Virtual Voices

Capitol Christmas tree controversy

Religion

A controversy has been brewing around the decorations selected for this year's U.S. Capitol Christmas tree.

Starting in 1964, a Christmas tree has been erected, decorated, and displayed on the lawn of the U.S. Capitol from early December till New Year's Day. As of 1970, the Capitol Christmas tree has been selected from one of the country's National Forests. This year, for the first time, the tree will come from the state of Arizona, specifically the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest.

Arizona schoolchildren have been given the privilege of making the ornaments that will decorate the 125-year-old tree. Would-be ornament makers were officially advised to be sure the ornaments can withstand harsh winter weather, that they adhere to certain size restrictions, and that they honor and reflect something about Arizona. They were also told that "natural materials should be used that are eco-sensitive and recyclable." Oh, and one more thing: "Ornament designs may not reflect religious themes." Say what?

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In case you're wondering, the tree is officially called the Capitol Christmas tree. In 1999 it was renamed the Capitol Holiday tree. But apparently wiser heads prevailed in 2005 when it again became known as the Capitol Christmas tree.

It seemed odd that a Christmas tree couldn't have "Christmas" decorations on it. One Arizona child who thought so, too, broke the rules by creating three ornaments: One reads "Merry Christmas," another says "Happy Birthday, Jesus," and the third portrays a manger scene.

The Alliance Defense Fund took up the case on behalf of the child's mother, demanding that state and federal officials "abandon the prohibition of religious viewpoints" on the ornaments by Sunday, October 4.

Sometimes it's amazing what the threat of a lawsuit can do. As of this Wednesday, the restriction against religious ornaments was posted on the internet among the other guidelines for schoolchildren. But by yesterday, it has disappeared. According to a spokeswoman for the Architect of the Capitol, the group that oversees the Capitol tree (among other things), that was "old information," and "is no longer the position of the agency."

Too bad Monday is the deadline for submissions.

Marcia Segelstein
Marcia Segelstein

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