NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

December 20, 2012

Holiday lawsuits and a piece of coal


Newburyport Daily News

---- — Season’s greetings. Happy Hanukkah. Merry Christmas. Joyous Kwanzaa. Boxing Day wishes. Solstice greetings.

Bases covered?

’Tis the season for goodwill and holiday greetings. But it’s also the time for silly lawsuits over First Amendment challenges to public holiday displays.

The arguments over politically correct displays in town parks, in front of municipally owned buildings and in school hallways grow tiresome.

This year was the first year that Newburyport erected a Hanukkah display in Market Square, and it drew a predictable response from an “anonymous atheist” who threatened the mayor with possible legal action, to be conducted by a Wisconsin-based group that specializes in suing municipalities over such displays. Talk about holiday spirit.

Nothing came of the threat, and the menorah was a fine addition to the downtown.

Elsewhere, there have been plenty of incidents where mentioning a religious holiday in connection with public property has caused a furor.

Political leaders, including Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee, are taking some heat for referring to the towering evergreens found in many Statehouse rotundas as “holiday trees.” Chafee deflected criticism by saying he was only following “tradition,” established by those who preceded him in the governor’s office.

What exactly is a holiday tree? No other December holiday focuses on a tree, nor even includes one as part of traditional celebrations. So, a Christmas tree becomes a holiday tree to represent what exactly? To paraphrase Gertrude Stein, a Christmas tree is a Christmas tree is a Christmas tree. Either don’t put one up or call it what it is. This holiday tree nonsense is simply that.

If a town fire department wants to string holiday lights on its front-yard tree, why not? If local Jews want to put a menorah in Market Square, why stop them? What possible offense can a symbol of the season cause? And if, as no doubt some will be quick to respond, it does, look the other way, turn the other cheek.

In schools, the issue of December holidays gets about as sticky as a half-eaten candy cane. Schools should rightly not assume every child’s family celebrates the same holidays and in the same way.

But there should be room for traditions. Go ahead and have a “holiday” party, but educate children about all holidays — religious, ethnic, even political. There are certainly enough divisions between religions in this world. It would be nice to focus attention on understanding, and that comes through exposure and education.