WHEN A COMMOTION erupted over the fact that the 48-foot white spruce installed on the Boston Common -- an annual gift from the people of Nova Scotia -- is identified on Boston's official website as a "holiday tree," the city's commissioner of parks and recreation sided firmly with the critics. "This is a Christmas tree," Antonia Pollak declared. "It's definitely a Christmas tree."
At least that's what she told the Boston press. According to CBC News, on the other hand, she took a rather different line with the Canadian press: "A lot of people celebrate various religious holidays but also enjoy the lights, and we're trying to be inclusive."
Meanwhile, Pollak's boss said he intends to call it a Christmas tree, no matter what it says on the City Hall website. "I didn't write the website," Boston Mayor Thomas Menino told the Boston Herald. "If I had, it would have said Christmas tree." He must not write the mayor's weekly column, either. The current one is about the lighting of Christmas trees all over Boston -- yet not once does the word "Christmas" modify the word "tree."
And so it begins again -- the annual effort to neuter Christmas, to insist in the name of "inclusiveness" and "sensitivity" that a Christian holiday celebrated by something like 90 percent of Americans not be called by its proper name or referred to in religious terms. We all know the drill by now. Instead of "Merry Christmas," store clerks wish you a "happy holiday." Schools close for winter break. Your office throws a holiday party.
Sometimes the secularizing impulse goes to laughable extremes, as when the elementary school play is titled "How the Grinch Stole the Holidays" or when red poinsettias (but not white ones) are banned from city hall. Sometimes it springs from clanging ignorance, as with the New York City policy that prohibited the display of Christian nativity scenes on public school grounds, while expressly allowing such "secular holiday symbol decorations" as Jewish menorahs and the Muslim star and crescent. And some of it is fueled by anti-Christian bigotry or sheer misanthropic bile.
But mostly, I think, this attempt to fade Christmas into a nondenominational winter holiday stems from a twisted notion of courtesy -- from the idea that tolerance and respect for minorities require intolerance and disrespect for the majority. Better to call the company shindig a "holiday" party, this line of thinking goes, than to risk offending the few non-Christian employees by calling it a Christmas party. Better to ban all Christmas carols from the school concert than to take the chance that a Jew or Muslim or Hindu might feel excluded. Better to remove the Christmas trees from all the dormitory dining halls because a single student complained -- as happened last year at the University of Illinois -- than to politely inform the student that the trees will be removed after the Christmas season ends.
"We're trying to be inclusive," says the Boston parks commissioner, explaining why the white spruce that was sent from Nova Scotia under a giant banner reading "Merry Christmas, Boston" became a "holiday tree" on her department's website. But suppressing the language, symbols, or customs of Christians in a predominantly Christian society is not inclusive. It's insulting.
It's discriminatory, too. Hanukkah menorahs are never referred to as "holiday lamps" -- not even the giant menorahs erected in Boston Common and many other public venues each year by Chabad, the Hasidic Jewish outreach movement. No one worries that calling the Muslim holy month of Ramadan by its name -- or even celebrating it officially, as the White House does with an annual "iftaar" dinner -- might be insensitive to non-Muslims. In this tolerant and open-hearted nation, religious minorities are not expected to keep their beliefs out of sight or to squelch their traditions lest someone, somewhere, take offense. Surely the religious majority shouldn't be expected to either.
As a practicing Jew, I don't celebrate Christmas. There is no Christmas tree in my home, my kids don't write letters to Santa Claus, and I don't attend church on Dec. 25. Does the knowledge that scores of millions of my fellow Americans do all those things make me feel excluded or offended? On the contrary: It makes me feel grateful -- grateful to live in a land where freedom of religion shelters the Hanukkah menorah in my window no less than the Christmas tree in my neighbor's. That freedom is a reflection of America's Judeo-Christian culture, and a principal reason why, in this overwhelmingly Christian country, it isn't only Christians for whom Christmas is a season of joy. And why it isn't only Christians who should make a point of saying so.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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