Island's Clergy Eye Holiday Symbols


"Christmas, like sex, sells," says Rev. Judith Campbell, of the Unitarian Universalist Society.

"I think that any religious significance that might have been attached to the holiday is so completely downed by commercialism. People go broke putting lights up and vie with each other for who has the best display. If it were a toss up between having lights or having more social services, I would opt for more social services."

Many of the symbols associated with the observance of Christmas have been converted to something less specific and nonreligious. Jingle bells, reindeer, candy canes, tree lights, decorated garlands and wreaths, even Santa Claus - have become, for some, the secular ornaments of a season, cultural devices which invite warm illusions of connectedness and inclusion that many non-Christians incorporate.

"Think of it as an AA meeting. Take what you need and leave the rest," Rev. Campbell states. "Not all of it is for everybody and not everything that everybody says is going to fit into Christmas. I would love to see any kind of religious festival open to everybody. Celebrate it, learn from it, respect it and don't sanitize it out of existence."

And all around the Island in town squares and parks, trees and shrubbery bloom with colorful bulbs; small, twinkling trees frame Main street in Edgartown; banks, offices, inns and town halls are decked with boughs of holly. To some, it is Christmas; to many others, it's just festive decoration.

Although Happy Holidays might seem the safest salutation, it is possible it might dilute something essential, a recognition that validates one's religious tradition. It could also be that interpreting the customs and artifacts once specifically associated with Christmas as secular is simply a natural cultural evolution, making the occasion more "Americanized," and inclusive.

It is a question to which representatives of the Island's clergy have given individual thought, revealing their points of agreement as well as their differences.

Not that the origins of many of these symbols, most no more than a century old, are particularly religious. Adding candles to greenery during the darkness of the winter solstice was a common practice in Europe, especially during the German celebration of Yule in November. The Christmas tree is thought to be descended from the Paradise tree used to depict the story of Adam and Eve in the late Middle Ages.

It was illegal to celebrate Christmas in public places in Massachusetts until the 1830s, because it had become such a rowdy event. It wasn't until 1912 that the first public Christmas tree was allowed to be displayed in Boston.

And it could be that in a time of yellow and orange alerts, political correctness has become the bah humbug of a circumspect, Island population.

Pam Thors, administrative assistant in the West Tisbury town hall assessors office, explains, "Everything that we put up we consider nondenominational," including the "holiday season tree," that shines from the second story window. "We call it our nondenominational wedge," she says, laughing.

It is a matter of personal investment to Rev. Donnel O'Flynn of Grace Church. He notes, "There's a difference between observing a religious activity - when we sing, O, Holy Night on Dec. 24, that's a part of our worship - than if I'm in Stop & Shop and happen to hear the same melody in the aisles."

He admits he goes through what he calls "a mental gyration," asking himself if the person he greets is a practicing Christian before he extends a Merry Christmas. "I miss it," he says of the less self-conscious days. But he concedes that the Christmas spirit, "or whatever you want to call it," has become part of the American culture. "And I guess I see that as a good thing."

Americanized. Part of the culture. Psychiatrist Dr. Charles Silberstein agrees. "People create new traditions" through symbols, he says, explaining that they evoke a range of powerful feelings, some of them unconscious. "Christmas trees and Christmas lights and the Christmas celebration for many people have surprising little to do with the religious meaning of the holiday."

"The power of the symbol is left up to the individual," says Rev. Thomas Roan of the First Congregational Church of West Tisbury. Describing himself as "a firm believer in the separation of church and state," he stresses that "it is too bad that there are people who would take it as their own, without recognizing the significance of it." He opposes public funds being used to decorate for any one tradition, stating, "If you're going to do it for one, do it for all."

His thoughts are in part echoed by Rev. Mary Jane O'Connor-Ropp of the Trinity United Methodist Church. "When I see a wreath anywhere I think of it as a Christmas wreath," she says. "I see them in public places as holiday symbols, but my own personal reaction is Christmas."

Yes, she concedes, public displays have become secularized - "If it were a cross, that would be different" - but adds, "I hope it's not secularization, but mutually understanding one another better."

A similar perspective is expressed by Rabbi Caryn Broitman of Martha's Vineyard Hebrew Center, who elaborates on the meanings and the importance of religious identity. She explains that Judaism is a combination of ritual and cultural, a religion as practiced by people who have a history together. Christianity, she explains, contains a priority of beliefs without reference to culture: "So it's easier for Christians to say, ‘Oh a Christmas tree is not religious, so anyone could have it.' Are dreidels religious? Well, there's not a dogma attached to dreidels, it doesn't express a theology, but it's Jewish. For Jews, a Christmas tree or a wreath or any of the expressions of Christmas is not a question of whether it's religious: It's Christian because Christians use it to celebrate their holiday."

And a wonderful holiday it is, Rabbi Broitman stresses, "but it's not ours." She believes religious and cultural expressions in the public sphere should be treasured without competing with each other. Christmas decorations in the post office are fine, she says, as long as there's clarity that they are Christian symbols.

What she does object to, in addition to religious celebrations taking place in the schools, is when people declare things are secular and not really about Christmas. "Substituting the word holiday for the word Christmas doesn't make it much different. It is even better when people are clear and rooted in their own history."

That no consensus exists, only varying opinions, seems appropriate. And maybe agreement is not paramount; just respectful regard. Some will hear Happy Holidays as a festive acknowledgement. Others will recognize the Old English root word, holy day, and feel equally warmed.