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Happy Winter Solstice

Harvard Square spreads holiday cheer with belligerent secularism

By Dhruv K. Singhal

Since my first winter at Harvard, I have been trying to figure out what that thing is. A wintry swirl? A whirlpool? A spiral galaxy? As a freshman, I lived on the first floor of Strauss Hall, where I had a direct view from my bedroom window of the garish, light-up tapestry suspended over Mass. Ave. At first, I couldn’t figure why it was there or what it was for. Perhaps an astronomy convention was in town, and the Square had been accordingly festooned with a luminous, Milky Way mural? Or, perhaps it was there to commemorate the anniversary of some important, astronomical discovery?

I swiftly realized that neither theory could adequately account for the existence of the multicolor maelstrom outside of my window, for it was not alone. Over Brattle St. now dangled, inexplicably, a pair of lopsided stars adjoined to what appeared to be bass clefs, and over JFK St. loomed a fourth-grader’s—or perhaps a precocious four-year-old’s—badly-drawn pentagram.

I soon dared to think the impossible: could these be…Christmas decorations?

I should mention at this point that I do not buy into Fox News’ annual hysteria over the imaginary “War on Christmas.” To begin with, I am not a Christian, and Christmas for me has always been less about gold, frankincense, and myrrh and more about Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, and Christmas specials. Moreover, while I do see an outrageous double standard in the permissibility of menorahs but not crèches at Christmastime, I understand that as the religion of the historically empowered majority, Christianity, fairly or not, is often held to a different standard from that to which minority faiths are held. And frankly, I would have been shocked far more by the sight of a Nativity scene in Cambridge than that of a menorah or kinara.

However, one would imagine that less controversial would be the more nonreligious trappings of the holiday season, like Santa Claus and snowmen. But even these decidedly secular icons are in short supply in the Square. Granted, if one pursues them doggedly enough, one can stumble upon a Christmas tree here or some Christmas lights there, or perhaps even glimpse the rather meager wreathes and ribbons hidden atop the lampposts. In theory, the comparative scarcity of these things could be defended as the outcome of aesthetic restraint; after all, it would hardly be reasonable of me to complain about the dearth of kitsch in the Square.

But the presence of these solstice curtains—or whatever they are—destroys whatever case could have been made to argue that aesthetic restraint is the guiding principle of Harvard Square’s Yuletide décor; in fact, these lights are just as gaudy—if not gaudier—than elves, reindeer, and boughs of holly. Furthermore, an active decision was made to ornament the Square in this ridiculous way, so while it would be possible to read nothing into the relative absence of traditional, secular ornamentation, it is impossible to make nothing of the presence of this spectacularly nontraditional, secular ornamentation.

Easily the most noticeable characteristic of these lights is that they are not just non-celebratory but aggressively non-celebratory. They certainly have nothing to do with Christmas in either its original, religious manifestation or its modern, commercialized iteration. Nor do they have anything to do with Hanukkah, in spite of the blue and white hues of the vortex over Mass. Ave. Nor do they seem to commemorate any make-believe holidays like Festivus. What is most striking, however, is that they are not even seasonally themed; there is nothing exceptionally wintry about flaccid stars and amorphous swirls.

In fact, unless the misshapen pentacle over JFK St. is actually an upturned Satanic symbol (perhaps an ultimate rebuke of the Christian origins of the holiday season), or all three images somehow pertain to some long-lost winter solstice festival like Saturnalia or Modranect, the lights do not appear to signify anything at all. They are purely abstract, little more than three pieces of bad, contemporary art draped over the city at the expense of its aesthetic appeal. If this is the case, then it begs the question: Why bother putting them up in the first place? No one is demanding that Mass. Ave be adorned instead with a life-size rendition of the Adoration of the Magi, but is even St. Nicholas too sectarian for Harvard Square?

Dhruv K. Singhal ’12, a former associate editorial chair, is an english concentrator in Currier House. His column appears on alternate Fridays.

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