The Ominous Side of Christmas

The holidays are once again upon us, and boy are they upon us. Colorful displays in store windows and Christmas trees in Harvard's houses remind us all each day that Santa Claus in imminently coming to town. In Winthrop House, however, a tree has summoned spirits of acrimony rather than good cheer.

Near Winthrop's tree, a sign thanks all who helped to decorate the Christmas tree. Until one week ago, the sign referred to an "X-mas" tree, before an unknown student "X'ed" the X and replaced it with name of his Savior. This word squabble may seem silly but it reflects the resentment caused by this year's discussion in Winthrop about the role of sectarian symbols and celebrations in the house community.

As the Crimson reported this week, the controversy began when Winthrop's house committee refused to contribute $30 towards a house Hillel Hanukkah party. The committee reasoned that funding such a denominational celebration would be inappropriate. When the house committee wanted to place a $100 "holiday" tree in the dining hall, a small number of Jewish students objected at a house committee meeting. They felt that the tree was also a sectarian symbol, and perceived a double standard at work. Their numbers were insubstantial, however, and the tree went up in the dining hall as a non-sectarian, communal symbol. Hence, the P.C. "X-mas" as the wording of choice.

Is the Christmas tree a "communal" symbol? I certainly don't think so. After all, you can't expect a Jew from New York to overflow with "holiday spirit" when confronted by a 15-foot fir bedecked with glittering tchochkes. In fact, the tree in the dining hall of my own house, Leverett, makes me rather uncomfortable. Does that mean I am not a part of the Leverett community?

Leverett House Master John Dowling was kind enough to address my concerns. He pointed out that Leverett House, like many other houses, also displays a menorah during Hanukkah. He told me how much he enjoyed learning about the Jewish holiday, and hoped that everyone in the house could "all celebrate together," everyone in his or her own way.


I must point out that the nine-inch menorah strikes me as a mere afterthought in the shadow of the towering evergreen. However, I am equally opposed to both displays, because religious symbols should not be displayed in the public sphere.

To be sure, Harvard's houses are far from public institutions, and they need not be governed by the same legal clauses that separate church and state. Still, the houses are communities in and of themselves, and dining halls are communal areas within them.

For the same reason we should separate church and state in the realm of the American political community, we should separate religion from the communal sphere of our houses.

Just as the United States is not a Christian nation, I hope that our houses are not Christian houses. When a Christmas tree is characterized as a communal symbol, not only am I excluded from the community, but the community adopts a Christian symbol as its own, identifying the community as a Christian one.

This issue would not be so important in the houses if it weren't such an important constitutional issue for our nation. Like the Winthrop House Committee, the U.S. Supreme Court has increasingly moved in the direction of identifying what previously were considered religious symbols as secular and cultural.

The trouble began in 1984, with a case involving a nativity scene the size of a large shoe box in my hometown of Scarsdale, N.Y. Changing the previous standard, the court ruled that the scene, displayed on village land, was permissible, but only if the village also erected a large sign disavowing any governmental sponsorship of the display.

The result? The local creche turned into a ridiculous spectacle: a nativity scene dwarfed by an adjacent sign twice its size acclaiming the secular nature of government.

In 1989, the Court further narrowed its definition of religious symbols in ACLU v. Allegheny County. Again ruling on a creche, the nation's highest court invoked what would later become known as the "reindeer test," holding that as long as a nativity scene included reindeer--associating it with the "secular" and "cultural" figure of Santa Claus--the scene could also be considered secular and cultural.

Debating the number of reindeer sufficient to secularize a scene depicting Jesus' birth misses the point. A symbol's meaning is determined by the perceptions of those who see it. With its recent decisions, the Court has steadfastly ignored the views of non-Christians, who see the lavish public displays as annual reminders that they live in a Christian society.

To be sure, mine is not the only Jewish opinion on the subject. During one discussion about the Leverett House tree as a religious symbol, one student remarked, "I see no problem with it all. I'm Jewish, my family celebrates Hanukkah, and we have a tree in my home as well."

This student conceives of the tree as a holiday symbol that has become Americanized, losing its religious meaning. But I wonder whether the symbol has become Americanized, or whether she has merely succumbed to a Christian interpretation of the American identity.

Many of us forget that Hanukkah celebrates the revolt of Jews who rejected assimilation, and tore down the alien symbols from their temple. Hanukkah is not a holiday that fits well with Master Dowling's vision of "celebrating together," or the quaint image of Hanukkah candles next to a Christmas tree.

If non-Jews truly want to appreciate the message of Hanukkah, they should understand why I don't care to support my community's appropriation of Christian symbols as our own. Once religious symbols become part of our national identity, it is only a matter of time before we adopt religious values as well.

I don't want to be the Grinch. I don't relish the position of condemning other students' religious practices. But by putting their tree--"X-mass," Christmas, Holiday, or whatever you call it--in my dining hall, those students are forcing me to confront the ideology of Christian communal identity three times a day.

Perhaps there is room for compromise. Perhaps the celebrants can admire their tree somewhere less public--the JCR, for example--where they can enjoy my best wishes for the happiest of holidays, in return for allowing the rest of us to dine in peace.