The Right Way to Handle Public Displays of Christianity December 6, 2008

The Right Way to Handle Public Displays of Christianity

While we’re all talking about the culture war taking place in Olympia, Washington, another battle is taking place in North Carolina.

And Christianity isn’t winning. (Neither are atheists, but I think you’ll be pleased with the decision anyway.)

Christmas trees will not be displayed in the two main libraries at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill this year, library staff decided.

In previous years, a Christmas tree stood in the lobby of both the Wilson and Davis libraries, but Sarah Michalak, associate provost of University Libraries, decided against putting them up this year.

Michalak said she eliminated the displays after getting questions and complaints from employees and library users about the Christian display. She said that it didn’t seem right to celebrate one set of customs when libraries offer information about all belief systems around the world without judgment.

She made the right decision.

We’ve seen what happens when the door is opened for everyone to display their beliefs in public. It’s best for our taxpayer-funded institutions to rise above that and not take a side.

The chancellor of the school, Holden Thorp, doesn’t sound very enthusiastic about the move, stating that the administration of the school doesn’t get involved in these types of decisions — adding that Christmas is still celebrated all over the place:

… The façade of Memorial Hall, our major performing venue, is fully decorated for the holiday, and The Nutcracker is its major December attraction. Student Stores is like any retailer this time of year. They have a tree decorated with Carolina ornaments in the window and, in the store, there is a mantle decorated with Carolina stockings. The Student Activities Fund Office has a Christmas tree in its window. There’s a big Christmas wreath with a Carolina-blue ribbon on it in the Student Union. Our own Carolina Inn is again featuring its Twelve Days of Christmas displays throughout the hotel. And just as we have for the last 59 years, our Morehead Planetarium and Science Center is featuring The Star of Bethlehem.

So Christmas is recognized on this campus.

It’s fine if individuals and student organizations want to celebrate the season as they wish. The school as a whole, including its academic departments, should not.

At least the library realizes there are non-Christian students also attending the university who may not have the same “reason for the season” as the Christians. The library staff members are choosing to be welcome to everybody instead of just a specific group of students.

I didn’t want to publish their emails, but you can find librarian Sarah Michalak, Vice Chancellor and Provost Bernadette Gray-Little (her boss), and Chancellor Holden Thorp on the campus directory.

I sent Sarah a thank-you letter CC’ed to the other two.

You may want to do the same.

(Thanks to Kate for the link!)

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  • i feel like a Christmas tree or holiday shopping is as Christian as St Patrick’s day… although with typically less drinking. I hitting up the Rockefeller center Christmas tree and 5th ave windows this afternoon, it’s pretty and festive and all that, but i think it’s something other than a site of worship to one god.

  • Stephen P

    Banning Christmas trees? Sorry, I really can’t get enthusiastic about this. Quite the contrary actually.

    If we are talking about explicitly Christian scenes (crib, angels, magi and star) then I agree with keeping them out of public buildings. But Christmas trees were not originally a Christian symbol, and nor were holly, mistletoe, coloured lights or turkey. They only got associated with Christmas by default. Driving them out of public buildings achieves nothing and just makes atheists into kill-joys.

    I don’t think this is the right way at all.

  • I agree with Stephen and Sam. Christmas trees are not Christian displays, unless blatantly religious ornaments are hanging on them. I do not want to be the Scrooge who complains about holiday cheer. God knows there’s enough crabbiness in this country already. We don’t need to be spreading humbug.

  • Chas

    Emotionally I was taken aback by the gesture of removing of non-christian decorations of trees and greens. As Stephen P said, I don’t want separatists to be “kill-joys.”

    However, just because they were not originally christian does not mean they do not now symbolize christianity. And I assume the library doesn’t decorate itself elaborately for other holidays/seasons. Each is a case for religious favoritism.

    So then we have a choice between taking them down or having an atheist group potentially screwing up a sign again.

    Therefore I agree with the decision was the right one.

  • MisterDomino

    I attended a Jesuit college, and even we didn’t have a Christmas tree in the library during the holidays.

    Frankly, the idea of any seasonal decorations in a library setting seems tacky to me. Students are there to study, not to be overwhelmed with holiday cheer.

    If you need a reason to support it, let it be intellectual integrity.

  • I think she overreacted as the problem with the display was it’s exclusivity not it’s existence. Taking it down was not an example of inclusiveness which should be the real goal of such displays.

    The only thing that’s probably going to come of this is the professional Christian set (the O’Reillys & Donahues) using her response as another example of the ongoing “war on Christmas”.

  • Eliza

    I don’t remember ever seeing any holiday decorations displayed in any library. Would seem weird.

    Our local public library always has a display of books topical to some event or theme. Like, banned books during “banned books week”, books about MLK around MLK day, books about elections & democracy around voting day. IMO that’s great, & about as far as a library should go. In late December, they might display books about all the various winter celebrations, & leave it at that.

  • Ironic! I’m sure that library has at least one book with the history of yule tide traditions like putting up trees; and if they read it, they’d see it’s just a celebration of the resiliency of nature. It’s not Christian in the slightest. I put up a tree every year and will continue to. And we even call it a Christmas tree. Because “Christmas” is just another word. I’d argue it’s now just a widely used colloquialism for the winter holidays. Lots of words have Christian origins I’m sure. So this atheist is going to save herself the awkwardness of PC speech and continue to adore Christmas Trees!

  • RobL

    Kind of silly, a Christmas tree has about the same religious meaning as frosty the snow man. Political correctness gone too far. Keep the crosses and crèches out but I kind of like the trees and garland.

  • PrimeNumbers

    “Hear you the word which the Lord speaks unto you, O house of Israel. Thus says the Lord. Learn not the way of the heathen and be not dismayed at the signs of the heaven; for the nations are dismayed at them. For the customs of the people are vain. For one cuts a tree out of the forest, the work of the hands of the workman with the axe. They deck it with silver and with gold. They fasten it with nails and with hammers that it move not. They are upright as the palm tree, but speak not. The tree is a doctrine of vanities. Silver is spread into plates is brought from Tarshish, and gold from Uphaz, the work of the workman, and of the hands of the founder. Blue and purple is their clothing. They are all the work of cunning men.”

  • Two things:
    1. I went to UNC (a long time ago), and I don’t ever remember seeing Christmas trees in the library. Maybe that says more about me (lack of studying) than it says about UNC.

    2. Funny that Christians would get upset about this. The tree is a pagan symbol that was incorporated into the “holy”day tradition. Also, it’s a little disappointing that the library staff (of all people) think that the X-mas tree has anything to do with Christianity.

  • Stephen P

    However, just because they were not originally christian does not mean they do not now symbolize christianity.

    This touches on a weird problem: numerous countries enshrine freedom of religion in their laws, and some specify separation of religion from the state. Yet no-one can define what exactly religion is.

    I dare say that some people (especially some Christians) consider Christmas trees to symbolise Christianity. But then some people seem to consider that government in the US is (or at least should be) intrinsically Christian; I trust no-one here is going to accept that. Where do we draw the line?

    Christians laid claim to the pre-Christian festivals of the winter solstice and the spring. At various times they have laid claim to a great deal else besides. By marking Christmas trees as Christian, it seems to me that we are accepting their claim and surrendering to them. I see absolutely no need to do that.

    I also brought home a spruce today, which will shortly be decorated. It may even get a star on top (or maybe it’ll be the indeterminate red pointy thing this year). But I’m blowed if that has anything to do with Christianity, any more than the Christmas pudding which is maturing nicely in the cellar has anything to do with Christianity. They are about having a good time in the dark cold days of the year.

    Atheists in the US have quite enough on their hands pushing explicit religion out of the public forum. Rather than adding the problems of maybe-they-are-maybe-they-aren’t symbols, try another tack. Reclaim trees and holly and decorations and Sol Invicta from the religious; make it clear that celebrating is for everyone.

  • Richard Wade

    Please help me with this:
    I’m not convinced that a decorated pine tree, aka a Christmas tree is not clearly, strongly and primarily a Christian religious symbol. A symbol signifies whatever is strongly associated with it by large numbers of people. That is called its connotation. Connotation is established by widespread and long term use for a specific purpose or meaning. The fact that a Christmas tree was originally a co-opted pagan symbol signifying the resiliency of nature during the hardships of winter does not erase the centuries of its use since then by Christians in their celebration of the birth of Christ. It seems to me that trying to ignore all that and saying that now it’s just a completely secularized object is ignoring the 600 lb. gorilla in the room.

    Using the argument that the Christmas tree was not originally a Christian symbol and therefore we can disregard all the Christian connotation, one could say that the cross was not originally a Christian symbol either, but a Roman instrument of torture and execution, a symbol if you will of Roman domination. Would that argument work to justify putting up a cross in a public building, because it’s not actually a religious symbol? You see here the power of well established connotation.

    I hazard to say that in a survey of 1,000 Americans, asking them what is the meaning of a typical Christmas tree, that more than 99% of them would say something along the lines that it is a symbol of Christmas, and if you ask them what that is they will say something along the lines of the celebration of the birth of Christ. I would not be surprised if less than one percent would say it’s a pagan symbol about life getting through winter and all that.

    Please help me to understand how you can dismiss all the Christian connotation and say that in our culture today a decorated pine tree, even decorated with no other obviously religious symbols, is not still primarily a Christian religious symbol.

    I’m not spreading humbug; this is not about being a scrooge during this season. I just don’t buy your arguments yet that it ain’t a religious symbol.

  • Miko

    I think stopping solstice trees is both a bad idea and a terrible PR practice. First off, since they have nothing to do with Christianity, there’s no legitimate reason to ban them. In my experience, I’ve never met an atheist who had a problem with them and I’ve only met one person period who did (who was Jewish, but one case isn’t statistically significant of course). Secondly, banning trees draws attention away from the kind of things that really don’t belong and as such we end up setting up a straw man for the religious right.

    That said, if a library decides not to put up decorations, that’s their business. In the current economy, I’m sure they could find better uses for their resources than buying dead trees.

  • Awesomesauce

    Well, and I’m not just saying this since my gravatar is St. Patrick, I think that pagans are wacky too.

    Good on this librarian for her decision.

  • Miko

    Richard: I’d make the distinction that it depends on how non-Christians view the symbol. As we all know, Christmas is actually a secular holiday. The fact that a few zealots haven’t gotten the memo and are still trying to make it something religious is their problem. If you’re against a tree because it’s associated with Christmas and because Christmas is associated with Christianity, you could argue against Frost the Snowman on exactly the same grounds. Association isn’t really transitive.

    Many non-Christians put up trees without associating them with anything religious or caring that a certain subset of the population would somehow wrangle something religious out of it. On the other hand, no non-Christians (or close to it) put up creche. Hence I’d say there’s a distinction.

    Plus the leaders of the “War on Christmas” fantasy are convinced that these are secular symbols that are elbowing out the “proper” religious ones. And anything that they’re against…

  • Awesomesauce

    I am similarly confused with Richard Wade.

    Take the “Jesus Fish,” or ichthys as it is properly known.

    Originally, it too was a pagan symbol. In fact, it represented not only the fish god Ichthus (who eventually became known as the goddess Aphrodite), but it also represented female genitalia and fertility (in a similar way that bunnies and eggs do for Easter).

    Try finding anybody who doesn’t see the Ichthys as a christian symbol, but as a harmless Pagan symbol.

    Granted, the pagans are no less religious than christians which makes these arguments even more confusing to me.

    Even St. Nicholas isn’t all that secular. Otherwise, why call him a saint?

    I celebrate Xmas, because I don’t believe in a christ.

    Perhaps words/symbols don’t mean anything, but they’re still representations of what we ourselves mean to say.

  • Richard Wade

    I don’t understand the distinction you are making between the view of a Christmas tree by Christians and that of non-Christians. The connotation is extremely strong regardless of an individual’s religious views. Is a similar distinction between adherents and non-adherents worth noting when confronted with a swastika? The connotation that a Christmas tree is about the religious celebration of Christmas is not held by only “a few zealots who didn’t get the memo.” To compare it to Frosty the Snowman is a stretch. He was created in 1950. The conifer tree has been used specifically by Christians since the 7th century if my reading is correct. My point is about the strength of the connotation, and between those two things the difference is extreme.

    Yes, popular American Christmas symbols are slowly being co-opted yet again, this time by secular consumerism, but it will be many generations before a decorated conifer tree is not seen as a reference to a specific religion by the majority.

    I’m not arguing about the pragmatics of allowing or disallowing Christmas trees in public buildings. That is beside my point. I’m just saying that I still have not heard a convincing argument that at this point in history a Christmas tree is not still a powerful secondary symbol for a specific religion, and its display on public property is an endorsement of that religion.

    As a demonstration of its religious significance, just try putting up a Christmas tree in a Wal-Mart and labeling it with a sign that says “Solstice tree.” Then run for cover and call your lawyers, because you’re going to be assaulted by an army of angry people, not just a few extremists.

    Anyone, please try another argument. I really would like to see these dead trees all over the place differently than I do.

  • I don’t know about you guys, but Christmas is one of my favorite holidays. And I’m an atheist, for FSM’s sake. Why can’t we all just get along (cheesy alert.) Christmas trees, holiday lights, Santa Claus, 90% of carols, Frosty the Snowman, gift-giving, snowball fights, reindeer, snowmen, reindeer, mistletoe, getting a week off…
    I think we can agree on at least some of these things? And nativity scenes aren’t even that bad. The babies are cute sometimes. They make ones where all the characters are animals too, which I always found to be amusing.
    How bad is it, really? I LIKE Christmas. Just my Christmas doesn’t include any Jesus, that’s all.

  • Richard Wade

    I’m dreaming of a white Solstice,
    Just like the ones I used to know.
    With the axis tilting,
    And flowers wilting,
    And folks freezing in the snow.

    I’m dreaming of a white Solstice,
    With every heating bill I pay.
    Just hold on through Winter
    By burning every splinter
    And soon Spring will come our way.

    I’m dreaming of a white Solstice,
    And wishing I could wake up soon.
    ‘Cause it’s frikkin cold in this place
    And I’ve got some frostbite on my face.

  • Becky

    I myself love christmas trees, to no end. I love christmas lights and all of the beautiful, non-blatantly christian decorations around this time. However, not everyone feels the way I do, and if one person is offended in a University library by a tree symbolizing a holiday dominated by a religion, it should be removed. A library is a place for students to go to feel comfortable and at ease; a sanctuary, if you will. Therefore, I agree with the decision.

  • The Christmas tree is a symbol of the cultural, commercial Christmas, not of the religious holiday. I believe Christmas is two holidays and you can celebrate one, both, or neither. I celebrate the secular Christmas, which includes a decorated pine tree.

    Actually, I think the way to win the war on Christmas is to continue to co-opt the holiday as a secular celebration. Go crass commercialism! 🙂

  • Joanna

    I will be buying our Christmas tree (real pine) tomorrow and always enjoy decorating the house for the holidays. I like writterdd’s concept of a “secular” Christmas but don’t necessarily agree that it’s reduced to “crass commercialism”. Winter is not my favorite season, but it has it’s natural beauty to celebrate–and just being in a warm, cozy house with friends and family is very comforting when the wind’s howling and the snow’s blowing outside.

    Putting up glowing mangers with tacky colored lights flashing around the plastic baby Jesus symbolizes what’s “crass” to me about Christmas. I’m just waiting for the big blow-up inflatable Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus to come out…those huge snowmen, santas, snow globes, penguins, polar bears, etc are all the rage this year in my town. And people can’t just buy one for their yards…they have 3-4 at a time!

    I drove by a house this evening and a huge Santa was flat on his back because of the wind and his arms and legs were flailing around—it was hilarious. Santa was having a fit.

  • MH

    I’m with Noodleguy, I like Christmas trees and Christmas decorations.

    My fairly religious mother always told me Christmas trees were pagan, while my spouse who was raised Jewish always says they’re Christian. So try to square that circle.

    Last year the kids nagged enough and we finally got them a tree which we put menorahs and dreidels lights with Christmas ornaments. They are going to be so confused when they grow up.

  • Autumnal Harvest

    Please help me to understand how you can dismiss all the Christian connotation and say that in our culture today a decorated pine tree, even decorated with no other obviously religious symbols, is not still primarily a Christian religious symbol.

    Richard, I don’t think you’re wrong, but I’m not sure you’re exactly right, either. I agree that the fact that it’s a co-opted pagan symbol is irrelevant. (Heck, large sections of the Torah are co-opted stories and legal codes from other cultures, but I don’t think that anyone’s going to argue that the Bible isn’t Jewish or Christian.) Present-day connotations are what are important. But I think it’s unclear whether a Jesus-mas tree is currently “primarily a Christian” symbol.

    As writerdd points out, there are really two Christmases—a religious one, and a secular one. They’re both pretty strong in America, and so the connotations of a Christmas symbol depend a lot on the viewer. A creche clearly always connotes the religious Christmas. But the associations of a decorated conifer depend a lot on the viewer—and that the dividing line isn’t just Christian vs. non-Christian. Most Jews I know, as well as strongly religious Christians, tend to primarily see the religious holiday. Most non-Jewish agnostics and atheists I know, as well as most nominal, high-holiday, Christians, tend to primarily see the secular holiday. I’m an atheist, who was brought up to celebrate the secular Christmas, so for me, Christmas trees celebrate a secular holiday that I really like. But I understand that Christmas has different connotations for you, and for a lot of other people. I’m not really sure what the most appropriate way is for the government to handle the fact that it has such different meanings to different people.

  • Epistaxis

    She made the right decision.

    I have a difficult time deciding about that. The tree isn’t a religious symbol (because its theological significance isn’t even Christian, as discussed amply above); it’s a cultural one. I would value the experience of learning about other cultures from Chinese New Year, Passover, or Samhain displays in a venue that gives no special privileges to any one tradition.

    Of course, not every facility has the resources for that. So I can’t say they did anything wrong, but it’s certainly nothing to be excited about.

  • Richard Wade

    Autumnal Harvest,
    Thank you and everyone else for your help. I agree that this issue is not really worth all the hullabaloo. I never realized how many non-religious people love the secular Christmas. For me the crass, crazy, compulsive, capitalist, commercial, consumerist conifer carcass-crowded Christmas crunch is nothing but a series of headaches. I’ll try out the idea of only paying attention to my own subjective interpretation of these dead or phony trees. I can change that to whatever I want.

    When my family comes over on Dec. 25 and they see the seven foot tall fake blue spruce made in China covered with fake poinsettias made in China and fake holly berries also made in China, and they say “My what a nice idea for a Christmas tree,” just as they take a swallow of eggnog I’ll say cheerily “Oh that’s an atheist bush.”

  • I don’t really think that Christmas trees and tinsel and holly and such are actually religious symbols. I think the nativity scenes should go, but the evergreen decorations should stay.

  • Jodie

    My Christmas tree is the bomb — the only thing better is my Christmas cookies. Last night I drank hot chocolate and wrote my Christmas cards, while listening to my Christmas Carol mix. My favorite is Josh Groban singing “O Holy Night.” Just because I don’t believe the story he’s telling, doesn’t mean he doesn’t tell it SO GOOD. That last “No-ELLLLLLL” he rocks — uh, right in the heart. It just gets me every time. Anytime people spend a month talking about peace on earth and good will toward men is worth celebrating. I don’t need to believe the fairy tale that goes along with it in order to appreciate.

  • So anything the Christians co-opted, they get to claim forever? F that!

  • Michael

    I know I’m a little late to the party, but I’ve been in final exam mode for a while.

    I am a student at the University of North Carolina School of Law, which is on the UNC-CH campus. I’ve never actually been in the Davis Library or the Undergraduate Library because the law school has its own library, and, well, there’s no point for me to go to the other libraries.

    This story is also well-reported in the campus newspaper, The Daily Tar Heel. It’s been blown out of proportion on both sides. There is no policy banning Christmas trees. The director of the library decided to direct her employees not to put up the decorations this year. The use of the word “ban” was a bit too much. If she had just said, “I decided not to have my employees spend their time decorating the libraries and instead to have them helping students and faculty with their work,” I think this would have been an entirely different story. Undoubtedly, Sarah Michalak made a mistake, but her mistake was not in her decision to not display Christmas decoration but to make it a ban on Christmas decorations.

    The original DTH article is here, the editorial response is here, and a letter to the editor on the topic is here.

    It’s gone far beyond Ms. Michalak’s intent at this point.

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