Commentary: A battle of merry vs. happy

Has the Triangle become the latest battleground in the "War on Christmas"?

That's one reading of UNC-Chapel Hill's ban on holiday displays at its two main libraries.

In a move that strikes many as grimly Dickensian, the twinkling trees that had long graced the Wilson and Davis libraries in December have become ghosts of Christmas past.

Officials said queries and concerns from patrons and librarians pushed them to ax the tree.

"We strive in our collection to have a wide variety of ideas," said Sarah Michalak, associate provost for university libraries. "It doesn't seem right to celebrate one particular set of customs."

Of course, by assuaging one group, she angered another.

Feeling the heat from scores of people questioning him about the ban, UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Holden Thorp tried to cool the flames by issuing a public statement.

Noting that the library had instituted the ban – not the school – he observed that Christmas-related displays – from the decorated facade of Memorial Hall to the "Christmas wreath with a Carolina-blue ribbon on it in the Student Union" – still swaddle the school.

"Christmas is recognized on this campus," he wrote. "Have a joyous Christmas."

Christmas holds strong

Thorp's comments, especially his fearless invocation of Christmas not once but thrice, underscore the bogus nature of the "War on Christmas" trumpeted by Bill O'Reilly and other shouting-heads.

From the moment our Snickers-induced bellyaches subside after Halloween, we are force-fed a smorgasbord of holiday symbols: mangers, wreaths, ugly sweaters, iPods, Webkinz and GPS systems. The air is filled with the "S" words that define the season: Santa, sale and, once in a while, even savior.

The American Christmas – three parts commercial juggernaut, one part sacred celebration – is thriving.

Even as we debunk those who cry war, we shouldn't dismiss their claims. They may be aiming at the wrong target, but their angst reflects the deep strengths and inevitable tensions that shape American history.

Change as tradition

The power and paradox of the ideals that have always bound our nation is that they are remarkably fluid and set in stone. Change is our bedrock tradition.

Since the first colonist landed here, America's story has been a tale of people insistently re-imagining themselves and their nation.

Immigrants from far-flung corners of the globe – including my ancestors from England, Scandinavia and Italy – brought new customs, ideas and hopes.

Many of them faced hateful hostility. But acknowledging that painful past should not blind us to the primary direction of American society, which has been toward an ever-expanding sense of inclusion. Just ask President-elect Obama.

Our history has been so inspiring and tortured precisely because change is almost always discomfiting. Even as we embrace the idea of it, its reality is often hard to swallow. This is natural and probably unavoidable, which is one reason that immigration is always a hot-button issue.

In the past, the larger culture tended to cut the traditionalists too much slack, defending their opposition to change. In recent decades, the tide has shifted. Nowadays, we are more likely to ascribe dark motives of bigoted small-mindedness to people who, in their all-too-human way, want some things to stay the same. We should not celebrate this impulse, but neither should we reflexively demonize it.

The UNC Christmas tree kerfuffle is a telling illustration of this dynamic. For many, trees have been lovely adornments for the season. Their appearance each December conjured warm memories and the call of their better angels. In an increasingly rootless world, the trees were grounded in tradition.

Who could argue with that?

At first glance, no one should. Except that Christmas trees are not just fragrant ornaments. They are also powerful symbols of community.

Very different views

For those who celebrate the holiday, Christmas trees convey a sense of belonging. As Michalak suggested in defending the holiday display ban, they send the signal that the world shares values and customs with those who celebrate Christmas.

Christmas trees can send the opposite message to non-Christians. The ubiquitous pines are reminders of traditions they do not share. The sight of these trees is probably not a traumatic experience for them. But I understand why some of them (as well as Christian sympathizers) think there ought to be fir-free public spaces.

An editorial in The Daily Paper argued that instead of banning holiday displays, the library should supplement them with the symbols of Hannukah, Kwanzaa and other winter rites. This solution ignores the fact that many Americans have no faith at all.

In all honesty, I might feel differently if the tree-cutters were truly engaged in a war on Christmas, attacking every symbol and arguing (heaven forbid!) that Dec. 25 should no longer be a national holiday.

But in our Noel-saturated world, the removal of a tree here or a crèche there seems a small accommodation to make. I know why this change bothers some, but they're mistaking a tree for the forest.

Those mulling this controversy should recall some recent history. Just a few decades ago, "Merry Christmas" was the common December greeting in our nation. But as long marginalized groups demanded recognition and equality, and mainstream culture became more sensitive to their claims, "Happy holidays" became de rigueur.

Those simple words send a powerful message about respect. They remind us that the best American tradition is embracing change that makes room enough for everybody. Happy holidays!

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