Monday, December 15, 2008

The Season for No Reason

What is it about Washington?

The fight over holiday displays at the Capitol building in Olympia, Washington, is fascinating, in large part because it's such an incredible mess.

The official policy seemed fairly reasonable and accommodating. A private group asked to donate a Nativity scene to be publicly displayed on the Capitol grounds. Officials agreed. An atheist group noted that if a creche is permissible, then they'd like to have a display of their own. Reluctant to play favorites and invite a legal dispute, officials agreed to this, too. A menorah was soon to be added to the mix.

At that point, the door was open, and others wanted to walk in. A hyper-right-wing religious group demanded that it be allowed to erect a sign that reads, "Santa Claus will take you to Hell." Around the same time, Seinfeld fans asked that space be reserved for a "Festivus" pole. Then came the request for a "Flying Spaghetti Monster" display, a Buddhist request for a display, and a Christian goodwill message to atheists. All wanted equal time, just like the others had received.

Frustrated and befuddled, state officials announced that a new moratorium is now in place, forbidding any additional holiday displays at the Capitol.
If this sounds familiar, it should:

All nine Christmas trees have been removed from the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport instead of adding a giant Jewish menorah to the holiday display as a rabbi had requested.

Maintenance workers boxed up the trees during the graveyard shift early Saturday, when airport bosses believed few people would notice.

"We decided to take the trees down because we didn't want to be exclusive," said airport spokeswoman Terri-Ann Betancourt. "We're trying to be thoughtful and respectful, and will review policies after the first of the year."

Rabbi Elazar Bogomilsky, who made his request weeks ago, said he was appalled by the decision. He had hired a lawyer and threatened to sue if the Port of Seattle didn't add the menorah next to the trees, which had been festooned with red ribbons and bows.

"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," said Bogomilsky, who works in Seattle at the regional headquarters for Chabad Lubavitch, a Jewish education foundation.
Which is not to say there's something wrong with menorahs. As MP asked me a few years ago:

A serious question, rmj. Wouldn't a menorah be completely acceptable in any Christian festivity and, actually, more relevant to the nativity event than a north European fir tree? And on a practical level a symbolic burning bush is much safer than the fire hazard that is a dried out shrub after four weeks in a centrally heated environment.
And the answer is, yeah, it would be acceptable, if it had been accepted a few millenia ago. But then we had the whole Luke/Acts thing, where Gentiles were drawn into the "Jesus movement" through Paul, which really curdled Peter's milk; and then we get the Johannine community, where Hebrews/Jews were clearly tossed out of the older, larger community because of their beliefs about Jesus of Nazareth, and pretty soon identifying with the "other" at all became a problem for the group's identity.

Which is why many Protestants today still don't recognize Advent, or understand why we shouldn't be singing Christmas carols from the first Sunday after Thanksgiving until December 25th (a day upon which no one should be in church, even on Sunday!) It's the "thing" about symbols: they are emotional, not intellectual. When something "makes sense," it isn't a symbol, it's an intellectual construct. Symbols never make sense; but that doesn't mean we have to fight over them, either.

We need to remember the reason for the season:

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