SOMETIMES A TREE IS JUST A TREE By Julia Copeland, The Herald-Times December 21, 2004 Here it is, the shortest day of the year. Christmas is coming, the goose is getting fat. Things can only get better. Despite this excellent prognosis, some people are in a grinchy, grumpy mood about this holiday season. It is a mood I might be assumed to shareafter all, I am a defender and proponent of First Amendment guarantees. I might qualify as part of the Left referred to in a headline in the American Conservative: How the Left Stole Christmas. The complaint, in this article and others like it, is that politically correct civil liberaterians are waging a war on Christmas. Its a perceptual thing for both sides, a disagreement about the use of public space, fought out in court decisions that attempt to define the degree to which a holiday display is or is not a religious statement. When the public space is a school, questions multiply. Is the singing of carols in a public school setting coercive? What about making paper Christmas tree ornaments? What about Christmas trees themselves? Letters to Santa written as part of a classroom exercise? For so long I have thought of this midwinter holiday as a warmly communal phenomenon that Im surprised to find a new divisiveness surrounding the issue in the year 2004. Im not surprised, however, to find that I stand with no particular side. Once a contrarian, always a contraian. I tend to recall Christmas as a shared tradition, a lighthearted and pleasingly idealized part of American culture, represented by innocuous snowflakes and reindeer and jolly, red-cheeked illustrations of Saint Nick, who derives from a character in ancient Norse/German mythology, it turns out, and has nothing to do with the Christian saint whose name he shares. Lightheartedness no longer seems to characterize this holiday in the United States. Instead we have amped up acrimony, with one side claiming that Christmas is being stolen by left-leaning defenders of the separation between church and state, while on the other side are those who feel there is not nearly enough separation between church and state, that any intrusion of Christmas into state business is unacceptable. But is Christmas, with its many pagan traditions (tree, charitable giving, feasts, revelry) and its heavy overlay of fiction and commercialism, really more church than state? Im not sure things are that clear-cut. It seems to me that the public face of Christmas has been so long in the making that it has morphed and expanded, has burrowed into the social fabric of our country. Even in the America we used to refer to as the Melting Pot, (before we moved past fondue) even in our laudably diverse nation, there is such a thing as a national culture. Certainly Im for sensitivity to differences, and for the goal of creating a more perfect world. But if a more perfect world is one in which no cultural trait can be allowed to dominate over any other, we may be in trouble. Achieving such perfection would require the denial of history and tradition. Its an uphill trudge and, ultimately, what do you get? According to How the Left Stole Christmas, you get a sanitized version of Christmas, an undistinguished, uninspiring public celebration, nothing but multiculturalist pap and tawdry commercialism. Come on. Admit it. multiculturalist paper is zingy. Tawdry commercialism, on the other handthats what I adore. For me, Christmas is about department store windows and lighted trees and Santa putting his finger upside his nose and the reindeer rising into the winter sky and all that. Christmas is a hodgepodge of cozy fictions about sending the Macys customer to Gimbels; about selling your hair to buy your husband a watch chain, while your husband sells his watch to buy you a hair ornament; about putting a penny in an old mans hat. Christmas, right down to its pre-Christian roots, is definitely about putting pennies in hats. It seems a shame that a holiday associated, even in its most ancient manifestations, with charity, generosity and open-heartedness, should be the cause of such dissension. On the shortest day of the year, is it too much to dream not about just light, but of lightening up?