being a national holiday at all.

I'm bothered by people who insist on telling me what my religion is and what my symbols are.
12.16.2006 10:24am
Ben Hall:
It also seems that the faith of many politically conservative Christians is so fragile that it requires constant validation from the government. How sad.

Much the same could be said of the militant atheists who recoil at the very mention of the word "Christ" or the sight of a Christian religious (or even not so religious) symbol.

It seems that their faith in their atheism is so fragile that it requires the government to affirmatively shield them from exposure to other beliefs. How sad.
12.16.2006 10:55am
O' Christmas Tree, O' Christmas Tree...:
Volokh: "The Christmas tree does not itself have religious meaning..."

Says who? There are non-Christians who find Christmas trees to have religious symbolism. Who gets to decide whether a symbol has religious significance? Only the proponents and purveyors of the symbol? Why not the opponents of the symbol? If my religion teaches me that it's religiously offensive to have a Christmas tree, then a Christmas tree has religious significance.

By the way, I tried to get the rabbi to include a Christmas tree on the bimah, but he wouldn't hear of it. I wonder why?
12.16.2006 11:26am
David Cohen (mail):
The great irony here is that all the attention paid to Hanukkah is a side-effect of Christmas interacting with the First Amendment. If it occurred at any other time of the year, no more attention would be paid to Hanukkah than is paid to Sukkot or Shmini Atzeret.
12.16.2006 11:27am
Mark Field (mail):

This is both within the Jewish community -- they run tefillin-mobiles, actively proselytizing to coreligionist [and uncannily picking out the Jews in a crowd] to fulfill the mitzvah that day of laying tefillin -- and without.


One day I was walking down a street in Beverly Hills with 3 male friends, all of whom are Jewish (I'm not, but everyone says I "look Jewish" and my wife is, so I'm pretty good at "passing"). Some guy from Chabad came up to the 4 of us and began asking ME questions about my daily mitzvah. I led him on for a while, with my 3 friends trying hard not to die of laughter on the side.
12.16.2006 11:35am
Harry Eagar (mail):
As long as there are demands to 'put Christ back in Christmas,' it is obvious that Christmas is BOTH religious and non-religious (or irreligious). It's a free country -- take your choice.

I'm an atheist, but I celebrate Christmas. I like the sentiments that have accumulated around it, even if some (though not many) Christians share them.
12.16.2006 12:06pm
John Quincy Public:
"Who gets to decide whether a symbol has religious significance? Only the proponents and purveyors of the symbol? Why not the opponents of the symbol?"

You could not possibly be more correct. Let's tick off the short-list of some gross violations.

Anything depicting at any time any of the following: sun, moon, mountains, trees, flowers, birds (definitely the religio-patrioc American eagle), mythical creatures of any abstraction most importantly greco-roman derivations such as the statue of justice adorning so many court rooms, candles, knives, pyramids, obelisks, those temples erected to the mythological memory of past leaders of America littered around the mall in DC, rabbits, dogs, horses, bovines, and best of all: cats.

Then there are all the various funding issues devoted to superstition based outfits and cabinet posts: Weather forecasting (I've found Tarot readings to be far more accurate -- so we might carve out an exception for fortune tellers), most of the EPA, Climate change research, cancer research, HIV research, soup kitchens, Shoah memorials (history is not dispositive of religion), all of the social sciences (who are even less accurate than weather forecasters) and the institutional funding that supports the religious training of social clerics in University.

Thereafter we have all the religiously motivated holidays and down time that can be dispensed of, allowing for greater governmental efficiency and service including, but not limited to: Sundays and Saturdays, and all other supported downtimes.

And speaking of Sunday. We'll have to get on about renaming all those pesky religiously derived names for the days in the week and a goodly number of the month names as well.

The worst part is that there are no small number of people that believe Atheism is a religion itself. And that may just cause a problem since their lack of religious iconography or decoration is a direct protrayal or their beliefs.

So in the end I guess we'll have to ban existence. Which is just as well because the postmen working 7 days a week might make just a bit more... erm, postal.
12.16.2006 12:12pm
Elliot123 (mail):
David M. Nieporent:
The fact that Christmas trees aren't part of a religious ritual doesn't make them "secular"; they're a symbol of Christmas -- a Christian holiday, not a secular one.

When does one interpretation of a holiday officially overtake another? Nobody really knows the date of Jesus' birth. The early Christians just looked around and found a great big holiday at the winter solstice. Everything was already in place; they just appropriated it for their own use. So, when did the winter solstice celebration become Christian? And if it can morph from pagan to Christian, why can't it also morph from Christian to secular? I'd suggest it already has.

When did Thursday lose its connection to Thor? When did Saturday lose its connection to Saturn?
12.16.2006 12:22pm
Eugene Volokh (www):
To those who say that the Christmas tree is religious, since it's connected to Christmas, and government displays of it should therefore be prohibited: So it's unconstitutional for the government to have programs involving the Easter Bunny? Easter egg hunts?

How about government celebrations of Thanksgiving, given that Thanksgiving means giving thanks to God (and given that many people do say grace, which is to say thank God, at the Thanksgiving meal)?
12.16.2006 1:10pm
marghlar:
As long as there are demands to 'put Christ back in Christmas,' it is obvious that Christmas is BOTH religious and non-religious (or irreligious). It's a free country -- take your choice.

I'm an atheist, but I celebrate Christmas. I like the sentiments that have accumulated around it, even if some (though not many) Christians share them.


Precisely. As one more data point, my wife and I are both atheists, and we very much enjoy our Christmas tree. It was a pagan holiday before it was coopted by Christians, and for us, it retains a great deal of beauty as a celebration of the arrival of winter and of gift giving.
12.16.2006 1:33pm
Davide:
It is simply false to state that a Christmas tree has no religious meaning. It is used to celebrate a Christian holiday, only finds itself used on or around the date of that holiday, and is part of the celebration of that holiday. It's not a meaningless adornment. Contrary arguments are not only wrong but ridiculous: one does not find the tree pulled out, even by Christians, on other days (such as Easter, for instance).

It is also not a secular sign of general holiday cheer. One will not find it used in or around Islamic mosques, nor in synagogues.

It is for that reason that its public use is banned in places such as Saudi Arabia.

The fact that some who are not Christian use or admire it does not change this fact. Atheists may also, on occasion, recite Christian prayers -- their recital makes the prayers no less Christian.

Finally, with regard to other possible defenses of this improper use: Thanksgiving is fine because it does not suggest a particular Christian holiday. Jesus had nothing to do with November 29. He does with regard to Dec. 25.

As to "Thors"-day: this is an ancient name which refers to a deity no one worships in the present day. It raises no issue and certainly not like the tree does.
12.16.2006 2:15pm
Public_Defender (mail):
I'm an atheist, but I celebrate Christmas. I like the sentiments that have accumulated around it, even if some (though not many) Christians share them.
I am Christian, but I have celebrated Passover with Jews. That doesn't make the trappings of Passover any less Jewish.

Much the same could be said of the militant atheists who recoil at the very mention of the word "Christ" or the sight of a Christian religious (or even not so religious) symbol.

I agree that part of living in a pluralistic society is accepting that other people will publicly celebrate different religious holidays. In my initial post, I said it was a good thing for people to put up creches in their homes, businesses and private property. It's just that many Christians seem to have a faith so weak that they need the government validate their religion, and that's sad.

As to others who say that the Christmas tree is not Christian because it was added later, remember that Christmas itself was added later. The fact that Christmas trees were made part of the Christmas celebration only recently doesn't make them any less Christian.
12.16.2006 2:21pm
Public_Defender (mail):
Constitutional concerns aside, what is the libertarian argument for spending government resources to put up Christmas trees?
12.16.2006 2:23pm
Clayton E. Cramer (mail) (www):

Constitutional concerns aside, what is the libertarian argument for spending government resources to put up Christmas trees?
The same argument as there is for putting up menorahs. None, particularly. Of course, "libertarian argument" would wipe out about 80% of what our government does.
12.16.2006 3:34pm
Proud to be a liberal :
Last year, those who fight the "war on Christmas" were upset that Christmas trees were being renamed the more secular "Holiday trees."

As I understand the Seattle aiport's position, the officals had no objection to the menorah qua menorah; they were afraid that once "religious" symbols were allowed in, then they would have to allow all kinds of symbols. Note the recent litigation over whether Wiccans can put their symbol in national cemeteries.

The options right now are:
1. purely secular symbols, which for most include holiday (or Christmas) trees, snowmen and snowwomen, snowflakes;
2. religious symbols, in which case, there cannot be discrimination based on religion.
The right wing public interest law firms take the position that Christian only religious symbols are okay because the majority of Americans are Christian.
12.16.2006 4:15pm
David M. Nieporent (www):
If you ban the tree then you are basically arguing against it being a national holiday at all.
Well, yes, that's my point. It's not. It's a holiday of one particular sect. That sect may have a lot of people in it -- the majority of the country, in fact -- but it's theirs, not the country's.

(It's a federal holiday in the sense of the government being closed, but that doesn't need to have religious significance; there are purely secular reasons for that. Schools are often closed on the High Holy Days in places where there are a significant number of Jews, even when that 'significant number' is still a small percentage of the total.)
12.16.2006 4:30pm
Mark Field (mail):

Schools are often closed on the High Holy Days in places where there are a significant number of Jews, even when that 'significant number' is still a small percentage of the total.


True, but at least here in LA they don't give that as the reason for the closure. Instead, they call it a "teacher development day" or some such, just to avoid the religion issue. Similarly, every year Spring Break just happens to fall on one side or t'other of Easter.
12.16.2006 4:43pm
Swede:
Anti-semitism?

Has he looked at the Left lately?

Say, in the last 30 years or so?
12.16.2006 5:06pm
O' Christmas Tree, O' Christmas Tree...:
Prof. Volokh: "To those who say that the Christmas tree is religious, since it's connected to Christmas, and government displays of it should therefore be prohibited: So it's unconstitutional for the government to have programs involving the Easter Bunny? Easter egg hunts?"

Yes. Exactly. It's unconstitutional for the government to have programs involving the Easter Bunny or the Easter Egg hunt.

If "ceremonial deism" and "In God We Trust" on money is constitutional then, Thanksgiving is also constitutional.
12.16.2006 5:06pm
Jon Rowe (mail) (www):
Let's just declared Christmas to be a secular holiday and move on. I just got a Christmas card from the most fervent atheist I know.
12.16.2006 5:11pm
David Chesler (mail) (www):
Sure, in fact why not declare belief in Jesus as secular, then all the unbelievers aren't practitioners of other religions, they're being unpatriotic. Nothing in the Establishment and Free Exercise clauses prohibits patriotism, right?
12.16.2006 5:34pm
David Chesler (mail) (www):
Constitutional concerns aside, what is the libertarian argument for spending government resources to put up Christmas trees?

This libertarian, who tends to be yellow-dog in his fervor (though not anarcho-capitalist), and very strict in his interpretation of what it means to "establish" a religion, doesn't particularly mind when the line gets blurred between local governments and community associations. A city of 8 million people is beyond local democracy, but a town of 30 thousand is small enough that it can't do much damage, it doesn't take many people to make a change, and it isn't so big that moving with your feet isn't an option.
12.16.2006 5:42pm
Brooks Lyman (mail):
A few thoughts from a simpleton (or perhaps, a simplfier) on such matters:

1) Based on my reading of the First Amendment and my knowledge of just what the founders meant by "establishment of religion," it seems to me that the whole separation of church and state argument is wrong and has gone off into fantasy land.

2) What ever happened to majoritarianism? Certainly we have to respect minorities' basic human rights, but this is a nation that claims to be something like 80+ percent Christian. Don't the Christians have some say in how things are run, so long as they don't interfere with the minorities?

3) As for minorities being offended or intimidated by the existence of majority sentiments, well, when I walk through Brookline, MA (heavily Jewish), I as a Christian am not offended or intimidated by all the temples, synagogues, bagel shops and kosher food stores, and the Jews don't seem to be offended or intimidated by the fact that my church (The Christian Community) is located in Brookline. It seems to be a small number of paranoid, publicity-seeking victim cult types who raise all these stinks, whatever the issue. Can't we just ignore them and get on with our lives? How the Hell did they manage to get a foot into the courtroom door on these issues?

4) Given the above, I have no problem with government making government space available for religious displays during generally recognized religious/secular holidays. I do have some reservations about using government resources to mount such displays, both from a sensitivity standpoint and from a libertarian point of view on the proper use of tax dollars.

5) It might be pointed out, that while Christmas trees relate to Christianity mainly by their name - it is a pagan custom - the Menorah is certainly a religious symbol, both Jewish and Christian (how many candles are on the altar in your church? Seven, in mine, and for good historical reasons.).

6) Merry Christmas and Happy Chanukkah!
12.16.2006 5:45pm
Elliot123 (mail):
Davide:
As to "Thors"-day: this is an ancient name which refers to a deity no one worships in the present day. It raises no issue and certainly not like the tree does.

It strikes me that Christ is an ancient name and billions of people do not worship him in the present day.
12.16.2006 7:03pm
Seerak (mail):
It is also not a secular sign of general holiday cheer. One will not find it used in or around Islamic mosques, nor in synagogues.

Of course. If it were a secular sign of general holiday cheer, I would expect not to find it in those places, either.

The Christmas tree was originally part of a pagan solstice festival, whose symbols were appropriated by a later creed, Christianity. Now, it's happening again -- American secularism has appropriated those same symbols from the Christians. What's so hard to grasp about that?

The Christians can make all the noise they like about "what Christmas really means", but the truth of the matter is that the holiday exists in a secular form alongside the Christian one.

The attempts to "save Christmas" are simply an attempt to fight the secularization of the symbol by declaring a monopoly on its meaning -- that it can only mean their meanings regardless of who uses them. That would be tantamount to English speakers insisting that the English meanings of certain combinations of letters must hold in all speech everywhere, no matter what the actual language in use is. Given that many of the symbols in question originate outside of Christianity, this is disingenuous to say the least.

Symbols (and words) can and do change their meaning over time, with the context of use. Swastikas, for example, were a relatively innocuous symbol for thousands of years, but it's the meaning it took on midway through last century which is dominant now, at least in the West.

So, in the context of property owned by the government of an ostensibly secular, free republic, I'd consider the Christmas tree to be sufficiently secularized to pass First Amendment muster.
12.16.2006 8:36pm
Mac (mail):
John Quincy Public,

"You could not possibly be more correct. Let's tick off the short-list of some gross violations.

Anything depicting at any time any of the following: sun, moon, mountains, trees, flowers, birds (definitely the religio-patrioc American eagle), mythical creatures of any abstraction most importantly greco-roman derivations such as the statue of justice adorning so many court rooms, candles, knives, pyramids, obelisks, those temples erected to the mythological memory of past leaders of America littered around the mall in DC, rabbits, dogs, horses, bovines, and best of all: cats. "



You must be prescient. I just saw a lady on tv who is going to sue her child's school because it carries copies of Harry Potter but no Bible in the school library. She is claiming Harry Potter is a religion of witchcraft and in violation of the establisshment clause or something like that.

Public_Defender
"It also seems that the faith of many politically conservative Christians is so fragile that it requires constant validation from the government. How sad."



I do believe just 20th Ceentury history might make Christians and Jews a little nervous about the hysteria of the current atheists regarding religious symbols. After all, Religion is the first institution Lenin went after (well, after the Czar) continued by Stalin and all subsequent leaders. Ditto China. All of these nations persecuted all religions. Doesn't make one feel any too good about the goodness and justice of the atheistic form of government. If all other religions are suppressed does that not "Establish" Atheism as the state religion?
12.16.2006 9:16pm
David Chesler (mail) (www):
If all other religions are suppressed does that not "Establish" Atheism as the state religion?

No more than "No talking in the library" establishes ASL as the national language.

Brooks Lyman (Brooklineman?) draws a parallel between the synagogues, Jewish businesses, etc. (whose existence doesn't offend him) and the government acting in promotion of a particular religion:
It seems to be a small number of paranoid, publicity-seeking victim cult types who raise all these stinks, whatever the issue. Can't we just ignore them and get on with our lives? How the Hell did they manage to get a foot into the courtroom door on these issues?

Nobody is offended by members of the dominant sect practicing their religion in their own churches or private lives?
12.16.2006 11:08pm
Paddy O. (mail):
Would <i>Elf</i> be considered a religious movie?
12.17.2006 1:25am
Public_Defender (mail):
I suspect the Christmas-tree-is-not-Christian argument comes from Christians who redefined their faith in response to the Lemon test. They lawyered-up their faith in order to convince courts to let the government lead their religious practices.

After all, Religion is the first institution Lenin went after (well, after the Czar) continued by Stalin and all subsequent leaders. Ditto China.

For Christians to think that they are oppressed in an overwhelmingly Christian country that has more religious freedom than any country in history is, well, paranoid.
12.17.2006 8:11am
Davide:
Elliot123,

Try reading what I wrote. I said NO ONE worships Thor in the present day, not simply that the name is "ancient." Billions worship Jesus presently. Thus, there is no valid comparison.
12.17.2006 9:55am
CJColucci:
Davide:
Beware the vengeance of Thor and Father Odin, you unbelieving swine!
12.17.2006 11:09am
Mark Field (mail):

For Christians to think that they are oppressed in an overwhelmingly Christian country that has more religious freedom than any country in history is, well, paranoid.


I agree with this, but not at all with this:


I suspect the Christmas-tree-is-not-Christian argument comes from Christians who redefined their faith in response to the Lemon test.


People seem to have forgotten that Christmas itself, not just the tree, was considered "not Christian" by many in the past. The Puritains banned Christmas and made a point of working on Christmas day to show how unimportant it was. It remained controversial for years. Whatever the merits of the "tree as religious symbol" debate, it's not something dreamed up post-Lemon.
12.17.2006 11:28am
Public_Defender (mail):
People seem to have forgotten that Christmas itself, not just the tree, was considered "not Christian" by many in the past.

And to say that Christmas trees aren't Christian in the 21st Centrury makes as much sense as saying that Christmas isn't Christian. So what if Chistmas trees have been added to the Christmas celebration? They are still part of a Christian holiday.

And no one has been able to give a libertarian justification for spending government resources to celebrate a religious holiday. If anything belongs in the private sector, it's religious celebrations.
12.17.2006 12:42pm
ReaderY:
The practice of prohibiting Menorahs as religious symbols while allowing Christmas trees as secular ones is dumb, but it is dumbness with a history. In the original "too-much-accommodation" case, the Supreme Court struck down a Connecticut law permitting members of minority religions to take off an alternative day as the Sabbath. The reasoning was that a law requiring people to take Sunday off had a secular purpose (since Sunday could be considered a secular day of rest). But letting members of minority religions take a different day off had no other purpose but advanced religion, since folks were taking the day off exclusively for religious reasons. In other words, forcing everyone to do things ones own religion's way is OK as long as one can come up with some secular justification for it, but accommodating minority religions is not OK because "too much" accommodation violates the Establishment Clause.

Such reasoning is properly called Orwellian.

The reindeer rule never made much sense. It is simply intrusive for do-gooders in government to prevent people from the ordinary celebration of their holidays. Better to have an honest discussion about the role of religion in society, than to have a system in which dogmas are twisted to people's ends.
12.17.2006 2:28pm
Elliot123 (mail):
Davide:
Try reading what I wrote. I said NO ONE worships Thor in the present day, not simply that the name is "ancient." Billions worship Jesus presently. Thus, there is no valid comparison.

A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon we find 2/3 of the world isn't Christian. How many folks of a given ilk does it take to retain meaning rights to a holiday? At some point Christians took meaning rights from the solstice dancers. Now those rights have been taken back. Perhaps it's the dawning of the age of Aquarius?

However, there is still hope for the Spring Equinox. It is a bit problematic that the Jews laid claim to Passover long before the Christian era, but ecumenism does earn diversity points. The imprtant thing is that the commercial establishment still hasn't revved up to coopt the holiday. There are those pesky fertility dancers prancing naked under the Spring Moon, but who cares about the worshippers of Thor anyway.
12.17.2006 2:37pm
Mark Field (mail):

And to say that Christmas trees aren't Christian in the 21st Centrury makes as much sense as saying that Christmas isn't Christian.


Fine, but I was responding to a different point.

Personally, I don't think Christmas trees are a Christian symbol, but I think reasonable people can differ on this.


If anything belongs in the private sector, it's religious celebrations.


I agree.
12.17.2006 2:43pm
hayesms73 (mail):
Deenk writes:

Christmas trees were never really very christian - they are pagan religious symbols, as is Santa Claus.

So the American flag is not really very American either -- stars and stripes are associated with the British flag, as are the colors red, white, and blue.

I grow tired of the suggestion that Christian symbols are somehow not Christian simply because many of them have pagan (or more often Jewish) antecedents. People who make these kinds of arguments should read the Church Fathers, who were very explict about their project of "baptising" their pagan culture and infusing it with Christian meaning. Much as Americans have done with the traditions they inherited from England....
12.17.2006 3:55pm
Tom Cross (mail) (www):
Wow... Well, I'm agnostic, and I celebrate Christmas. Its part of my culture. I grew up with it, and I enjoy it. The fact that the word Christmas includes "Christ" no more makes the Christmas tree I just decorated an act of Chrisitian relgious expression than the origin of wreaths means I'm upholding pagan ideologies by hanging one on my door.

I think the inclusion of the word God in the pledge and the currency was clearly an attempt at establishment, and both irk me far more than a government Christmas tree (and I don't particularly think that we must do away with either after so many years). There is an unavoidable relationship between religion and culture, but there is a difference between celebrating one's culture, and celebrating one's religion, and the fact that certain cultural practices have a religious connection for some people cannot make them first amendment issues in all cases.

I'll refer you to Steven Breyer's recent discussion of his different findings in two ten commandments cases... Basically, its all about context and intent. A public display of the ten commandments is only establishment if it's intended to be establishment.
12.17.2006 5:19pm
Ammonium (mail):
A few years ago my university banned Christmas trees in public areas of dorms. They were put up by students -- students who were paying money for the use of those public areas. So you could hardly argue against those trees from a libertarian prospective.

When my town doesn't have snowflakes attached to the streetlights they have other things like American flags, advertisements for charitable organizations, or advertisements for the university. If a libertarian is going to argue against decorations on the grounds that governments should not be spending money on holiday decorations, they should be consistent and argue against all other types of advertising and decorations that governments put up throughout the year.

The treatment of holiday symbols is totally ridiculous. I can't have a small tree on my desk in my state university office since it's a religious symbol. Yet the town I grew up in still puts up a nativity scene in the middle of Main Street. They can do this because there's a Menorah off to the side.
12.17.2006 5:43pm
Elliot123 (mail):
How about Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer? Is he an antlered expression of Christianity? If so, did he become one as soon as Montgomery Ward created him? Or was it when Gene Autry sang about him?

It does sound a bit silly. But, is there a point where something connected to Christmas ceases to be a symbol of Christianity? Or is everyone subject to the self proclaimed monopoly of the Church Fathers that hayesms73 mentioned? Has Rudolph been baptised and infused with Christian meaning? Who did it? When? Does Rudolph know? What if he is an animist?

And, if something can be infused with Christian meaning, can it be stripped of the same?
12.17.2006 6:13pm
Mark Field (mail):

How about Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer? Is he an antlered expression of Christianity? If so, did he become one as soon as Montgomery Ward created him? Or was it when Gene Autry sang about him?


It might be better to approach it from the other side: is a dreidl an expression of Judaism? A religious symbol or a cultural item?
12.17.2006 7:55pm
Davide:
Elliot123,

A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon we find 2/3 of the world isn't Christian. How many folks of a given ilk does it take to retain meaning rights to a holiday? At some point Christians took meaning rights from the solstice dancers. Now those rights have been taken back. Perhaps it's the dawning of the age of Aquarius?



What are you talking about?

Several hundred million Christians live in this country, celebrate Christmas, and recognize the Christmas tree as a symbol of that holiday. Arguing that it's some sort of generic "howdy" is just plain silly -- though, for silliness' sake, it's hard to up any reference to "the age of Aquarius"...
12.17.2006 9:58pm
David Chesler (mail) (www):
How about Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer? Is he an antlered expression of Christianity?

There were certain Jewish homes in the 1960s where Charlie Brown[*] Christmas and Rudolph were acceptable, but Little Drummer Boy was over the line. (Frosty was no problem.) Different people may draw their lines differently.

[*]This may have been more based on the Charles Shultz exception (similar to the Chinese restaurant exception) than a deep analysis. Linus' speech from Luke 2:8-12 was my first exposure to Christian theology.

Of course in addition to the line of "what we may bring into this house", the line for "what from the Christian celebrations of their holiday is it acceptable for us to share" is different from the line for "what is neutral, and acceptable for the proper role of government, and what is sectarian and not proper."

Tom Cross writes I'm agnostic, and I celebrate Christmas.
As I wrote earlier, analogies don't always hold. Just as all kosher food is hallal, I can't think of anything in Jewish liturgy or practice that is forbidden to Christians. A Christian is free to eat matzah and hear the story of the exodus. The reverse is not true: A Jew is forbidden to invoke the Trinity. The line isn't clear or bright, but there are some things that are too much like practicing another religion and are thus forbidden to Jews. Tom can do Christmas as much as he wants: there is no Agnosticism that he is denying or violating.
12.17.2006 10:58pm
David M. Nieporent (www):
How about Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer? Is he an antlered expression of Christianity? If so, did he become one as soon as Montgomery Ward created him? Or was it when Gene Autry sang about him?
I think he became one when he began pulling a figure derived from a Christian saint around on a sleigh so this figure could deliver presents on a Christian holiday to Christian children.

It does sound a bit silly. But, is there a point where something connected to Christmas ceases to be a symbol of Christianity? Or is everyone subject to the self proclaimed monopoly of the Church Fathers that hayesms73 mentioned? Has Rudolph been baptised and infused with Christian meaning? Who did it? When? Does Rudolph know? What if he is an animist?

And, if something can be infused with Christian meaning, can it be stripped of the same?
Yes. I don't think anybody believes Valentine's Day has any Christian significance any more. It's a purely Hallmark holiday now; we've even dropped the initial "Saint" from the original name of the holiday. But that certainly hasn't happened with Christmas. (Indeed, the very overemphasis on Chanukah illustrates that most Jews do not view Christmas as a "secular" holiday.)
12.18.2006 8:18am
Shawn-non-anonymous:
My mother was raised very catholic. Even after she was excommunicated for remarriage she sent us to catholic school and forced us kids to attend mass every Sunday and every Easter and Christmas. In so far as someone in this country can be raised solidly christian, I was.

Never in all those years was I raised to think of the tree, the stockings, or the gifts as anything "christian." We all knew that there were two sides to christmas: 1) a secular American feel-good family holiday with co-opted pagan symbology, and 2) a christian celebration of the birth of Jesus.

Having converted to agnostic in my early 20s, I avoid as much of the christian aspect of the holiday as I can and focus only on the secular part of it. If christians find religous value in what is really a pagan symbol, well, that isn't surprising as much of their belief is mirrored in older pagan religions. But that doesn't mean it is actually "christian" and that my use of it is, like saying the Lord's Prayer, really christian even if I don't mean it to be.

Decorated trees have as much christian religious history and context as chocolate on easter or flowers on valentines day.

I am, however, willing to change my thoughts on this if someone could show more than a casual (cultural) link between the birth of Jesus and a decorated pine tree.

It is more likely that people of deep faith have taken a cultural symbol and wrapped it in religion because, for them, the religious aspect of Christmas is of primary importance. I can accept that, but that doesn't mean everyone else must believe the same as they do.
12.18.2006 9:49am
David Chesler (mail) (www):
Or people of shallower faith have taken a religiously-linked practice and claimed it is secular because they can cast a bigger tent. That doesn't mean that everybody has to get under that tent.

Good point, David M. Nieporent, that there are a lot of people who have not secularized Christmas.

It may be somewhat ironic that the only way to keep this Christian holiday from becoming secular is to refuse to celebrate it, thereby serving witness that it is not secular. Just as the only way to get the school to close on Rosh Hashonah may be to keep your children home from school, not that you particularly care, because use it or lose it.

A lot of Jews avoid majority-sect practices as much as possible, to avoid a loss of tribal identity. A much as I like eggnog and pfeffernuse and pretty lights, they may have a point.
12.18.2006 11:31am
Shawn-non-anonymous:
Taken from: wikipedia


"December 25 was also considered to be the date of the winter solstice, which the Romans called bruma.[8] It was therefore the day the Sun proved itself to be "unconquered" despite the shortening of daylight hours. (When Julius Caesar introduced the Julian Calendar in 45 BC, December 25 was approximately the date of the solstice. In modern times, the solstice falls on December 21 or 22.) The Sol Invictus festival has a "strong claim on the responsibility" for the date of Christmas, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia.[3] Several early Christian writers connected the rebirth of the sun to the birth of Jesus.[13] "O, how wonderfully acted Providence that on that day on which that Sun was born . . . Christ should be born," Cyprian wrote.[3]"


I know wikipedia is of limited value, but this particular article is well annotated with sources and provides a good starting point.
12.18.2006 12:40pm
A.C.:
First off, Christmas itself is rather light on theological content even for Christians. Easter is the big theological holiday according to my upbringing. Christmas boils down to "Jesus was born. He fulfilled a prophesy. Sounds like a good excuse for a party." Some of the party can take place in church, of course, and the music at Christmas is often excellent. In my home town, non-Christians would sometimes attend Christmas CHURCH SERVICES for the music and the general fun of a big event. Major Christmas sub-themes are "be generous" and "invite a lot of people over," so that works fine as long as everybody else wants to be invited over.

This may be part of the problem -- Christians really do seem to want a big public (and not terribly religious) party at this time of year, even if serious and private religious devotion is more typical for those same people at other times. Folks who get all indignant at being invited sometimes provoke the same reaction as anyone else who gets indignant at an invitation. Declining politely is fine, but indignation is seldom the expected response to an ordinary social (as opposed to sexual) invitation. Note that I can see the point of people who object to the overwhelming nature of the party in question, but it's still basically a party and not actually the ritual observance of the religion.

As for the tree, my understanding is that it was imported into this country from Germany by 19th Century social reformers in order to make all the partying a bit more civilized and family-oriented. Commercializing Christmas was part of the same effort, although early presents were books rather than expensive video games. Before that, the main activity seemed to be excessive drinking. That's the holiday the Puritans banned. It's not that they were trying to deny their children the fun of presents and colored lights. They were just trying to keep apprentices and journeymen from getting blind drunk, and some employers still worry about the same sort of thing at the office Christmas party. (Such parties, with or without trees, may be our most historically accurate Christmas rituals.)

Most Christians in the US don't trace their ancestry to the place where Christmas trees first developed in any case -- I don't think the trees became popular in southern Italy until long after they caught on here, for example. Yule logs are a more plausible pagan carry-over for most Christian subgroups, as they resemble solstice fires. Funny how nobody ever objects to large public fires on religious grounds... or pinatas, which are the thing in Mexico.

As far as I'm concerned, the trees are just a decoration, along with the holly. (What else would people have used in December before the floral industry was globalized?) Call it holiday greenery if you want, and you can have it on New Year's or Easter (some people do) or the Fourth of July for all I care. Putting blue and white lights on a ficus plant, hanging dreidels and chocolate coins from the branches, and calling the whole thing a Hannukah bush is totally fair game.

That all falls into the same category as pinatas at children's birthday parties or bonfires at 1950s pep rallies. I've been known to make potato pancakes in December just because I like them, not because I'm trying to celebrate Hannukah. My Chrismas decor this year includes some objects that I believe were intended to be Diwali lights, but I don't think it's offensive to use them as ordinary candle holders. (I wouldn't use a menorah that way, by the way, which points to the difference between a Christmas tree and a menorah that has already been noted here. Potato pancakes are in a different category.)

In summary, whatever you do or don't do in December, try to make it a party of some kind and not a lawsuit. Better yet, try to make it a GOOD party. Invite lots of people over.
12.18.2006 12:43pm
Davide:
AC,

Your post, while long, misses the point completely.

No one objects to Church christmas parties. Or anyone else's christmas party, for that matter. And everyone knows non-Christians attend these parties and drink eggnog and what-have-you.

So what?

The issue is: when did these Christian people get the right to shove their Christmas trees in everyone else's face, using public money, in a public square??

I don't see this in the Constitution.

Long historical discourses on the tree's evolution, etc. are quite irrelevant: the issue, again, is: this is a specific, religiously-linked item. To one holiday. A Christian one.

For a supposedly tolerant and happy religion, I don't quite understand the repeated insistence to shove it in everyone's face using public tax dollars. If you like Christmas, fine, celebrate it on your own dime, in your own house. Why that isn't enough is beyond me.
12.18.2006 12:56pm
A.C.:
And you've missed my point, which is that the tree is no more religious than the pinata or the potato pancakes. I'd be quite happy to spend public money on either of those things -- and on the menorah too, if it makes people happy. Party on, everybody.

My objection is to the use of words like "shove." And "war," on the other side. Lawsuits too. Not in the spirit of the holiday season, folks! Lighten up (whatever you choose to light up) and have a great time!
12.18.2006 1:07pm
Elliot123 (mail):
Davide:
Several hundred million Christians live in this country, celebrate Christmas, and recognize the Christmas tree as a symbol of that holiday. Arguing that it's some sort of generic "howdy" is just plain silly -- though, for silliness' sake, it's hard to up any reference to "the age of Aquarius"...

So, it's a numbers game? Good. What percentage of the US population has to be Christian to maintain Christmas as a Christian holiday? How about Japan? Is Christmas a Christian holiday in Japan? They have only a small part of their population that is Christian. Is it OK to say, "Howdy Christmas" in Japan?
12.18.2006 1:56pm
Davide:
AC,
To the extent you wish to argue that the Christmas treee is "no more religious than the pinata..." that argument is just daft.

For example, pinatas are used all the times at birthday parties.

Are Christmas trees?

In fact, are Christmas trees used at ANY OTHER TIME than Christmas? And are they used in ANY OTHER WAY? An honest person would answer no.

Trying to equate that pinatas or potato pancakes is quite ridiculous. People eat potato pancakes today, tomorrow, and on holidays. THAT'S why your comparison is poor.

As to Ellit123, your comments are funny-- they certainly don't make sense.

"So, it's a numbers game?" Yes, Ellit123-- to the extent you want to claim "religious" significance to a 'religion' that no one honors, your claim is bogus. The magical number, for your purposes, should "more than ZERO." So no "thursday" whining.

Several hundred million Christians ought to suffice to make this a live issue.
12.18.2006 3:08pm
Davide:
AC,

Oh, and as to your dismay about use of the term "shoving," consider the implicit message the government sends when it choose to put up an 88-foot tall tree in the middle of your city and festoon it with your tax dollars, when you neither agree with the use of that tree nor the use of the public fisc in that manner.

Also, note the absence of any other holiday decoration in equivalent size or prominence.
12.18.2006 3:12pm
Elliot123 (mail):
Davide:
"So, it's a numbers game?" Yes, Ellit123— to the extent you want to claim "religious" significance to a 'religion' that no one honors, your claim is bogus. The magical number, for your purposes, should "more than ZERO." So no "thursday" whining.

One is more than zero. Are you telling us that one Christian observing Christmas as a Christian holiday is sufficient for the culture to consider Christmas a religious holiday? Does that last shivering soul with a red kettle and bell determine the meaning of the holiday for the other 299,999,999?

This is good news for the Asgardians among us, respecting precedent as they do. There are far more than one flagon sloshing worshipper of Thor, so Thursday once again takes its rightful place in homage to the hammer weilder of the skies. In fact, since at least one solstice dancer is still kicking, we can say Christmas is a pagan rite welcoming the rebirth of the sun. (Sun, not son.)

Does this mean no dancing on the village green during December?
12.18.2006 3:45pm
David M. Nieporent (www):
Never in all those years was I raised to think of the tree, the stockings, or the gifts as anything "christian." We all knew that there were two sides to christmas: 1) a secular American feel-good family holiday with co-opted pagan symbology, and 2) a christian celebration of the birth of Jesus.
But I reject this notion that #1 exists. It isn't "American." It's Christian. Because the latter are such a high percentage of the former, it's easy to conflate the two, but they're different.

The fact that some secular Christians celebrate it doesn't make it secular; some secular Jews light a Menorah, too. Hell, half the Reform Jews out there seem to be atheist, but that doesn't mean that going to Friday night services is a "secular" activity.
12.18.2006 4:31pm
David Chesler (mail) (www):
Someone with whom I discussed this yesterday, old enough to have faced non-theoretical anti-Semitism in his neighborhood and even among the educated Northeast business establishment, brought up another point: What is the message sent when SeaTac takes down all its Christmas trees and then blames it on the Jews?
12.18.2006 4:35pm
Perry Dane:
For what it's worth, I posted, a couple of weeks ago, a short piece that is the seed of a projected longer article on "Christmas." See http://ssrn.com/abstract=947613
12.18.2006 4:40pm
Davide:
David Chesler,

"what is the message sent when SeaTac takes down all its Christmas trees and blames it on the Jews?"

This sounds awfully much like the argument of "don't make waves or they'll come kill the Jews." That's a discredited argument.

This is the US, the land of the free.

The message sent is that SeaTac is full of it. Religious images should not be on US public property. The end. That is, and should be, the law. It's not the Jews' law, the Christians' law, or the Muslims' law.

It's US law. SeaTac should honor it, and if they don't, the US should enforce it.
12.18.2006 4:45pm
David Chesler (mail) (www):
It's more like "See, I told you there were anti-Semites out there. You can always find a stick to beat a dog, so don't worry about making waves, but be ever vigilant, and know that whether you accept them imposing their holiday on everybody, or ask for an acknowledgement that theirs is not the only sect, they'll use it to attack you."

The message he heard SeaTac sending was "The Jews are trying to kill our holiday, just like they killed Our Lord."

(Why did the Grinch have garlic in his soul? Why do some people think Ebenezer Scrooge is Jewish?)
12.18.2006 5:34pm
Shawn-non-anonymous:


The fact that some secular Christians celebrate it doesn't make it secular; some secular Jews light a Menorah, too. Hell, half the Reform Jews out there seem to be atheist, but that doesn't mean that going to Friday night services is a "secular" activity.


The issue here isn't Friday night services or a Menorah, both of which are clearly religious ceremonies. The issue here is a decorated pine tree with links to several religious belief systems some of which predate Christianity. The tree was made popular by Queen Victoria having one in her court and not by any use in a church. The closest link to Christianity the tree maintains is that Western culture, which is predominantly Christian, uses it as a Winter decoration.

Depictions of the baby Jesus, symbols of the story surrounding his birth, midnight mass, these are religious. The tree is a relatively modern Western tradition that has been opposed by Christians themselves as "secular".

Can anyone show a direct Christian tie to the tree other than the fact it is used as decoration during the multi-holiday season surrounding the Winter Solstice by Western cultures?
12.19.2006 9:14am
David Chesler (mail) (www):
There is no multi-holiday season, except that for any date you can find other holidays nearby.

What's a "direct" tie?

Some scholars think Jews learned circumcision from the Egyptians, but the Egyptians aren't here any more, so a brit millah is very Jewish. (If you're circumcised on the 2nd day in the hospital or at age 13, then it's not Jewish -- if you happen to have a Balsam Fir growing in your yard, that's not Christian.)

Eating matzoh and drinking wine -- Christian or Jewish? It depends on the context, seder or communion.

Some customs change (few enough people, Christian or not, consider Halloween to be All Hallow's Eve that it's not a big deal.) But as much as those who would like it to be universal want it to be, Christmas has not become secular. That some non-Christians adopt some Christmas customs that their own belief system doesn't prohibit doesn't make them any less Christian.
12.19.2006 10:22am
dsesq67 (mail) (www):
A few things (some of which have already been said):

1. Sea-Tac officials did overreact when they removed the Christmas trees, instead of just allowing Chabad to install one of their now ubiquitous Menorah's. (There is one in my village, next to the Crèche display).

2. Sea-Tac officials, whether deliberately or not, did, by their actions, indirectly blame the rabbi (and by extension, Jews) for "forcing" removal of the trees under the threat of litigation. Whether one agrees with this point or not matters not, because the hatred directed toward the rabbi and Seattle's metropolitan Jewish community by some is rather conclusive evidence of this practical effect. That is unfortunate and ill-informed, because of the contributions made by the local Jewish community to Seattle's civic life. However, as we all know, those who hate need little impetus to do so.

3. As far as Allegheny goes, that tortured opinion can best be boiled down to the question: within which context is the symbol or symbols presented? It seems to me that unlike a Crèche, Christmas trees have no inherent religious value. I certainly have seen Christmas trees in isolation of other "holiday" symbols.

When I walk down the streets of the Loop in Chicago, there are lights adorning every tree and these arguably can be deemed "Christmas trees". There are also decorative candy canes, snow flakes, and even a German themed Christmas marketplace on Daley Plaza. Personally, as a Jew, I enjoy it. That may be as much as anything because I am a passive observer of what is otherwise described to me by Gentile friends as a stressful time of year.

I would not be as comfortable if the city decided it a good idea to install a Crèche display without any other symbol to balance out the display, such as a Menorah. There can be no denying the in your face religious symbolism of baby Jesus, wise men, Joseph and Mary and the North Star on display in a public place. Without a Menorah, I think that such a display violates the rule handed down in Allegheny County, Lemon and that line of cases.

None of this takes away from my feeling that Sea-Tac officials acted in a despicable manner when, instead of simply allowing the installation of the Chabad Menorah, they rushed to remove the trees and afterward blame the rabbi for stealing away the holiday spirit. I still feel this way even though the rabbi removed any threat of litigation (after being subject to some serious anti-Semitic verbal and written attacks), thereby giving the weasels that run Sea-Tac political and legal cover to "quietly" reinstall the trees. The damage was already done.
12.19.2006 10:25am
Shawn-non-anonymous:

What's a "direct" tie?


A failure of my ability to describe what I'm thinking? :-)

I was trying to be generic enough to encompass icons, acts, and beliefs as the source of the religious ceremony, icon, or act. As an example, the source of the menorah appears to have a tradition in ancient jewish temples. Can some similar thing be said of the Christmas tree? If so, it isn't universal enough knowledge to be taught in church, Catholic school, or in the Bible. I don't discount that such a "tie" may exist--I'm just unaware of one. Perhaps you are and will share it?

When is a tradition of a predominantly Christian culture a religious tradition or just a cultural tradition? How do you tell the two apart?

I'll be attending a friend's Yule ceremony this week. It's his religious celebration for the season. There are a variety of religious and cultural celebrations around the Solstice that aren't Christian. Hence "multi-holiday season."


That some non-Christians adopt some Christmas customs that their own belief system doesn't prohibit doesn't make them any less Christian.


The reverse: That some non-pagans adopt some pagan customs that their own belief system doesn't prohibit doesn't make them any less pagan.

Yule logs and evergreens have a long history outside of christian religious tradition. I just don't see how Christians can now claim them as their exclusive religious practice.
12.19.2006 11:08am
David M. Nieporent (www):
The reverse: That some non-pagans adopt some pagan customs that their own belief system doesn't prohibit doesn't make them any less pagan.

Yule logs and evergreens have a long history outside of christian religious tradition. I just don't see how Christians can now claim them as their exclusive religious practice.
For one thing, because there aren't any pagans around anymore.

Shawn, hypothetically, let's conduct a poll. If you pointed to a tree with lights and such on it and said, "What's that?", what percentage of passersby would respond with one of:

1) A Winter Solstice Tree,
2) An Evergreen Tree
3) A Pagan Tree
4) A December Tree
5) A Multi-Holiday Season Tree

And what percentage would respond:

6) A Christmas Tree

Do you think that the number of people answering 1-5 would get out of the single digits combined?
12.19.2006 1:00pm
David Chesler (mail) (www):
For better or worse, if that tree happened to be in a Jewish home, the answer might be "It's a Chanukah Bush. No really. We don't have any Christmas Trees in this house, no sirree. No Christmas here, this is a Jewish house."
12.19.2006 2:40pm
David M. Nieporent (www):
David:

I thought the whole "Chanukah Bush" thing was a semi-joke that died out a few decades ago. Of course, that still sort of supports my basic point: even when some Jews were doing that, they didn't say "It's a Christmas tree, which is okay because Christmas trees are secular." They said "It's not a Christmas tree [because Christmas trees are for Christians]. It's a Chanukah Bush."
12.19.2006 2:52pm
Elliot123 (mail):
David M. Nieporent:
For one thing, because there aren't any pagans around anymore.

What is a pagan? How do we identify one?
12.19.2006 7:49pm