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Winthrop House Master Paul D. Hanson may have been feeling a bit like the Grinch Who Stole Christmas this past week.
Leading the charge against him was Winthrop House resident Brandon C. Gregoire '95, who recently told The Crimson that he was dissatisfied with Hanson's and Senior Tutor Greg Mobley's handling of a house meeting over holiday decorations last Tuesday.
The house-wide gathering was called by Hanson, after the house committee approved a new policy that would set up a fund which students could use to purchase the holiday decorations of their choice. Hanson, who expressed concern for the feelings of non-Christian students in the House, was later accused by Gregoire of making anti-Christian statements.
"I am deeply committed to the Christian faith," Hanson responded to The Crimson last week. "Any accusation that I am anti-Christian or for that matter, anti-Jewish or anti-Muslim, is...ludicrous. I am not the master of a Christian house...and my job is to be even-handed in relation to all students."
Hanson isn't to be blamed for his cautious tactics. Christmas trees have ignited controversy at Winthrop House before, most notably last year, when several Jewish students vocally complained about their presence in the dining hall. And while no one openly opposed the policy at the House meeting, several students allegedly went to Senior Tutor Mobley and complained.
"A few Jewish students felt that their holiday didn't have equal time," says Sean N. Harte '95-'96, current Co-Chair of the Winthrop House Committee. "Yet those students knew about the funds, and they could have bought a Menorah. I don't know if a Menorah is considered to be religious, but a (Christmas) tree is not religious at all, at least in my mind."
Some students would disagree with Harte's last statement, including Jonas Marson '95, a senior in Leverett House. "Perspective is important," he says, "because those who are not Christian often perceive such symbols as religious, while Christians perceive them as secular. But the fact is, other religious groups, such as Jews and Muslims, don't celebrate Christmas, and when a House uses students' money to erect Christmas trees, they ignore a substantial portion of the House population."
But even Marson admits that he doesn't really have a problem with Winthrop's current policy, although he is a little skeptical of the fact that it is active only during the holiday season. And Harte makes clear that the controversy has been cleared up, adding, that he "would like to find out why people have problems with the Christmas tree."
Yet it is Hansen, former Grinch-turned-Diplomat, who offers a unique perspective on the two cultures. "The Christmas tree has roots that reach all the way back to pre-Christian times," he says, "back to the idea of cycles of nature, and perhaps, even, the tree of life." He also notes that one of his doctoral students several years ago carried out research on the Menorah and hypothesized that its roots were also in the tree of life, preceding the time of Moses some 1700 years.
"As a historian," he muses, "it seems particularly appropriate to me that at the darkest time of the year, we should have lights emanating out from trees that lead us out to our very ancient common roots in our cultures. Perhaps we can find some common basis for sharing in these celebrations."
And on that warm and fuzzy note, happy holidays.
Hallie Z. Levine's column runs on alternate Mondays.
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