House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert has told federal officials that the lighted, decorated tree on the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol — known in recent years as the “Holiday Tree” — should be renamed the “Capitol Christmas Tree,” as it was called until the late 1990s.
The Capitol’s senior landscape architect confirmed the name switch yesterday for The Washington Times.
“It was known as the ‘Holiday Tree’ for several years and just recently was changed back to the ‘Capitol Christmas Tree.’ This was a directive from the speaker,” said Capitol architect Matthew Evans.
“The speaker believes a Christmas tree is a Christmas tree, and it is as simple as that,” said Ron Bonjean, spokesman for the Illinois Republican.
The Capitol tree, traditionally overshadowed by the White House’s “National Christmas Tree,” was renamed a “holiday tree” several years ago, according to the Capitol Architect’s offices, in an effort to acknowledge the other holidays of Kwanzaa and Hanukkah — although no one seemed to know exactly when the name was changed or by whom.
Calling a Christmas tree a Christmas tree has become a politically charged prospect in jurisdictions across the country — from Boston to Sacramento and in dozens of communities in between.
“It’s a growing problem,” said Jared N. Leland, spokesman and legal counsel for the Becket Fund, a District-based legal and educational institute. “Celebrating the season with Christmas trees … and leaving them named ‘Christmas’ is simply recognizing the religious nature of people. Christmas should be able to be called Christmas.”
The debate boiled over in Boston last week when the city’s Web site referred to a giant tree erected on Boston Common as a “holiday tree.”
The new name drew the ire of Christians and evangelical leader the Rev. Jerry Falwell, whose law group the Liberty Counsel threatened to sue if the tree wasn’t rechristened with Christmas.
“The Boston Christmas tree situation is symbolic of what’s happening … around the country,” said Mathew Staver, president and general counsel of Liberty Counsel. “Government officials, either because of misinformation, or private retailers, for politically correct reasons, are trying to secularize Christmas.
“To rename a Christmas tree as a holiday tree is as offensive as renaming a Jewish menorah a candlestick,” Mr. Staver said.
The Nova Scotia logger who cut down the 48-foot tree for Boston also was indignant. Donnie Hatt said he would not have donated the tree if he had known of the name change.
“I’d have cut it down and put it through the chipper,” Mr. Hatt told a Canadian newspaper. “If they decide it should be a holiday tree, I’ll tell them to send it back. If it was a holiday tree, you might as well put it up at Easter.”
Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino said he would refer to the 48-foot-tall white spruce as a Christmas tree during lighting ceremonies on Thursday. The city has since referred to the tree as a Christmas tree on its Web site.
In California last year, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger rescinded former Democratic Gov. Gray Davis’ five-year tradition of calling the state capitol’s Christmas tree a “holiday tree.” Mr. Schwarzenegger said the tree will be a Christmas tree as long as he’s in office, and staff confirmed yesterday that the governor will call the tree a Christmas tree this year.
Cities and counties in the Washington area increasingly are dropping the reference to Christ. Localities such as Alexandria, Greenbelt and Baltimore County will hang their lights on politically correct “holiday” trees.
“The words are used interchangeably,” said Janet Barnett, of the city of Alexandria, which held its tree lighting on Friday. “We put up the trees to celebrate the season.”
In Annapolis, the city’s annual “Hanging of the Greens” — the decorating of public buildings, shops and streets with live greens and ribbons — and the lighting of the “holiday tree” this weekend are purposely named so as to not favor one belief over another.
“It’s a sensitivity for people of different faiths,” said city spokeswoman Jan Hardesty. “We celebrate a lot of different customs — not necessarily just a religious one.”
This year’s Capitol tree, an 80-foot Engelmann spruce from New Mexico, arrived Sunday and was unveiled in a ceremony yesterday. The tree will be secured and displayed opposite the Washington Monument, on the building’s West Lawn and will be decorated with 10,000 lights and 6,000 ornaments created by students in New Mexico.
President Bush will light the National Christmas Tree, which stands south of the White House on the Ellipse, at 5 p.m. Thursday.
Yesterday, the White House also received its Christmas tree for the Blue Room. A horse-drawn wagon delivered the 18-foot Fraser fir, marking the official start of the holiday decorating season at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
“This is a very fun tradition, the delivery of the Christmas tree to the White House,” first lady Laura Bush said. “This is the 40th year the National Christmas Tree Growers Association has given the White House the magnificent tree — the biggest tree there.”
This article is based in part on wire service reports