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Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas

By Talia Milgrom-elcott

"Tis the season to be jolly (tra la la ...)." Or at least so declare the Christmas carols that are ringing through the Kirkland House Dining Hall. And so one would think from the big, decorated tree sitting proudly in the entrance foyer of Adams House. And in the dining hall of Leverett. In fact, from the looks of things, one could easily get the impression that everyone at Harvard celebrates Christmas. Which, at least insofar as I can tell and as the admissions committee claims, is not the case. So why do Christmas trees decorate the houses to the complete exclusion of other religious symbols?

Some people I have spoken to have justified the status quo by arguing that Christmas trees have little to do with Christmas or Christians, which, given the linguistic parallels, seems a logically indefensible claim Christmas trees are tied directly to Christmas--Christmas tree lots on the day after Christmas are forlorn places, and I've never seen Christmas trees pop up in living rooms in the middle of April, both of which indicate the obvious: that Christmas trees are symbols for Christmas, a Christian holiday.

While it is true that for many Americans, Christmas is not a particularly religious time, and it is true that Harvard's houses go through pains to make the Christmas trees that adorn them seem secular (there are no crosses on the trees or nativity scenes beneath them), it is equally true that for many in America and for even more, Proportionately, at Harvard, Christmas is not a part of their family's or their religion's collective set of experiences and traditions.

My family has never celebrated Christmas, which means that the Christmas tree and the cheerful Christmas carols celebrating Jesus on high, although beautiful to see and listen to, do not remind me of home or herald the upcoming holiday.

Instead, they expose the implicit and explicit ways majorities, even in the best intentioned places, endow their traditions with universal acceptance and shield them under the guise of secular neutrality.

William F. Buckley Jr., in an op-ed in The New York Times last month, affirmed the right of the majority to do just that. Writing about Dartmouth, "a Christian college founded for the Christianization of its students," in the words of the institution's President Hopkins in 1945, Buckley argues: "Why can't Judaism and Christianity go hand in hand at Dartmouth, with the conventional deference to the majority?" Universities, Buckley maintains, founded with a Christian mission should be able to continue the ideal of Christianizing their students. Those not "susceptible to Christian mores"--at Harvard, the more than 25 percent of the student body that is not Christian--should defer to the majority in public and quietly continue their ways in the privacy of their own rooms and organizations.

Although Buckley represents an extreme slant that not many, at least not many at Harvard, would be comfortable championing, the logic of his stance supports the decision to place Christmas symbols in the public spaces of this secular University. Given that Christmas trees are inherently Christian symbols, intimately linked to Christmas, the celebration of the birth of Jesus, it is impossible to claim their neutrality. Therefore, in order to justify placing Christmas trees, as the sole symbol of the winter holidays, in the dining halls, one would need to believe that the majority culture has the singular right to representation in the public domain.

I do not believe that the house masters are ill-intentioned or that they disapprove of religious pluralism. I would like to believe that they are simply unaware--not a minor offense, but a remediable one. Many religions have celebrations to lighten these cold and dark winter months. Let the house foyers and dining halls be filled with symbols of different religions, as well as symbols of winter and of celebration, so that everyone entering can feel the excitement of the season and of the close of the year. After all, with only a few days left of school before the winter recess, there is no reason that this should not be a season to be jolly for everyone.

Talia Milgrom-Elcott's column appears on alternate Thursdays.

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