When I was working for my hometown newspaper right after college, my editor assigned me to write eight Hanukkah stories, one for each day of the festival. One article explained, with help from local rabbis, why it was inappropriate for the paper to make such a fuss over Hanukkah, a minor Jewish holiday whose importance has been inflated in the popular imagination by its accidental proximity to Christmas.
So even if Rabbi Elazar Bogomilsky’s request to erect an 8-foot electric menorah at the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport had not prompted the removal of the airport’s 14 Christmas trees, releasing a torrent of international press coverage, negative commentary and hate e-mail, I would not have been keen on the idea. To my mind, such displays, whether on public or private property, reinforce the false equivalence between Hanukkah and Christmas.
That’s leaving aside the constitutional questions posed by government-sponsored religious displays. The U.S. Supreme Court has answered those questions in decisions so confusing that Sea-Tac officials can almost be forgiven for panicking when Bogomilsky, who is affiliated with the Lubavitcher religious outreach organization Chabad, threatened to sue if they did not let him put up his menorah.
Still, it should have been clear that a menorah alongside a Christmas tree was OK, since the Court approved exactly that configuration in front of Pittsburgh’s City-County Building in 1989. The menorah in that case, an 18-foot model, also was provided by Chabad, which brags of placing thousands of such candelabra in public locations around the world.
The airport commissioners say they worried that if they let in Chabad’s menorah, they would be flooded with requests from various other religious groups, each demanding a place for its symbol. That may sound plausible, but in practice how many displays are we talking about? Maybe a Kwanzaa bush.
After Bogomilsky, who never asked for the trees to be removed and was mortified when it happened, promised not to sue, the airport put them back. But it’s not clear he had any grounds for a suit to begin with.
Bogomilsky would have had a hard time showing that the airport was discriminating against Jews simply by putting up Christmas trees but not allowing a menorah. The Supreme Court repeatedly has ruled that Christmas trees are not religious displays but "secular symbols" of "the winter holiday season."
Indeed, in the Pittsburgh case it was the Christmas tree that prevented the menorah from being excessively sectarian. According to the Court, the tree gave the menorah — which commemorates the Hasmonean victory over the Syrian-Greeks in the first century B.C., the subsequent rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem, and the miracle that one day’s supply of oil burned for eight days — something like the status of Frosty the Snowman.
None of this has ever made much sense to me. Granted, there’s nothing inherently religious about a fir or pine tree decorated with lights, but there’s nothing inherently religious about a cross, either. Like the cross, albeit more recently, the tree has come to be associated with Jesus Christ and the religion he inspired.
You can call it a "holiday tree" all you want, but you’re not fooling anybody. Likewise, "Season’s Greetings" and "Happy Holidays" are obvious euphemisms for "Merry Christmas."
Unlike Bill O’Reilly and other critics of what they hyperbolically call "the war on Christmas," I don’t see a sinister "far left" agenda at work here. For the most part, people are just trying to be considerate, to avoid the awkwardness of wishing "Merry Christmas" to someone who does not celebrate the holiday because he does not accept Jesus as his Lord and Savior.
But I’d rather have the awkwardness than the condescension of assuming that everyone has a "winter holiday season," that Hanukkah is the Jewish Christmas, and that a Christmas tree is either secular or ecumenical. Let’s put Christ back in Christmas and keep Christmas out of Hanukkah.