, Newburyport, MA

December 13, 2013

Our view: The 'holiday tree' honors no one

Newburyport Daily News

---- — It’s nice to see that some of the silly efforts at being holiday-politically correct are being tossed aside.

For the past two years, Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee has referred to his state’s towering spruce as a “holiday tree.” That move, meant to avoid hurt feelings and celebrate religious diversity, backfired. Many residents reacted with anger, so much so that Chafee reversed himself and let the secretary of state light up the official state Christmas tree last week.

Rhode Island’s struggle is hardly isolated. It goes on across this nation, an attempt to meld a Christian tradition into something that honors none of the religions that a generic “holiday tree” is intended to placate. And then there is the problem with creating an artificial religious holiday — almost none of the world’s major religions celebrate major holidays that coincide with the Christmas time of year.

Most local communities in this area have a community Christmas tree that is ceremoniously lit every year, Newburyport included. And in recent years, there’s been a growing effort to distinguish other faiths at this time of the year. We were glad to see that this year Amesbury lit a menorah in the downtown gazebo to recognize Hanukkah. Newburyport also lights a menorah in Market Square.

It shouldn’t be a big deal, but the holiday debate is as predictable as Yankee swaps and stockings hung by the fire.

Christmas, Hanukkah, the winter solstice and Kwanzaa can all fall within the same week, although they don’t this year.

This all leads to the question — as annoying as “What do you want for Christmas?” — and that is, what holiday greeting is the most acceptable.

A Rasmussen poll last week focused on all questions holiday. Merry Christmas beat Happy Holidays by the same margin fudge would beat fruitcake.

Sixty-six percent of respondents preferred Merry Christmas; just 21 percent opted for Happy Holidays. The remaining 13 percent apparently were still hemming and hawing on Santa’s knee when asked the question.

Schools must tread that perilous balance beam between offending some and allowing others to celebrate. They do a pretty good job of it. In recent years, many school systems have included the recognition of the most important Jewish holidays into the school calendar. As the population of other religions grow in this predominantly Christian nation, this trend will expand.

No other holiday has inspired so many memorable songs, so many movies worth watching again and again and, most importantly, such feelings of general goodwill.

“Christmas is the season for kindling the fire of hospitality in the hall, the genial flame of charity in the heart,” Washington Irving wrote more than 200 years ago.

Yes, it also inspires people to over-shop, overspend and overeat. But that’s a personal problem.

Christmas brings out the best in a community, from food drives to toy and coat collections, from trees for families of soldiers serving overseas to this newspaper’s own annual drive to raise money for the Salvation Army.

Black Friday skirmishes aside, people are nicer in the weeks leading up to Christmas. They’re more apt to give to those who have less, to smile in sympathy in line at the toy store, to think of offering a plate of treats to a lonely neighbor.

The need is present throughout the year, but Christmas sparks generosity and concern for others not seen at other times.

British-born artist and writer Harlan Miller summed it up nicely: “I wish we could put up some of the Christmas spirit in jars and open a jar of it every month.”

Indeed. But we can’t, so perhaps we just ought to celebrate heartily and spread good cheer.

There is no escaping the fact that religions can divide us, if for no other reason than our long human history of religion-based conflicts. Understanding the true traditions of religions is the best way to honor them.