“Has the Christmas tree been secularized?” My friend asks this like he’s inquiring about the progress of something inevitable, just checking for doneness. Is it soup yet?
We are having this conversation in the car at night, driving past houses and shops festooned with colored lights. Starry bulbs outline the facades of buildings, stretch like twinkling cobwebs high above the street.
I picture a fir tree. Conical, its graciously splayed branches hung with shiny ornaments and zigzagged with bumpy strings of popcorn.
My immediate association, startlingly, is one of anger and strife, the clamor of townspeople divided against themselves. I see them split into two furious groups: one indignant over religious displays in the public square, the other indignant over the banning of religious displays in the public square. Their din rises, bitter and inarticulate. Rhubarb rumble rhubarb rumble, the factions seem to mutter, like a crowd scene in a school play.
“Wasn’t it secular in the first place?” I say. “Or, you know. Pagan.”
“Well, yeah. Originally.”
Now I find myself imagining pagans, Druids or Celts, little blue people, as my high school English teacher used to call them with a wicked chortle. I see them as primitive forms, stick figures, worshipping the sun and the moon, the whirling stars and the tall trees. I see them climbing hills wearing crowns of holly and lighting bonfires against the darkness. I have read that not only early Europeans but also ancient Egyptians, Chinese and Hebrews used evergreen trees to symbolize eternal life. They did this long before Christianity existed, long before the Crusaders spread their religion by violent force. So what we now know as the Christmas tree could actually be regarded as a stubborn holdover, a sign of resistance or outright refusal to disavow entirely the ancient faiths.
Not that you’d know this today, given the source of contention the Christmas tree has become. This month it’s the functional ground zero of a certain kind of culture war, one that pits the dominant religion against all others while simultaneously portraying the dominant religion (read: American way of life) as endangered, under threat.
My town, like so many others across the nation, holds an annual tree-lighting ceremony. This year’s festivities included a petting zoo, face painting, cupcake decorating, and a collection for the food pantry. Carols were sung. The lights got lit without a hitch. Not a whiff of endangerment anywhere.
Nevertheless, the usual smattering of Christmas-Under-Attack! stories has hit the news cycle, with controversy erupting from coast to coast. In Rhode Island, Governor Lincoln Chafee drew fire from the head of the Providence Catholic diocese for calling the State House tree a “holiday tree.” In California, city officials banned all private displays, religious and secular, from Santa Monica’s Palisades Park. They did this hoping to avoid a repeat of tensions that occurred last year when atheist groups placed their own displays next to Nativity scenes, but tensions have merely increased. Now church groups are suing over freedom of speech, and last week Bill O’Reilly invited the president of American Atheists on air, where he accused him of being “a fascist.”
In fact, while the First Amendment separates church from state, it does not exclude religious expression from public space. The Supreme Court has ruled that such expression doesn’t violate the establishment clause so long as the government doesn’t privilege one group over another. In other words, Christian groups may mount displays in the public square to the same extent that other groups are so allowed. Which would seem to be the atheists’ whole point, but never mind.
I come not to bicker but to offer a story – call it a Christmas story, if you like:
The year is 1965. My parents are newlyweds. My father, the son of Jewish immigrants who fled the pogroms of Eastern Europe, harbors certain misgivings about the accoutrements of Christianity. My mother, who tended to describe her own heritage with shrugging resignation as WASP, has never in her life gone without a Christmas tree. She proposes getting one. No way, my father says. That’s ridiculous, my mother says. We’re not having one, my father insists. Back and forth it goes, their first knock-down, drag-out fight. In the end they get a tree. It’s a mini. It sits on the back of the toilet.
Never again, after that first year, do they argue over having a tree. My father even comes to like it. Years pass. They tell the story to their three kids. We cannot get over it. Why were you so against a tree, Dad? We know him only as an advocate for inclusion, a respecter of diversity. Jeez, Dad! Swift in our judgment, we’re nonetheless curious. We prod him for an explanation. He gives a rueful laugh and reflects on how he’d grown up with an unspoken, pervasive sense of being disdained, regarded by the mainstream as lesser, as other, a circumstance that breeds unease.
We look over at our mother. She is hardly the mainstream. We have been raised neither Christian nor Jewish. Not that our family lacks faith. As far as we can tell, our father’s faith seems to be in justice. Our mother’s seems to be in mystery.
We have never known a Christmas without a tree. Every year, the scent of piney wood fills our living room. We hang handmade ornaments of construction paper, bread dough, felt. We hang luminous globes of thinnest glass. We turn on the tree lights and turn off all the others and go outside. Our boots tromp across snow. Our breath hangs tinsel-like in front of our mouths before vanishing. Cold spangles our lungs. The sky cups us like a giant palm. At the same moment, we all turn back and look at our house, at the tree in the window, its lights as otherworldly, as astoundingly lovely as the stars.