People all over the country are getting heated up over a faux controversy over the use of the term holiday and its related ornaments. The current affection of many Americans with things “conservative” has not spared references to the season, as many people have chosen to greet friends, relatives and customers with the greeting, “Happy Holidays!“ It seems that some Christian purists believe that such a greeting denies the significance of Christmas, believing that all the decoration, piped music, and massive seasonal spending has everything to do with the birth of Jesus.
In Rhode Island the perennial controversy took flight when Governor Lincoln Chaffee invited the citizenry to the annual lighting of the “Holiday Tree” that decorates the State House in Providence. The previous Governor had been cognizant of the political implications of using the term “Christmas Tree” by inviting people to the annual tree-lighting ceremony. The response this year has been a significant statement of umbrage, including a denouncement by the Roman Catholic Bishop of the choice of the term Holiday Tree by the Governor.
It is amusing/frustrating to me that conservative Christians are so quick to embrace signs and symbols of the December holiday chaos as being purely Christian. Materialism at its worst is the most prominent sign of what is deemed “the Christmas season.” If these same Christians were as intent upon claiming the holiday season by showing it to contain the elements of biblical Christianity they would reject the frenzy and spending altogether and embrace a more spiritual form of celebration. Christian churches, however, are among the first to display their decorated trees, hold money-raising craft and food bazaars, and rush to sing Christmas songs weeks before the actual holiday even exists.
The Encyclopedia Brittanica has an interesting note to add to the dialogue:
(from “holy day”), originally, a day of dedication to religious observance; in modern times, a day of either religious or secular commemoration. Many holidays of the major world religions tend to occur at the approximate dates of more ancient, pagan festivals. In the case of Christianity, this is sometimes owing to the policy of the early church of scheduling Christian observances at dates when they would eclipse pagan ones-a practice that proved more efficacious than merely prohibiting the earlier celebrations. In other cases, the similarity of the date is due to the tendency to celebrate turning points of the seasons, or to a combination of the two factors
This historic comment points to the issue of whether the timing of the celebration of Christmas is legitimate to begin with. Most Christian scholars believe the birth of Jesus to have been later in the year, but that the early church “fathers” placed it in late December to undermine the pagan celebration already existing there. Kind of like “the monarch’s birthday” which is established by British custom on a specific date, having nothing to do with the actual date of the Queen’s birth.
The fact that other religions have holidays that fall within this winter season may have had less significance in previous centuries when Americans believed (falsely) that this was a Christian nation and there was no reason to be bothered by the ignoring of the presence of persons of other faith communities in the nation. Today, however, the prevailing understanding is that this is a nation in which many faith traditions exist coterminously and are major contributors to the life and well-being of our country. To ignore their presence or even despair their presence is understood to be outside the mainline thinking of current Americans. Simply placing a Menorah on the village green does not suffice.
The observance of this holiday season is far broader than the beautiful Christian worship and cultural events. Designation of a festively decorated seasonal tree as a holiday tree is well within the intelligent and sensitive recognition of citizens, especially those elected to represent all the people of a designated community. Holding up examples of other places where the President or other Governors and Mayors choose to call the illuminated trees a “Christmas Tree” says more about the narrow vision of those officials than it does about the legitimacy of the term. The separation of Church and State principle is a given, foundational matter. But the embracing of the growing and significant diversity of religious life in America is even more important.
For many years I have enjoyed the sight of decorated trees in the living rooms and on the lawns of friends I know not to be Christians. They are not exclusively a religious symbol, even to intelligent Christians. It is clear that the German and other northern European people embraced the illuminated tree as a symbol of the season. Eventually they took on customs of the nations and regions where they were displayed, in some cases being the focus of very secular, almost raucous events.
There is no question that there is a place for the decorated tree to be used with Christian purposes. In our home the tree is clearly a Christmas Tree and its absence would be felt. Trees that decorate the chancel of a Church provide beauty and even rich symbolism to Christmas worship.
But the placing of a lighted tree on the Town Square or in front of the State House is not for Christian worship or adoration. It is a symbol of a festive season, just as the lighting of the State House with pink lights in October is to support Cancer research and the green lighting in mid-March announces St. Patrick’s Day for authentic and faux Irish-Americans alike. If Christians are inspired by the presence of the lighted tree it is a good thing. But non-Christians can be inspired by it, as well, without ascribing to it a specific Christian meaning.
Photo Credit: London