Hooray for central Wisconsin. This year, a magnifi cent 30-foot tall balsam fir harvested from Meyer’s Castle Tree Farm, Medford, graces the rotunda of the Wisconsin State Capitol in celebration of the holiday season. The evergreen was delivered to the statehouse by another local business, Prochnow Trucking, Medford. Two musical groups, the Medford High School Concert choir and Medford’s Take Note Acapella Group, sang songs, both religious and secular, at a tree lighting ceremony held on Friday.
For this area of the state to play so rich a role in Madison festivities ought to be enough to lift our chins and quicken our step as we merrily head into the thick of the holidays.
But no. Trouble lurks. The tree has become a squabbling point in the “war on Christmas” fracas that annually flattens our seasonal fizz.
The rangle-tangle started with Gov. Tony Evers in November declaring the fir a “holiday tree,” upsetting a brief tradition started by Gov. Scott Walker who scored political points by calling the annual evergreen a Christmas tree. Upset Republicans in the Assembly passed a Nov. 12 resolution declaring the balsam fir a Christmas tree no matter what the governor labelled it.
“It is a Christmas tree,” said Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke after a vote on the resolution. “Everyone knows it’s a Christmas tree. Changing the name to anything else would be a political game. And that’s what the governor did when he renamed it.”
For his part, Evers was unmoved. He continued to call the evergreen in the capitol a holiday tree, noting that, prior to the Walker administration, governors had called the balsam fir a holiday tree for 25 years.
“It’s a holiday season for a whole bunch of people in the state of Wisconsin, even those that aren’t part of the Christian faith,” he explained. “I think it’s a more inclusive thing.”
The debate over the tree has reached a crescendo. Gov. Walker went on Fox and Friends to explain why he called seasonal evergreens during his administration Christmas trees. The New York Times published a story detailing how Wisconsin was fighting over tree names. Senate majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) darkened the holiday mood in an angry charge that Evers’ tree naming was “PC garbage.”
Those fighting over Christmas might want to relax, eat a ginger snap and sip some eggnog. The disagreement here is essentially pointless.
There can be no argument over whether the state government should celebrate Christmas. That’s because it can’t. The U.S. Supreme Court in Lynch v. Donnelly (1984) said such a celebration violates the First Amendment. What the state can do, however, is include a Christmas tree (named as such) within an other otherwise secular holiday celebration. Thus the high court ruled inclusion of a Christmas tree in a public park display including a teddy bear, dancing elephant and a Santa Claus house passes constitutional muster. What the state can never do, said the court, is endorse a religion.
Thus Gov. Walker could call the state capitol evergreen a Christmas tree because it always was displayed with a Jewish Menorah and Kwanzaa candles nearby and, at some point, a Seinfeldian Festivus pole. With the Christmas tree being one of many religious items in a holiday display, the state, arguably, was not endorsing any religion.
Gov. Evers is playing a different game, but one where the difference really doesn’t make a difference. His seasonal display only has a tree (festooned with science-themed ornaments). He must call it a holiday tree. That’s not political correctness. It is a legal requirement.
Fighting over this stuff is ridiculous. A Christmas tree sitting among a holiday display of world religions is not truly different from a holiday tree celebrated with a Christian carol or two. In neither case is the state endorsing Christianity. It is only observing the holiday season.
So, let’s have the 2,000 LED lights glowing on the this year’s balsam in the state capitol illuminate our holiday season. We could all use a little good will towards men (and women).
Editorial by Peter Weinschenk, The Record-Review