Controversy over the National Christmas Tree Lighting

Last Thursday on December 6th, President Obama and his family lit the Christmas tree on the White House front lawn, a tradition that has been going on for many years. Many celebrities such as Neil Patrick Harris and Rico Rodriguez were at the service, and they all sang Christmas carols together. There were also musical performances by James Taylor, Jason Mraz and The Fray.

The tradition for the president and his family to light the Christmas tree on the White House lawn has now been going on for 89 years. The first president who lit the Christmas tree was President Calvin Coolidge in 1923. The Christmas tree is a large evergreen that is in the Ellipse neighboring the White House.

The question is, is it okay for the President of the United States, the leader of our country, to light a Christmas tree on the White House lawn (which is government property)? It is U.S. law that there should not be crosses or any other religious symbols on government property, but is the Christmas tree a religious symbol? There have been many different opinions on this topic.

Some people think that it is totally okay that the president is lighting a Christmas tree on the White House lawn. They say that the president is Christian, and he should be able to celebrate his religion. They say, for example, if the president was Jewish, he or she should be able to have a Hanukkah ceremony.

However, some people do not like how there is a Christmas tree on the White House lawn. Those people say that a Christmas tree is a religious symbol in Christianity, and that it is associated with the religion. They say that no religious symbol should be on government property because it leads to a slippery slope where the government endorses a religion or people are forced to convert to Christianity. Some people don’t like it for legal reasons because they think it violates the First Amendment of the US Constitution, while others (especially non-Christians) feel that the President is endorsing a religion and that the government isn’t supporting other religions.

Presidents going back to Jimmy Carter have also lit a large Hanukkah menorah each year in the Ellipse.  So, if the President publicly celebrates multiple religions, is it okay for he or she to light a Christmas tree every year?  It seems unlikely that the President could publicly celebrate all of them, even if he or she wanted to.

I think that having a Christmas tree on the White House lawn is perfectly fine. President Obama is Christian, and should be allowed to celebrate it even if it offends people who are not Christian. It doesn’t bother me, and I’m not Christian. I think people who are bothered by it or concerned about a slippery slope are a little dramatic. Besides, the Christmas tree is not a religious symbol. Having a Christmas tree is not in the Bible; it is a cultural tradition started in Germany in the 16th or maybe even 15th century.

A while ago we used to have mandatory prayer during public school, but because of the separation between church and state, public schools can’t do that any more. Banning mandatory prayer in public school is something I support, but the lighting of the Christmas tree is just a good way for people to enjoy their time and celebrate a holiday together.

Are you for or against a National Christmas Tree in front of the White House?


6 responses to “Controversy over the National Christmas Tree Lighting

  1. This is an important conversation to have Sunia, thanks for the post. Personally, I’ve always been of mind that to truly practice religious freedom in this country, then a National Christmas Tree might not be the best idea. But, you’re right- a Christmas Tree isn’t originally a Christian symbol, but a pagan tradition adopted by Christians. Today, many people have trees in their homes (including me). I actually have two…one at my office on my desk. But, then I also have a lot of other religious/non-religious holiday symbols up too. 🙂 lol

  2. Interesting question. The President has also been known to attend church. Neither he nor his opponent in the last election have been ambiguous about the fact that they are men of “faith”. By this logic the President should be an atheist (by design) or forbidden during term of office from entering churches or religious establishments of any kind. However, the constitution does not prohibit religious acts, or acts of religious symbolism or piety. They only prevent those acts from having undue influence on the way the government is run. To my mind, there is no controversy. Aside from the fact, as was mentioned, that Christmas has become a largely secular holiday based upon pre-christian traditions, I see no fault in the President lighting a tree, nor do I see any issue with nativity scenes in front of public buildings (environmental concerns aside).

  3. I think my atheist son would argue that a Christmas tree isn’t a religious symbol but more a tradition of the secular celebrations surrounding the season. I do not view a Christmas tree in a religious framework. The ornaments represent family history and traditions, I have no star or angel on top. I put Christmas trees in the same catagory as Santa Claus – a secular icon that represents the spirit of the holiday season.but not religious.

    • Thanks for the comment Maggie. Agree that Christmas trees have moved towards becoming more secular- as well as Santa Claus. Even to the point that now they are referred to as Holiday Trees. 🙂

  4. I’ll agree that many parts of Christmas, especially the tree and Santa clause, etc. are totally cultural and commercial. Many people regardless of faith have adopted these. But I think the question is more of principle.

    Its great that Americans have grown so much to see inclusivity as important enough for this to be discussed! There is also a nativity scene near the trees from each state (at least there was last year) and because there is also a menorah, that means that this is in fact a statement of faith. For that reason, I think it should be discussed more. Does it bother me personally? No. I guess what a good question is to ask next is: what is secularism and is America really founded upon secularism? Because if so, then I think this is a violation of secularism, especially because there is also a nativity scene. But if you think its in line with secularism to celebrate holidays of faith in a public capacity, which I find perfectly okay, then this is fine. The only reason it poses a problem is because there are religions and belief systems that will never be celebrated in the same way.

    • Thanks for your reply Elle! I agree that there are religions that aren’t being celebrated as full as Christmas is and other holidays that we recognize on a national level. Although the White House has made small steps in honoring Interfaith Iftars and even a Diwali celebration. However, on some level I think religious freedom has always been something that’s just on paper rather than something we celebrate completely in practice in the U.S. Will that ever change? Who knows, but I know it’s a constant battle to keep one religion from dominating others in this country- let alone actually have complete religious freedom. I also believe that the Christmas Tree has become more of a secular symbol, although not completely. For many non-Christian Americans, it’s still a symbol of Christianity and maybe even a symbol of Christian colonialism across the world and in the U.S. for some people such as Native Americans.

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