As much as I liked Christmas carols year round as I child, I loved our family Christmas tree. My Lutheran father and my Jewish mother and little Josh, the swing vote, would go pick a tree, strap it to the car, and bring it home. Out of the basement came the stand, the lights and more ornaments than any little kid has a right to expect. All of us, sometime Christian and occasional Jew alike, decorated the tree, and basked in its glow. It was a symbol of family and friendship and love. The ornaments came from my grandparents, from our vacations, and from an uncle, whose beautiful tradition was to send an ornament to me every year.
The controversy over having a tree in the lobby of the federal courthouse in Jacksonville has made national news, after one of the nation's most visible TV commentators discussed it on Fox News this week. Calling it “the most ridiculous item of the day,” Bill O'Reilly described how U.S. District Judge Patricia Faucet, the chief judge of the middle district of Florida, ordered a Christmas tree removed from the courthouse. “People should celebrate their religion,” Faucet, whose office is in Orlando, told the newspaper. “I'm sure there are Christmas trees all over that building.” She reportedly took the action after getting several complaints about the tree prominently displayed in the lobby facing Hemming Plaza. She told The Florida Times-Union that she did not order it removed, just put in a “less prominent” place. She was just concerned that the tree be portrayed in a “neutral forum,” so it would not appear the federal government favored any particular religion, and that no one be offended. Rather than move the tree, courthouse personnel put it into storage.
If someone in Jacksonville found the tree offensive, it's too bad. The judge was right to order the tree moved and put in a neutral forum. She knew the laws and followed them, but more importantly, she followed common sense. The courts are for everyone, and ought to avoid offense to anyone coming to petition in them. If the trees prominent display offended someone, putting it somewhere less prominent is appropriate. If people feel religion is being endorsed, then why not modify the display to avoid offense at a time when every religion is celebrating a midwinter holiday?
There are several technical points to be made here. First, this wasn't a precedent setting ruling, just an administrative decision by a judge on the decoration of her courthouse. Second, she didn't order the tree dismantled. Bill O'Reilly and the other noisemakers ought to bitch to the maintenance staff that misread her instructions.
Third, not even all Christians like Christmas trees (or Christmas as it is celebrated). Ed at Dispatches from the Culture Wars points out that many Protestant groups object to the implicitly Catholic celebration of “Christ's Mass.” Like Ed:
I'm one of those rare heathens who loves ritual and tradition of this type. I believe that celebrations like Christmas, Passover, Ramadan or Kwanzaa are extremely important quite apart from the question of whether what they celebrate is true or not. Such traditions reinforce important bonds between people as members of a group, but that doesn't mean they have to be exclusive to that group. I have taken part in many such traditions, from Greek Orthodox weddings to wiccan handfastings, and I hope to take part in many more that I haven't yet experienced (in particular, I would love to attend a Sedar meal with my Jewish friends, or an end of Eid feast with my Muslim friends). These are all opportunities for celebration, for the gathering of family and friends, and for learning about other cultures and traditions. These things are important. They're indispensible, in my view. And regardless of my view of the theological roots of Christmas might be, when my family gathers here on Sunday (yes, a day late), I am going to love cooking dinner for them and sharing a meal with them, and watching my nieces and nephews open their gifts. For my many Christian friends, Christmas has a theological meaning. For myself, I find more than enough meaning in the love of my family and in our shared humanity.
Maybe we aren't so rare. Maybe there is middle ground. The Christmas tree above is from the American Museum of Natural History, last year. If the place that atheist PZ Myers waxes so joyous over can put up a tree, anyone can. More later.