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

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

Hello,
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,
Danielle

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.

Richard

You may send your questions for Richard to AskRichard. Please keep your letters concise. They may be edited. There is a very large number of letters. I am sorry if I am unable to respond.

About Richard Wade

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

  • Mario Strada

    Very nice Richard. 
    I frankly don;;t mind these “secular” manifestation of the season. Trees,  pine cones, wreaths, they are not religious in my view. I draw the line at nativities.

    As far as the songs, I don’t envy the job of a school official having to sort through the Christmas songbook taking out religious tinted Xmas music. 
    Unless the music selection is exclusively and patently so, religious, I am inclined to giving it a pass. 

    Personally, I play the secular Christmas music as much as the religious one. In fact, sometimes I play Gregorian music as well. Were I in charge of a public seasonal festival I would have to sue myself. 

    I would suggest to the letter writer to let these formerly pagan, now secular symbols stand. 
    But also look at who is in charge of the displays and make sure that they don’t have an agenda.
     
    Most likely it is one or more of the teachers that will do and choose things based on how quickly they can get it done without a second thought on questions of church and state separation. But we do know there are those that use it to proselytize or to make some sort of political point. In that case I would go after them.

    But if they are normal people doing a normal job of it, it will probably be a mix of both and I would tend to let it slide.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Do you remember the Bible story about the baby Jesus and the evergreen tree?Neither does anyone.

  • http://boldquestions.wordpress.com/ Ubi Dubium

    When my spouse was in law school, I remember that one of his classes had a discussion over whether the (non-religiously) decorated tree in the lobby was secular enough for a state university.  Their conclusion?  The model train running around the base of it made it sufficiently secular, so it was OK.

  • http://www.facebook.com/txspazz Steve Scott

    Very good response Richard.

    The way I see it, there is nothing wrong with the decorated evergreen.  In fact, I smile a little every time a Christian claims it as their own.

    Jeremiah 10:1-5
    10 Hear the word that the Lord speaks to you, O house of Israel. 2 Thus says the Lord:
    “Learn not the way of the nations,
        nor be dismayed at the signs of the heavens
        because the nations are dismayed at them,
    3 for the customs of the peoples are vanity.[a]
    A tree from the forest is cut down
        and worked with an axe by the hands of a craftsman.
    4 They decorate it with silver and gold;
        they fasten it with hammer and nails
        so that it cannot move.
    5 Their idols[b] are like scarecrows in a cucumber field,
        and they cannot speak;
    they have to be carried,
        for they cannot walk.
    Do not be afraid of them,
        for they cannot do evil,
        neither is it in them to do good.”

    • http://religiouscomics.net/ Jeff P

      Idols are only bad if they are other peoples’ idols.  If they are “your” idols, then they are OK.  I think that is the logic.  Catholics worship all sorts of statues and such as idols but it is OK for them because those are their idols.  Protestants worship the bible as an idol but it is OK for them because that is their idol.   Every religion has their idols because no-one (ever) has any direct knowledge of God.  It is always through idols and human superstition.

      As for the Christmas tree, I would recommend to let it be.  It is a nice tradition. 

      • G Cowell

        Also a tree is a  symbol of religion: that is to build massive structures out of wind, water and a bit of dirt

        • http://itsmyworldcanthasnotyours.blogspot.com/ wmdkitty

          And this, folks, is why you never drink the bong-water.

  • Rover Serton

    Let this one go.  Better battles are ahead …like maybe a SSA club in your school?  Keep (free) thinking!

    • Slpmichaelle@yahoo.com

      What’s ssa stand for?

      Michaelle

      • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

        Secular Student Alliance http://www.secularstudents.org/

      • Anon

        Secular Student Alliance

  • Filthy Creature

    Bang on, Richard! Got my tree up and softly humming “Away in a Manger” while I drink an eggnog. I like the smell of the tree and the lights in the darkest months and the song reminds me of my Grandmother.

    I think of my own family and traditions… not so much ancient Roman ones.

  • Helanna

    Really, I’ve never, ever considered decorating a tree to be a Christian practice. Most people, even Christians, decorate trees because it’s pretty and it’s fun, whereas most people who put up a nativity scene do it specifically to announce and celebrate their religious beliefs. One of these is acceptable in school, and one is not. 

    As for the music, well, I friggin love a lot of religious carols. They sound so nice!

  • MM

    I find this issue to be very complicated.  Although Christmas does have secular/pagan roots, it seems like it’s mostly those raised in an environment thoroughly saturated by Christian tradition (so most atheists) that can easily make those distinctions.  I suspect that most Jews or Muslims or Hindus, even atheist ones, see Christmas as essentially a “Christian” holiday, although I freely admit that I only know a handful of people who fit that description, so I could be off-base.  So even though I like to celebrate Christmas as a secular holiday, and I don’t get too concerned about saying “x-mas” or offended when people say “Merry Christmas”, I am conflicted when it comes to things like Christmas being the Federal holiday as that does seem like it’s exclusionary.

    • Georgina

       Nope, we all like a few days off work, whether for Xmas, Solstice, Hanukkah or just plain lazy-day, so the federal part is fine.

      But the word holiday (HolyDay) does get my goat.

      • G Cowell

         Don’t kick a gift horse in the teeth.
        As children would believe anything for a free stash of toys, I’ll accept a paid day off work – broadly speaking: naming it a  holy day was to sugar the pillto the legislators when alleviating the exploitation of industrial workers

  • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

    Does it feel like anyone is pushing Jesus?  Or just celebrating the way they’re used to?  The latter can be the former, or it can be just a cigar.

    • Georgin

       If you hang bananas and cigars on a Solstice Evergreen, does that make it Mithrian or Freudian?

  • http://itsmyworldcanthasnotyours.blogspot.com/ wmdkitty

    *thumbs up*

  • A3Kr0n

    How things have changed. In school we would have to sing Christmas songs, like Hark the Herald Angels Sing, and other popular favorites. The teachers didn’t care for some of our own words we put to the music either. Big Christmas tree, too. We got to make ornaments for it, and chains of colored construction paper. That was back in the early 1970′s.  Since I had to go to church every Sunday it was really just more of the same to me.

  • Spence

    This response is fantastic. 

    I’d also like to add that religious songs in other languages are also, I think, sort of like christmas trees. If the song is in Latin, well, we don’t teach that a lot any more – even the Catholics have mostly switched from Latin mass. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Kenneth-Polit/100001819277689 Kenneth Polit

    I love this kid.  She really gives me hope. Keep on freethinking Danielle.

    • G Cowell

       Agreed. She saw a problem and asked for background information -  instead of charging in all guns blazing.
      If a teenaged texan can do that there is hope for the rest of the world.
       - Sorry Danielle, and  rational texans – I’m English, and we have terrible stereotypes about people your age and from your neck of the woods :)

  • Slpmichaelle@yahoo.com

    I enjoyed reading your thoughtful response. Although an adult, I have been recently more aware and annoyed by school assumptions and minor transgressions, but simply too busy as single mother of 3 to think through appropriate responses. Again, thanks for the info. Michaelle

  • Pedro Lemos

    “it’s entirely about enjoying festiveness and generosity during the darkest, coldest, and often the most adverse time of year”

    Makes me wonder why we use the same simbols here in the south hemisphere. The temperature out there today is bordering 40° C (I don´t know how much Fahrenheits that is, get a freaking normal measure system).

  • Leo carta

    I do not belong to any religion, but what if I have expirienced things and seen things that science can not explain?
    What then? Do I deny what I have expirienced?
    Am I crazy?
    Why do people close their minds when their are things we simply can not explain?
    Isn’t that posture a religion also since their are things that know one can explain?
    I am disgusted with religion and people that just close their minds and put blinders on not wanting to hear any thing and have a rational discushion


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