When the weatherman told me that the temperature would bottom out at nine degrees a few days ago, I realized December had truly come. It's the time of year all of us start thinking about snow, final papers, winter vacation and yes, Christmas trees.
Every year about this time, people deal with the issue of public religious displays, and this year was no exception. Just last week it was reported that at least three house committees have decided not to organize holiday decorations this year. Last year a Winthrop House resident was offended that the house committee organized and decorated a house Christmas tree. So this year they implemented a hands-off policy, agreeing only to reimburse students for their own religious displays.
There are two basic approaches to the Yuletide dilemma. One is to forbid all public religious symbols. In any culture, one religion is inevitably dominant, and having religious displays will only lead to exclusion and possibly oppression by that faith. Therefore, some argue, we must banish religion to the privacy of religious institutions and the home.
This solution is appropriate for highly public spaces such as a town green or a public school. These are the property of a people whose Constitution guarantees against any establishment of religion. The president's yearly ritual of lighting the national Christmas tree is surely problematic. Decorating a non-religious public school for specific holidays excludes an entire group of students. In these cases, it seems appropriate that individuals should find other outlets for their religious expression.
A second common approach is what I would call "token reciprocity." You put up your Christmas tree, I'll put up my Hanukkah decorations. This approach involves little thought; its function is highly reactive. The dominant religion still sets the stage, but others follow suit with their own version of the "holidays."
This solution is quite silly. Why should Hanukkah suddenly mushroom in importance just because it often falls in the same month as Christmas? If Jews, in this case, are simply expressing their religious tradition, then why isn't there a legacy of blue and white wrapping paper dating back to the middle ages? Something highly imitative is going on here.
It's not uncommon to see all sorts of bizarre traditions constructed to mimic the general culture. In fact, if you stop by Hillel you will find a signup sheet for "Mysterious Maccabees." Sound authentically Jewish? Somehow I doubt it.
But let's return to the dilemma of decorating the houses. This problem falls into a much more common and more complicated category: the common area that is privately owned. So what should be done?
The first step is to answer another question. Why do we need public displays of religion at all? Is it a pressing need to ooze piety in public? Why don't private celebrations suffice? It strikes me that the only compelling reason has to do with communal celebration and education. Someone is inspired by the beauty and depth of his tradition and wants to share it with his peers. In fact, that sentiment is perfectly in line with what Harvard is always encouraging us to do. Bring your diverse backgrounds, knowledge and experience to this campus, we are told, and the whole University will be the richer.
With that as our motivation, public religious displays and activities seem highly appropriate. Not to allow them would contradict the spirit of diversity that Harvard claims to foster. Houses should have Christmas trees in their dining hall if students want them.
There should be, however, a few guidelines. First, all religious groups must be encouraged to go public if they so desire. The three house committees mentioned above adopted exactly this policy. Religious discrimination is paying several hundred dollars for a Christmas tree and then pleading bankruptcy when funds are requested for other religious activities. (This actually happened several years ago in Winthrop House.) If a house cannot commit to funding all celebrations, then they should refrain from sponsoring any at all.
Second, public displays should be reflective of the goal of sharing and educating. That means limiting their scope. Though having a tree in the dining hall may be a perfectly appropriate way for Christians to share the beauty of Christmas, there is no need for evergreens to be draped over every banister leading up to the Quincy House dining hall. Anything beyond a humble, tasteful display is simply religious chest beating.
Keeping these guidelines in mind, we should fundamentally reevaluate our religious symbols. I doubt that many people actually take the goals of sharing and educating seriously. Since these are truly the only tenable reasons for having public religious displays, we owe it to ourselves to scrutinize our religious showpieces. Is a tree the best way to share Christmas with other students? Speaking as a Jew, I can tell you that the unimpressive candelabra that rests on a white tablecloth in Leverett House would not be my pick. Neither are "Mysterious Maccabees." But a Seder, the traditional Passover meal during which Jews retell the story of the exodus from Egypt, might be. A model Seder might be a wonderful house program that would allows Jews to share their heritage with any who might want to learn about it.
Religion is too often relegated to the sidelines at Harvard. Religious beliefs, traditions and values should be a greater force on campus. Too often, attempts to ensure fairness and equality neuter the religious impulse that burns strongly in many Harvard students. We can learn a tremendous amount about each other's ethical and social outlooks by learning about their religious and cultural contexts. Religious students should be proud of their beliefs and use their energies to promote a more enlightened, pluralistic environment.
Regardless of what religious tradition each of us might choose to showcase, we should not feel pressured to conform to any one group's definition of "the holiday season." Religion should be self-defining, and we should note that that entails serious responsibility and vision. We should take a hard look at our religious symbols to see if they belong in our dining halls and house common rooms. Without an educational purpose, they border on being improper. But as long as people are exposed to multiple traditions and learn more about them, go ahead and deck the halls with boughs of holly. I'll start planning the model Seder.
Ethan M. Tucker '97 is chair of Harvard-Radcliffe Hillel.