What Tree is This?
Is the 30-foot tall evergreen tree in the Wisconsin Capitol Rotunda really a Christmas Tree? Since 1985 trees like it have been officially referred to as "holiday trees", a euphemism designed to obfuscate the obvious Christian symbolism of the tree. But now Gov. Scott Walker has accurately labeled the "tannenbaum" as a Christmas tree; Annie Laurie Gaylor, president of the Freedom from Religion Foundation, castigated Walker's choice of words as ".... a slight and snub to non-Christians." (1) Is she right?
The earliest documented use of the Christmas tree was in Estonia in 1441. The custom spread to northern Germany over the next hundred years and to England about 1800. (Wikipedia) Since no other religion widely practiced in the United States uses a decorated tree to celebrate a winter holiday, such a tree is clearly a symbol of Christmas and no other holiday. Jews and other non-Christians are not fooled by the ambiguous "holiday tree" designation.
But then, is it legal to display a Christmas tree on government property? In 1988 the city-county building in Pittsburgh displayed a 45-foot high Christmas tree alongside an 18-foot high Lubavitch Chanukah Menorah. The display was challenged in court as an endorsement of religion by local government. On July 3, 1989, the US Supreme Court ruled 6-3 that since the display included symbols of two different religions, the county was not endorsing any one religion, and therefore the display did not violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. (2) Since about 1980 a similar Menorah has also been displayed in the Wisconsin State Capitol, and a sign by the Freedom from Religion Foundation denouncing all religions as "superstitions" has also been permitted. So Wisconsin's display would be on safe constitutional ground. I would personally prefer no religious symbols on government property at all, but will settle for the multi-faith (and no faith) display.
While I believe that Scott Walker intended to bond with fellow Christians (the vast majority of Wisconsin voters) by denoting the tree as a Christmas tree, I doubt that it was ever intended as "slight" or "snub" to non-Christians, as Gaylor claimed. Walker has never shown such a tendency, and there is no political incentive to do so now.
Devout Christians believe in the "Second Coming" of Jesus. If J C were to return this year and celebrate his 2,011th birthday by touring the Wisconsin State Capitol, the Christmas tree would mean nothing to him. He would recognize the cross, not as a symbol of faith, but as a symbol of Roman persecution and cruelty. The only religious symbol he would recognize in the Capitol would be the Lubavitch Chanukah Menorah, and he would not call it a "Winter Candelabra."
Gerald S Glazer
(1) Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Nov. 8, 2011, page 2B.
(2) County of Allegheny vs ACLU, 492 US 573 (1989)