O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree

Editor’s note: Since this column was published, officials have restored the 14 Christmas trees to the Sea-Tac International Airport. Here’s a quick Christmas quiz for Sea-Tac airport officials: What religion do Christmas trees symbolize or endorse?

Answer: Christmas trees don’t symbolize or endorse any particular religion. But don’t tell that to those who run Sea-Tac International Airport. Christmas tress must endorse something unconstitutional because when a Seattle area rabbi asked officials to place a menorah next to the trees, Sea-Tac officials thought it was best to remove the Christmas trees altogether least others ask to display religious symbols too. Sea-Tac spokesperson Terri-Ann Betancourt said: "We decided to take the trees down because we didn’t want to be exclusive."

Exclusive? Exclusive to whom? Though Christmas trees have existed in one form or another as far back as the Middle Ages, they don’t represent one religion or belief. Like Santa Clause and gift giving, they symbolize the more secular part of the holiday and can be found in just about any home regardless of one’s personal beliefs.

Though some claim Christmas trees can be traced back to pagan rituals, the modern custom regarding Christmas trees can be traced to 1570 when reportedly a small fir was decorated with fruit, nuts, paper flowers, and other goodies for the benefit of children who colleted those items from the tree on Christmas Day. It wasn’t until the 18th century that the custom of Christmas trees became common in parts of upper Rhineland. It took about 100 years for the custom to spread to such places as Russia, France, Austria, and England. Though Christmas trees reportedly appeared in the United States as early as 1777 (thanks to the Germans) they didn’t become popular in the United States until the late 1800s. Christmas trees were usually put up in connection to a religious holiday; they came to symbolize not a particular religion or belief but the spirit of the Christmas season. Even the Supreme Court has stated that Christmas trees are secular enough that they don’t violate the Constitution’s establishment clause. In their County of Allegheny v. ACLU (1989) Justice Harry Blackmun wrote: “The Christmas tree alone…does not endorse [a] Christian belief.”

If you want to see how secular Christmas trees are, then check out the Festival of Trees held annually in Salt Lake City. Christmas trees are decorated by a diverse group of local businesses and other organizations and donated to raise money for charity. The trees are usually decorated in themes that advance or promote football teams, colleges, television shows, and that of local businesses. Even though trees with religious themes are in the minority, no one is offended because people understand Christmas trees are not a religious symbol. (I personally found the American Idol tree a little tacky.)

Christmas trees in many homes tend to portray the personality of those who live in there. I know of one family whose has a tree decorated with dinosaurs. Another friend has a Star Trek themed tree. Yes, you can find trees with very Christian or religious themes too but in my circle of friends – most of whom are religious, finding a spiritually themed tree is the exception rather than the rule.

Yes, there are Christians who believe evergreen trees symbolize the renewal of life, but even amongst Christians there is a small minority who think the Bible prohibits Christmas trees. To confuse Christmas trees with an endorsement of a particular religion or faith is wrong. You can celebrate Christmas without a Christmas tree or have a Christmas tree without celebrating Christmas.

I have friends who are atheists, agnostics, and non-Christian. Yet every December they all have beautiful and festive Christmas trees in their homes. Why? Because they embrace the spirit of giving and goodwill that this time of year represents. It’s a message that’s not limited to one religion or faith but one that’s applicable to all of mankind – regardless of ones personal beliefs.

Instead of playing the Grinch next year, Sea-Tac officials should stop tying their Christmas stockings in a knot, drink a big glass of eggnog, and spread some holiday cheer. Maybe then people will be a little less likely to say Bah Humbug when they hear about such stories from the press.


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This essay was originally published on FreeCapitalist.com. You can read all of Abel's FreeCapitalist essays here.