Yet another reason to respect and admire Gov. Scott Walker, who manages to remain perfectly comfortable with himself, his convictions and his decisions in the face of unpopularity. His latest little stand might have flown under the radar, had not the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation expressed an objection:
On Monday, Walker decided that he wanted to shake things up a bit. Rather than following recent tradition and referring to the (Christmas) tree that is placed in the Wisconsin’s Capitol Rotunda as a “holiday tree,” he’s changing course. For the past 25 years, lawmakers have referred to the evergreen that is decorated with ornaments and a star with this benign, uncategorized reference. Now, Walker plans to, once again, call the tree what it is — a Christmas tree. …
Rather than making a big deal out of the change, the governor simply put out a press release that referred to the holiday decoration as a Christmas tree. The release doesn’t note that any change in reference occurred.
But when asked, spokesman Cullen Werwei confirmed that the decision was intentional. “It’s a Christmas tree,” Werwei said. “In all honesty, I don’t know what more to say about it.” In the Charleston Daily Mail, Don Surber echoed this sentiment, writing, “Republican Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin just ended 25 years of stupidity.”
Not everyone agrees, though. The infamous Freedom From Religion Foundation, a group of atheists and “freethinkers,” doesn’t plan to let the change go unnoticed. Annie Laurie Gaylor, the group’s president, called the decision both rude and insensitive to non-Christians.
What’s funny is, atheistic sensitivity invests Walker’s decision with even more meaning than it might otherwise have. To attach “Christmas” as a descriptor to the tree is simply to reflect that decorated evergreens have been a part of the American Christmas tradition for some time.
For the record, though, they haven’t always been. Just for fun, a little Christmas tree history:
Germany is credited with starting the Christmas tree tradition as we now know it in the 16th century when devout Christians brought decorated trees into their homes. Some built Christmas pyramids of wood and decorated them with evergreens and candles if wood was scarce. It is a widely held belief that Martin Luther, the 16th-century Protestant reformer, first added lighted candles to a tree. Walking toward his home one winter evening, composing a sermon, he was awed by the brilliance of stars twinkling amidst evergreens. To recapture the scene for his family, he erected a tree in the main room and wired its branches with lighted candles.
Most 19th-century Americans found Christmas trees an oddity. The first record of one being on display was in the 1830s by the German settlers of Pennsylvania, although trees had been a tradition in many German homes much earlier. The Pennsylvania German settlements had community trees as early as 1747. But, as late as the 1840s Christmas trees were seen as pagan symbols and not accepted by most Americans.
It is not surprising that, like many other festive Christmas customs, the tree was adopted so late in America. To the New England Puritans, Christmas was sacred. The pilgrims‘s second governor, William Bradford, wrote that he tried hard to stamp out “pagan mockery” of the observance, penalizing any frivolity. The influential Oliver Cromwell preached against “the heathen traditions” of Christmas carols, decorated trees, and any joyful expression that desecrated “that sacred event.” In 1659, the General Court of Massachusetts enacted a law making any observance of December 25 (other than a church service) a penal offense; people were fined for hanging decorations. That stern solemnity continued until the 19th century, when the influx of German and Irish immigrants undermined the Puritan legacy.
At one time, then, calling a Christmas tree a “Christmas tree” might have offended Christians. Point is, it’s impossible to please everyone — so kudos to Walker for dropping the political correct routine and not caring what people think. Walker calling the tree a “Christmas tree” doesn’t stop Gaylor or anyone else from calling it a “holiday tree.” Nor does it force Christianity on anyone. In fact — check it — Christmas trees aren’t even essential to the practice of Christianity (arguably not a part of the practice at all … just a cultural element). Shocker, right? You could even have a Christmas tree — and call it that — and be an atheist. So, let it go, Gaylor. Let it go.