State of Wisconsin Christmas Plea

My friend Jie back in California alerted me last week to news on my own doorstep. Apparently, the Wisconsin State Assembly has been wasting its time this holiday season. Hard up for productive things to do, they proposed, debated, and as of yesterday voted to rename the “Holiday Tree” in the rotunda of the Capital building, the “State of Wisconsin Christmas Tree.” Apparently, 20 years of calling it a fairly religiously-neutral name pissed them off so much that they had to spend their taxpayer-paid time to not only rename it with a specific religious name – but also make sure everyone know’s that it is the State of Wisconsin’s specifically religiously-named decoration. Oy, Madison, this is how my new home makes itself known across the country these days?

I’m surprised at how, even though they decided to spend valuable time on this issue in the state assembly, their arguments for renaming it were weaker than the skin of the ornaments on the tree they were debating. “Most people in Wisconsin are Christians.” “Kids call it the Christmas Tree.” “I thought it was the Christmas Tree when I first joined the assembly.” “We also allow other religious stuff to be displayed.” “They called it the Christmas Tree from 1916 to 1985 when they renamed it – we’re just changing it back.” Simplistic arguments for what is really an involved, nuanced issue.

First, I have heard people say that the renaming of the “Christmas Tree” as the “Holiday Tree” was made in 1985 to dodge the issue of endorsement of religion. “You see – it’s now the Holiday Tree *wink wink*” I don’t know anything about this, but it is a plausible situation.

They didn’t just rename it the “Christmas Tree,” they renamed it the “State of Wisconsin Christmas Tree.” So the argument that they allow other religious content in the rotunda at this time of year is ill-applied. The non-religious sign is labeled as a display put on by the Freedom from Religion Foundation. The Menorah is labeled as a display put on my a local synagogue (and they had to go through tons of red tape to get it in the first place.) This tree, however, is The State of Wisconsin’s. That’s not an equal footing, that is endorsement.
Adding “The State of Wisconsin” to the name is a bigger issue, in my opinion, than renaming it “Christmas Tree.” Nonreligious people, and even members of other religions put up their own holiday trees decorated in their own ways. My family is not religious, and we put up a tree and celebrate Christmas. We, like many many people across this country, celebrate the American Holiday known as Christmas, which may someday be renamed as our culture evolves. Ariela and I also celebrate the Solstice and the coming of longer days. It actually makes a very convenient way for us to exchange our gifts for each other before we travel to either of our family’s places for Christmas! Hey, two festivals – you can’t go wrong there!

Christmas has also taken on a very commercial aspect to it, due to the gift giving and other things you have to buy to celebrate the occasion. Many Christians comment each year that the holiday has been so stripped of religious content that it’s practically not Christian anymore. If you want to see on such Christian chew out Bill O’Reilly for his “War on Christmas” that he keeps waging, go here.

So you could make an argument that calling it a “Christmas Tree” is not necessarily religious. But that was not the argument made by the state assembly-folks who were pushing for this change. The arguments were based on the religiousness of the citizens, how many of them there are, and how the tree is part of a Christian holiday. There was no talk about how the un-churched still call the holiday Christmas, nor how some Jewish people put up Hanukkah-themed conifers in their living rooms. It was clearly recognized by the people who advocated that the assembly address the issue, that the renaming of the tree had to do with it’s Christian roots.

That, is of course, the irony. What does the Christmas Tree have to do with Christianity? It was a German pagan practice that was appropriated by Christianity when they were trying to convert the pagans. The exact origin is not known, nor what it was first called, but it seems to me that if you want to go back in time to decide what it should be called today, call it the Yule Tree. In fact, I think that’s what I’ll call my own from now on. Getting back to my German roots! There are a lot of Germans in Madison and in Wisconsin, so why not? Oh, I forgot – we don’t count heads before applying the first amendment.
I think I will write a letter to the editor for the Capital Times, if I can find time in my studying to squeeze it in. I would especially like to point out the fact that besides the fact that it was a cheap political move that only seemed to piss off everyone for wasting their taxpayer-dollar time, it was inevitably futile. The State Senate has to also agree to change the name of the tree – and the guy in control of the senate, Russ Decker, won’t even put it on the table. Dead in the water.

How does it feel to be devisive, and completely wasting everyone’s time? State Rep. Marlin Schneider – who’s the Grinch now?


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Karl Haro von Mogel

Karl Haro von Mogel serves as BFI’s Director of Science and Media and as Co-Executive Editor of the Biofortified Blog. He has a PhD in Plant Breeding and Plant Genetics from UW-Madison with a minor in Life Sciences Communication. He is currently a Postdoctoral Scholar researching citrus genetics at UC Riverside.

2 thoughts on “State of Wisconsin Christmas Plea”

  1. Hi,
    It’s me… and I am famous now….I have been mentioned openly and secretly supplied Vogue) Can’t wait to see you guys….


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