An Open Letter to the Christmas Tree Downtown

Dear Christmas Tree,

I want you to know that I am not angry with you. While you stand for something I do not believe in, I am not upset that you exist. In fact, I am happy that others can safely practice their religion in public. Even if the town that erected you has denied me my right to do so.

I have previously admired the beauty you bring to the little island in the middle of Main Street, but this year I look at you and feel nothing but defeat. For next to you should stand a symbol of my winter religious celebration. I know that this town calls you a holiday tree, to avoid the consequences of their violation of the separation between church and state. But we both know what you are. You are dressed in colorful lights named after the holiday you represent. The ceremony in which you are dressed is not one that celebrates religious diversity, for your admirers come adorning Santa hats and Christmas themed attire. You may be dressed in lights, but you are not a symbol of the Festival of Lights.

This town chose to reject the rabbi’s request to place a ten-foot menorah beside you. I know you would not have minded the company. I am sure you get lonely out there. They say they are afraid that your fans would destroy this symbol of my religion. Are they truly so afraid of their neighbors that they have sent us back into hiding?

This year, your missing neighbor is a symbol of disrespect to my people. To deny us our right to celebrate, or even educate your fans about a celebration they may not be as familiar with is nothing short of disappointing.  Not to mention an infraction of our First Amendment Rights. Oh, Christmas Tree, I know it is not your fault, but you must be able to see why I blame you. For you are a violation of the promised separation between church and state.

You see, this festival of lights we celebrate is to signify the end of Jewish persecution by the Assyrian-Greeks.  It commemorates the Maccabbean rebellion that won back the right for the Jewish people to practice their religion publicly. For years under the Assyrian-Greek reign, the Jewish people were forced to practice in secret for the sake of their safety.  The Assyrian-Greeks rid the Second Temple of Jewish possessions and instead built an altar to Zeus and a table for sacrificial swine, as an insult to Judaism. Thousands chose to die a martyr’s death rather than betray Jewish religious laws.

It seems we have come full circle. While you stand at the center of town, just feet away from the only Jewish building in town, the Jewish people are again forced to practice privately.  We are not welcome to celebrate publicly among our neighbors and friends, like your fans are. We are discouraged from participating in this joyous celebration because those who love you, may not love us. 

You stand beside a memorial for members of the Durham Community who fought and lost their lives in World War II. A group of people brave enough to stand up for the Jews came from this community, so where is the outcry now? The Human Rights Commission of Durham suggested that either all religions be able to place symbols on the island or no religion should be granted permission. This town is more outraged that their holiday tradition may be coming to an end than they are about the rampant anti-Semitism in their local government.

I am sure it is comforting to you to know you are beloved. Or maybe you are comforted to know you stand alone, allowing visitors and those passing by to beam at your beauty. Maybe you would be jealous of the attention a menorah on public property would bring.  Maybe you were enraged by the compromise that allowed a menorah candle-lighting service to occur given that the menorah be taken down as the candles’ flames grew weary. I, too, was enraged, that while you are allowed to adorn Memorial Park throughout December, the menorah had to be taken down.

This town feared “inebriated young people” may destroy a menorah beside you, but they did not fear for your safety. Perhaps they were concerned if the menorah were knocked to the ground it may engulf the town in flames. Or perhaps they believe that you are the stronger.  If they believe the latter, they would be wrong. It seems there is nothing stronger than the Jewish people who have persevered through persecution time and time again. And we will overcome this, too.

The general of the Assyrian-Greek army, Holofernes, had his head dismembered from his body by a courageous woman named Judith in the story of Chanukah. And maybe this story of Durham needs heroine like Judith. Not to cut off any heads, but to take matters into her own hands. And that, Christmas tree, is why I am writing this letter. For, since the time of the Maccabees, we have learned that the pen is much mightier than the sword.

Hope to see you again next year, with a menorah shining beside you.

Best wishes,

Elana