O' Christmas Tree
One thing I’ve learned in my business is that different people get impressed by different things. Tonight I was standing outside on the Ellipse, that grassy patch south of the White House, in sub-freezing temperatures, watching a few white flakes floating down on us. I was just standing there in the crisp winter night air, staring at something that impresses me. Something my German-born mother never got to see. Something that is low tech, natural, old fashioned and just too cool.
Yeah, I’m awed by our Christmas tree. I mean the one that’s all our Christmas tree. The National Christmas Tree.
For 82 years we’ve had a National Christmas Tree in the District. In 1954 they added a "Pathway of Peace." The pathway is 56 smaller decorated trees planted so they surround the National Christmas Tree. They represent all 50 states, the five territories and of course D.C. Every year, sponsors from each state provide the decorations. If you look close, you can see each one is encased in a plastic globe to protect it from the weather. The tree and the pathway are lit up from sundown to 11 p.m. every day until New Years. It’s a great sight, an inspiring sight for this boy who grew up in Europe, and I’m not out here alone. Aside from us gawkers, there’s some group out here in the cold playing music every night.
Looking at that benign beauty, that tall, green, colorfully decorated and garishly illuminated evergreen symbol of life, I had to wonder just how anybody could find a Christmas tree offensive. I mean, sure if you saw it as a pagan symbol or a false idol we were worshiping, then maybe. But otherwise, I don’t get it. I don’t get offended by five pointed stars or crescents and moons. And as I think about it, that’s not even relevant, because those are actual religious symbols. To most of us in this country, a Christmas tree is just a decoration.
In Boston, they called theirs a holiday tree until the public outcry got so loud that the Mayor and Parks Commissioner had to back down. Theirs IS symbolic in a way, an annual gift from Nova Scotia to thank the people of Boston for their generosity after a munitions ship blew up in Halifax harbor during World War I. When the donor heard that the tree wouldn’t be called a Christmas tree any more, he threatened to shove the whole thing in the chipper. That seemed to have the right effect.
Out on the West Coast, where Santa Claus wears shorts half the time, Encinitas, California had a holiday parade a few years ago, but this year it’s a Christmas parade again. It’s not in any way a religious parade. It’s all in fun. And people of all faiths are welcome to enjoy it, just like the forest giant I was staring up at tonight.
You see, the thing is, to most of the people I know Christmas isn’t a religious holiday anyway. It’s a holiday for kids, overloaded with American traditions borrowed from all the people who came here. Snowmen. Reindeer. Santa. Lights. All that stuff the Grinch stole, none of which involved a baby in a manger. Of course, you’re free to worship on that day and put up a manger too as long as you don’t piss somebody off by sitting it in front of a mosque or synagogue. You don’t want to be snotty and push your religion up in anybody’s face. But when my mama talked about the Christmas spirit she sure as hell didn’t mean the Holy Ghost. She just meant the simple phrase she taught me in Germany: Peace on earth, good will toward men. That’s the Christmas spirit. Lots of Jews have it. Lots of Moslems have it. I even know a couple of atheists who have it. And standing there in front of our national peace symbol in sight of the President’s house I realized that if you want to change a simple tradition like putting up a Christmas tree, well, you ain’t got it.