The town’s [Montclair] recent discussion about whether to place a menorah alongside The Tree in the town center points to a larger question: Are these religious symbols or cultural symbols? If they are religious, the faith-state divide should hold firm: So most of us agree that we should let the crosses and creches, the menorahs and stars of David, the crescents, the Buddhas, and the Krishnas be held sacred and put on display at their own places of worship. Our municipal government should not display them at taxpayers’ expense.
But The Tree . . . is that a religious or a cultural symbol? The short answer is: It is usually seen as a Christian religious symbol. The longer answer is: It shouldn’t be, and here’s why . . .
As most of us today know, the “Christmas” tree and its attendant greenery has Pagan, not Christian, origins. In fact, such forms of nature worship were banned as early as 575 C.E. by the Catholic Bishop Martin of Braga as “wicked” Pagan celebrations. They continued to be intermittently prohibited throughout Europe into the modern era and then were firmly forbidden in Puritan New England until the nineteenth century.
It wasn’t until 1848 that Queen Victoria’s photo-op (well, in those days “etching-op”), alongside her husband Prince Albert and their dear little children, that the family’s Tannenbaum became acceptable in England. Shortly thereafter it became popular to decorate a tree for Christmas in both Europe and America. And now, after just 150 years or so of widespread presence of The Tree, we’re all convinced it represents 2,000 years of one specific religion’s central beliefs? How could this be?
And how could so many related winter revelries have come to be associated with The Tree and thus with Christmas – riding in sleighs, making snowmen, roasting chestnuts on an open fire . . . It’s almost as if we’ve come to believe that only those who celebrate Christmas can truly enjoy the beauty of the gently falling snow!
So, is The Tree a cultural or a religious symbol? Some people insist that we can’t neatly make distinctions between the two. But I say that we can. And – call me politically correct, but – for multicultural reasons we should. Because the winter season simply serves as a backdrop for a range of celebrations – Chanukah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, and New Year’s, of course, as well as Bodhi Day (Buddhism), Makar Sankranti (Hinduism), and in some calendar years the Feast of Sacrifice and Hirja (Islam).
So here is a proposed solution: Next year, let’s call it our Solstice Tree. A symbol of the winter season, not of any specific religious faith. A symbol for us all of the presence of life and the promise of renewal – even on the longest and darkest nights, when the natural world is still and lifeless and cold.
And when we gather around it for the community tree lighting, let’s sing only winter songs, not songs from any particular faith tradition: Let It Snow, Winter Wonderland, Sleigh Ride – and, yes, even Jingle Bells and Deck the Halls (neither of which mentions Christmas, by the way) – the list goes on. Songs that speak to what everyone can enjoy about the winter season – chilly outdoor fun, celebrations with friends and family, and reassurance that we’ll all make it through the season’s cold.
You can almost hear our townspeople singing in unison now, can’t you?
O Solstice Tree, O Solstice Tree
How lovely are your branches . . .
Dorothy Rogers is chair of the Department of Philosophy & Religion at Montclair State.