Up with holiday trees

On Dec. 7, a reader comment was posted on this newspaper’s website and run as a letter to the editor: “The city of Sparks had their Christmas Parade, and that’s great. But why do both the City of Sparks and the City of Reno have an official ‘Holiday Tree’ instead of a ‘Christmas Tree’? Reno’s designation to have a Holiday Tree ‘was decided upon through our elected officials and City Attorney’s office’ (based on a return email I received from [Reno city government]). Are the cities of Sparks and Reno observing some holiday other than Christmas that they have not told us about? If so, what are they observing? If not, why avoid the Christmas Tree designation?”

There are a number of pieces of information relevant to this discussion:

1. Christianity did not invent the winter holiday. It piggybacked onto already existing ones. The same goes for the use of the tree in Christmas celebrations. Trees had been used for winter festivals long before Jesus was born. Christianity was jumping onto a bandwagon, not creating one. The notion that Christians have some special claim on holiday trees is not supported by history.

2. There was a time in the history of this continent when someone putting up a Christmas tree could have been arrested—by Christians. This was particularly true in New England in the 1600s. In Massachusetts, celebrating Christmas was a crime punishable by a fine of five shillings, a law enacted by Christians. It ill behooves some Christians now to claim primacy over winter traditions they once repudiated and criminalized.

3. According to Christmas historian Stephen Nissenbaum, Christians in this nation did not embrace Christmas trees until relatively recently—in the 1830s, after German immigrants brought the practice to the United States and Christians—specifically, Unitarians—popularized it. Unitarian novelist Catharine Sedgwick was particularly influential in spreading the custom. And Unitarians disdain the notion that the holiday traditions of other faiths should be ignored or suppressed.

4. Our reader asks what holidays could be celebrated by holiday trees. Here’s a partial list: Advent, Chalica, Bodhi/Day of Enlightenment (Dec. 8), Dongzhi, Soyal, Yalda, Shabe Yalda or Shabe Chelle, Saturnalia, Pancha Ganapati, Dies Natalis Solis Invicti/birth of the sun (Dec. 25), the Twelve Days of Christmas (beginning Dec. 12), Yule, Christmas, Malkh (Dec. 25), Modraniht/Mothers’ Night (Dec. 25 or 26), Boxing Day (Dec. 26), Kwanzaa (Dec. 26-Jan. 1), Saint Stephen’s Day (Dec. 26), Childermas, marking the slaughter of Jewish children by Herod’s soldiers (Dec. 28), Saint Sylvester’s Day, Watch Night, New Year’s Eve, Hogmanay (Dec. 31), and Winter Solstice and Hanukkah (whose dates float at this time of year).

In the end, the real reason why official holiday trees—and the two trees our reader references are both installed by city governments on city properties—are not designated as Christmas trees is that it is not the business of government to put its imprimatur on one religion among many that celebrate festivals at this time of year. The United States Constitution and good sense both forbid it.

And it might be useful to ask why some Christians (a) so frequently demand the assistance of government in protecting the faith, and (b) are so determined not to allow other faiths’ winter holidays to be recognized in the name of holiday trees.