Monday, December 11, 2006

'Tis the Season to be...Treeless!

When all nine Christmas trees were removed from Sea-Tac International Airport instead of adding a giant Jewish menorah to the holiday display as Rabbi Elazar Bogomilsky requested, he said, "Everyone should have their spirit of the holiday. For many people the trees are the spirit of the holidays, and adding a menorah adds light to the season." Bogomilsky works in Seattle at the regional headquarters for Chabad Lubavitch, a Jewish education foundation. After consulting with lawyers, the port authority staff believed that including the menorah would have required adding symbols for other religions and cultures indicative of the Northwest. The holiday season is the busiest time at the airport, airport spokeswoman Terri-Ann Betancourt stated, and the staff just didn't have time to play cultural anthropologists. Besides, Bogomilsky had hired a lawyer and threatened to sue.

Let's start with a brief history of the Christmas (or holiday) tree. In the northern hemisphere, the shortest day and longest night of the year falls around December 21. Many ancient people believed that the sun was a god and after that date, this god was going to make a remarkable recovery from being sick and weak and would bring forth fresh flora and vegetation. Evergreen boughs were used to celebrate the return of summer, since that was all that remained green at that time of year. Early Egyptians filled their homes with green palm rushes to symbolize the triumph of life over death. Romans marked the solstice with a feast called Saturnalia to honor Saturn, the god of agriculture, and decorated their homes and temples with evergreen boughs. So did the ancient Druids and Vikings.

Nowhere in the New Testament is there a reference of a tree to honor the birth of Christ. As a matter of fact, Germany is credited as being the first to start a Christmas tree tradition in the 16th century when devout Christians brought decorated trees into their homes. Early German settlers in Pennsylvania brought this custom with them, which most colonists found to be an oddity. Pilgrims abhorred it and banned them in 1659 Massachusetts, along with carols and any other form of "paganism". All worship could only be done in churches. Period. That continued into the 19th century, but too many German and Irish immigrants undermined the Puritans' decree and Christmas trees found their way into homes in America. In Europe, they had already been established.

The menorah, on the other hand, is sacred and one of the oldest symbols of the Jewish faith. It is a seven-branched candelabrum used in the Temple and represents the nation of Israel and its mission to be "a light unto the nations." (Isaiah 42:6). Did I mention the book of Isaiah is in the Old Testament? The Torah states that God revealed the design for the menorah to Moses.

I know many people of all religions and no religion at all who celebrate the season by putting up and decorating a tree. To some, it is no different than dressing up your house and handing out treats on Halloween. That's another story, by the way. There is nothing sacred about a Christmas tree. Christianity does not recognize it as a symbol of their faith. The menorah and Christmas tree have nothing in common. One stands for religion. The other does not. If you don't believe me, go ask Santa Claus. If you don't believe him, wait until spring rolls around and ask the Easter Bunny. Better yet, don't. I don't want to have to explain the history of some rabbit to a disgruntled cleric, expecting equal religious billing. Then, I'd also have to explain dyed and hard-boiled eggs and how they got their rise in early pagan spring rituals.

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