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Friday, December 06, 2013

The inanity of balanced religious symbols

IMG_1044This is the annual "holiday" display in the town right next to my neighborhood in Miami, which I drive through on the way to work every day.  As far as I can tell, it went up sometime Thursday afternoon or evening (I did not notice it on my way to work Thursday morning, although it's kind of hard to miss).

The problem this year, of course, is that Chanukah ended Thursday evening, before the display was fully in place and before its official "opening" that occurs this weekend. Now, since Chanukah only lasts eight nights, it is inevitable that the symbol will be up for longer than the holiday itself every year. But it would be nice if the symbol could be up for at least some portion of the holiday. Otherwise, it's a bit like dying the river green on March 18.

Worse, I am pretty confident that no one in charge realizes this fact or understands the ridiculousness of having a Menorah on display for a full month after the holiday is over. If they were serious about marking the holiday, they might have shifted the timing of the display this year. Of course, having a Menorah up without a Christmas tree probably would have violated the Establishment Clause. And vice versa, which is why the Menorah is not coming down. Instead we will, for the next month, have a religious symbol (and make no mistake,  Justices, a Menorah is purely religious) on display with no connection to the holiday it is supposed to mark. [Ed: Had the city moved up the display, the other likely effect would have been total confusion]

By the way, this is not meant to be a rant against official public displays of religious symbols. It's more to push the idea that when government tries to do religion in a way that does not establish religion, it inevitably gets it wrong, sometimes in a way as to be somewhat offensive,. And especially when it's a minority religion. So perhaps they should not bother.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on December 6, 2013 at 11:09 AM in Constitutional thoughts, Howard Wasserman | Permalink


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In "Christmas: A Candid History" by Brian David Forbes, it is explained that trees (including evergreens) have ancient roots to at least Roman times for winter festivals. "Christmas" trees were at least found as far back as the 1500s (Germany is cited). The 19th Century was a major time for development in Christmas traditions, including the various common ones used in England (Queen Victoria had a tree) and the U.S.

Anyway, calliwhatitis' comment to me has troubling implications. Winter was a traditional time for holidays of various types. Christians put their own gloss on it, including using traditional symbols like trees and mistletoes for that purpose. It is now "undeniably" theirs? I don't think so. It's like Thanksgiving -- it has important religious roots. The "thanks" are traditionally to God. But, that doesn't make it "undeniably" a religious holiday.

I don't think a traditional holiday suddenly is in effect taken over for all time by Christians with no ability to celebrate the holiday in a general or secular way. Religion itself is for the majority Christian in this country. Religion is not therefore itself Christian.

Posted by: Joe | Dec 10, 2013 10:11:35 AM

I am with Howard. That Christianity co-opted existing traditions or that, today, non-Christians elect to celebrate a Christian holiday in a secular way does not make the Christmas tree any less tied to Christmas, which is undeniably a Christian holiday.

The fact that there is so much effort to disconnect Christmas (and trees) from religion is just a testament to the fact that secular Christianity is the dominant moral tradition.

What I find interesting is that governments feel it is so important to mark Christmas that they are willing to reflect other traditions in these strange ways or (with the exception of Judaism) more generally ignore all the other religions during the "holiday season."

Posted by: callitwhatitis | Dec 9, 2013 8:08:56 PM

Joe, Christmas trees were first used in 19th century Germany, I believe.

But is it a religious symbol? Could a symbol be secular even though it is connected with a particular holiday? Would putting up a mistletoe constitute establishment of religion?

If any Government recognition of Christmas is suspicious, how come the law can make it a holiday?

Posted by: Jr | Dec 9, 2013 4:48:54 PM

ETA: And these non-Christians use ornaments on their trees. The star might be tricky though stars also have non-Christian meanings, including for certain nature religions.

Posted by: Joe | Dec 9, 2013 12:58:14 PM

"the tree is entirely tied to this holiday--and always has been"

Christians adopted a pre-existing symbol as their own. "This holiday" would seem therefore to mean "some winter celebration." "This holiday" is represented by a tree, but the tree as noted is not a religious symbol and is given different meanings by various people. Many non-Christians have trees and celebrate December 25 in a non-Christian way.

There are secular holiday decorations like wreaths or the like which can be compared to things like dreidels. The tree as a matter of size is different there but Allegheny underlines the problem too since a gigantic menorah comes off as a bit silly as compared to a normal sized tree which is naturally large. A quick look, btw, seems to suggest many Jews don't find a Hanukkah bush a suitable replacement.

Posted by: Joe | Dec 9, 2013 12:56:02 PM

I'd say Chanukah the modern phenomenon is entirely secular, arguably it's a secular component of Christmas.

Here we have one of the more minor Jewish holidays (about on par with tu b'shevat -- aka Jewish Arbor Day) that's the one and only holiday that's publicly celebrated by the culture at large. Why? Both because Christians want cover for publicly celebrating Christmas and because Jews, especially less religious Jews, don't want to feel left out of the "holiday season".

If a city really wanted to honor Judaism, they would celebrate one of the more important Jewish holidays -- put up a sukkah perhaps, or decorate with flowers and plants for Shavuot.

Posted by: brad | Dec 9, 2013 10:16:44 AM

I mean "saying non-Christians use trees"

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Dec 9, 2013 9:29:26 AM

I would question whether there is a secular component to Chanukah, at least an internally created one. Maybe the fact that there is no other symbol for the holiday should tell us something.

A tree is not "religious" in the same way as a crucifix or a creche. But the tree is entirely tied to this holiday--and always has been--and we should not pretend otherwise. Saying Christians use trees is a bit like saying non-Jews use candelabra. Non-Christians don't use large evergreens decorated with ornaments and a star on top.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Dec 9, 2013 9:19:47 AM

Brennan's dissent in Allegheny suggests that a tree alone very well might be okay, but that the menorah and creche made the display as a whole religious nature.

The tree was a symbol before there was even Christmas. The best thing to do here, perhaps, is to not use the menorah. The majority in Allegheny thought the menorah the only realistic symbol to honor the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah, even its secular component. Is this true?

I also think it might be acceptable if there is a sort of roving symbols used at the calendar requires. So, you would have the tree for a set time but other symbols can be cycled in to show the display is comprehensive. This would include Hanukkah, Kwanza and other holidays. The same could be done for other times of year, perhaps.

Anyway, I agree with Justice Stevens that governments should generally not sponsor religious symbols. I don't think a tree is one really by itself. People who aren't Christian use trees. But, I know some don't agree the tree is secular. Still, if we go by current law, it would be. Plus, realistically, this Court will be more loose with the rules.

Posted by: Joe | Dec 9, 2013 9:00:35 AM

If it a were menorah any of time of year would be equally valid. But it looks like a chanukkiyah.

Posted by: brad | Dec 6, 2013 5:10:42 PM

Then it is inanity. To have to drag up one holiday out of season to match another...

Posted by: CHS | Dec 6, 2013 5:04:06 PM

Yeah, it takes some getting used to.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Dec 6, 2013 3:49:22 PM

I can't get over the palm tree/Christmas tree combo. The holidays are supposed to be cold.

Posted by: anon | Dec 6, 2013 3:40:12 PM

Because the requirements of Allegheny (cited in the post) are about a balance of symbols-Christian and Jewish, secular and sectarian--of the season throughout the season, unmoored to any particular holiday or timing. You can't have a chreche or a tree (or you're more likely to encounter 1st Amendment scrutiny) without a Menorah or reindeer or snowmen. And conversely, I doubt you could have a Menorah without balancing symbols.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Dec 6, 2013 12:49:44 PM

" Of course, having a Menorah up without a Christmas tree probably would have violated the Establishment Clause."

Why? If the Menorah is up when the Menorah should be up, and the Christmas tree is up when it should be up, how would that violate the Establishment Clause?

Posted by: CHS | Dec 6, 2013 12:31:52 PM

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