On Friday, Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers chose to avoid a major controversy by replacing a Christmas tree in the Capitol rotunda with its more abstract cousin, the “Holiday tree.” 

Of course, the tree itself isn’t actually being replaced. It’s being renamed with the apparent hope that when people see it, they won’t be reminded that it’s the Christmas season.   

Apparently, Wisconsin politicians began referring to the Christmas tree as a “Holiday tree” in 1985 in order “to avoid perceptions they were endorsing a religion.” Although these concerns tend to be driven by the left side of the political spectrum, not all Democrats have necessarily bowed to the pressure. President Barack Obama famously refused to call it a holiday tree at the national Christmas tree lighting, but Evers chose to walk a nobler path.

Over the weekend, Republicans referred to the renaming as “politically correct garbage,” but atheists hailed it as a gesture of inclusivity. Even former Governor Scott Walker waded into the debate, pointing out that we don’t refer to the Menorah (the seven-pronged Jewish candle) as a “holiday candle.” So, who is right?

Let’s start with the Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF), a Madison-based atheist group known for trying to rid religion from public spaces.  Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the FFRP, applauded Evers as “attempting to be inclusive” and made it a point that the Christmas tree has pagan origins. The last part wasn’t just a throwaway line.  

In the past, Gaylor has argued that the winter solstice is the real reason we have gift exchanges and festivities in December and that we merely borrowed the tradition from our Northern Hemisphere ancestors, who were already observing it for a millennia.

But Gaylor’s remarks send a mixed message. If the Christmas tree has pagan origins, then why does she see it as a religious symbol? In 2011, she objected to a bill that attempted to re-identify the “holiday tree” as a Christmas tree.  She claimed that it would offend non-Christians and would amount to a government endorsement of religion. But U.S. Supreme Court rulings haven’t seen it that way, and this is probably the reason the FFRP hasn’t sued to keep the Christmas tree out of the Capitol rotunda.

According to multiple Supreme Court rulings, Christmas trees in public places do not violate the Establishment Clause and therefore do not endorse a particular religion. So, it stands to reason that if a Christmas tree doesn’t endorse a religion, its name wouldn’t either.

So, if Christmas trees aren’t religious symbols, why all the hubbub in Madison over renaming it?  

Well, despite the U.S. Supreme Court’s arbitration on religious issues of symbolic importance, a lot of people still see a Christmas tree as a religious symbol. Gaylor and the FFRF clearly see it that way, and so do Republicans and many Christians.  

Look at it this way. The Christmas tree is a symbol of the Christmas season.  And the Christmas season is itself a symbol of the story of Jesus’ birth. It’s essentially a symbol of a symbol. This probably explains why we see a lot more crosses in churches than we do Christmas trees, yet there is still enough of a proximity to Christianity that being near a Christmas tree causes Gaylor to sneeze.        

And this brings us back full circle to Governor Tony Evers. We know why the FFRP is opposed to calling it a Christmas tree, but why is Evers acting as an overachiever, going so far as to enlist the help of children to deck the tree with science-themed ornaments?  Is it supposed to be a metaphor for the age-old conflict between science and religion? It’s difficult to tell.

One thing is for certain, Evers’ decision isn’t polling very well. Fox6Now reports that only 12 percent of people prefer to call it a holiday tree. 

This has been fairly consistent over the years. In 2011, when Rhode Island tried to rebrand its Christmas tree, the Providence Journal reported that 87 percent of the people preferred calling it a Christmas tree.  

The bottom line is that rebranding it “a holiday tree” isn’t an act of inclusivity, it doesn’t avoid offending people, and it’s not in line with the values of the vast majority of Wisconsinites. 

It’s not even effective at neutralizing the religiosity of the symbol. People know what it is, children know what it is, and even the Supreme Court calls it a Christmas tree. Evers should focus on signing bills, not do the bidding of atheist groups.     

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