Ask Richard: Student Wonders About Christmas Trees at Public High School

Note: Letter writers’ names are changed to protect their privacy.

I am a (soon to be)15 year-old high school student in Austin, Texas. I go to a public school. My school exhibits at least two decorated Christmas trees, and several teachers play what they call “Christmas Music” during class. There is no menorah, but there also isn’t a nativity scene. I have talked to my Mom about my thoughts on the subject, asking her whether or not I should raise a fuss and get them taken down. We talked about jockeying for equal representation, but I don’t believe that would resolve the problem. There is no conceivable way to truly exhibit equal representation. After all, what would the majority of parents think if our school had a Wiccan altar, or a Festivus pole? I would really appreciate your help.
Many Thanks,

Dear Danielle,

Today there are two kinds of “Christmas,” the religious version and the secular version. For some people, it’s mainly about the birth of Jesus, and for some it’s more or it’s entirely about enjoying festiveness and generosity during the darkest, coldest, and often the most adverse time of year. Many people of both inclinations have increasingly come to consider Christmas trees to be part of the secular side of Christmas, along with decorations of pine boughs and sprigs of holly or mistletoe.

These actually have their roots in Roman paganism and even earlier. Roman temples dedicated to the various gods were decorated with evergreens, holly and mistletoe at the time of the winter solstice, the day the sun makes its lowest arc across the sky in the northern hemisphere. Keeping close track of the sun’s movement and the seasons was very important to an agrarian civilization. Knowing when to plant made the difference between successful harvests and starvation. Life was difficult for most people, and the most difficult time was the winter. Evergreens survive the dark and cold season, and so they became symbols of hope that people would survive too. The ancient pagans decorated small conifer trees with bright things to attract the sun to come back and rise higher in the sky, and each year that enticement seemed to work.

As the early Christians slowly gained more hegemony in Rome, they co-opted these pagan symbols and the winter solstice date for their holy days to make their new religion more appealing to the predominantly pagan Romans. After Christianity supplanted paganism, they kept many of the co-opted pagan aspects.

In the last century, consumer capitalism has done the same kind of co-opting, using the tree, Santa, and other non-Biblical symbols to make the new “religion” of Spend Spend Spend more appealing to predominantly Christian Americans. So now decorated pine trees, Santa, Rudolph, the Grinch, and dozens of other Christmas clichés are considered by many to be part of the secular side of the end-of-the-year celebrations. When you see all this non-Biblical paraphernalia, you’re seeing the continuing process of a new culture co-opting and absorbing a previous culture like an amoeba engulfing and absorbing another microbe.

The religious side of Christmas is symbolized by nativity scenes, images of Mary, Jesus, angels, and crosses. They are exclusively Christian things with no secular aspect. Organizations wanting to preserve church/state separation more often object to these when they’re displayed in public schools, city halls, and on other governmental property. Those groups are not as often or as strongly adverse to the once-pagan-and-now-secular greenery.

Some atheists might disagree with this differentiation, but I think this is a sensible way to sort out what to challenge and what to let go.

Christmas music is a mixed bag as well. Jingle Bells is entirely secular, while Oh Come All Ye Faithful is entirely religious. The problem is that most recordings of Christmas music have secular and religious classics mixed together. Another problem is that even nonreligious people like the religious Silent Night as much as they like the secular White Christmas. They’re both very beautiful songs. Even well-meaning school staff who understand church/state separation might have a hard time playing music that cheers up people in the cold and dark winter without having to play an occasional rendition of God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.

In the kind of situation that you have described, what to do generally boils down to how serious is the religious imposition. It sounds like so far the school staff are being careful to not cross the secular/religious line too much. If all they do is to display a couple of trees and play mostly secular Christmas music, my suggestion is to leave it alone, and let the very human desire to “call back the sun” run its course, even though most people don’t know the pagan significance of what they’re doing when they put shiny baubles on conifer trees.

If a nativity scene shows up, or if the music track is heavily laced with religious songs, then you’ll have more reason to make an objection. One simple and relatively safe action could be to write an anonymous and carefully untraceable letter to the school Principal spelling out the specific things that are inappropriate, and asking politely that they be removed. The Principal might or might not comply, but at least you have planted the seed of awareness that the practice is unconstitutional and that there are people who find it objectionable. Sometimes officials can be persuaded to change their policies with small nudges.

If you decide that you want to openly object, I suggest that you not do that alone, because you might face some difficult consequences from school staff or students. This could range from passive-aggressive coldness and thinly disguised resentment to outright hostility and intimidation to get you to shut up. Write to Americans United For Separation of Church and State as well as the Freedom from Religion Foundation for their advice and assistance. They might be able to help you sort out what is actually illegal, whether or not it is worth fighting, and what steps to take. We’re getting close to the climax and end of this Christmas season, so it might be too late to get that kind of advice and support. All of this might have to wait until next year.

In the meantime, one way you could as you say, “exhibit equal representation” might be to prepare a report or better yet a display for next year showing the astronomical and pagan roots of all these non-Biblical Christmas trappings. It wouldn’t be an overt rebuttal to the religion, but it would be a way to show how religion adapts, adopts and co-opts even though some adherents think that it is timeless and unchanging. You might get an “A” out of it, and if you are not yet open about your views about religion, only your mom and close friends will know that the “A” also stands for something personal and special about you.

Please write again to let us know how this develops.


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About Richard Wade

Richard Wade is a retired Marriage and Family Therapist living in California.