Holly but not jolly?

      6 Comments on Holly but not jolly?

A kind of random observation about the Season…

To me, the categories of religious Christmas decoration and secular winter decoration are not exactly defined. However, I do have strong feelings about where they belong—I do not want religious decorations in what I consider Public Spaces (also not entirely well-defined, but clearly including the Town Hall, the Public Libraries and the Public Schools) and I really like religious decorations in publicly-available Private Spaces (people’s windows and lawns, churches, cars, etc). I mean, people can also have secular decorations if they so desire. I just like to see the religious ones.

Religious decorations clearly include nativity scenes, angels (with or without trumpets) and advent wreaths (with candles). Secular decorations clearly include lights, candles, snowflakes, icicles, snowmen and stars. Also mittens and scarves, I suppose. There are things that I could argue about: candy canes and evergreen trees, holly and ivy, wreaths without candles, a fireplace log. I am not going to be offended by someone including those in a Public Space, but if you were putting together a secular winter display of some kind, you might want to leave them out. Santa Clause is clearly a religious figure (if there is a Santa, it’s a Christmas display, not a winter display) but are reindeer? I mean, the reason reindeer are in the Christmas display and caribou are not is because of the St. Nick connection, unquestionably, but like the evergreen tree or holly sprigs, reindeer are in the Christmas story because they are winter things, not vice versa. Gift-wrapped packages are a Christmas thing, of course, as secular as they are.

The library that employs me has what we might call mildly Christmassy decorations: no crèche or angels, but trees and Santa. The dominating themes are snow and light, sure, but there are enough things that are not associated with the non-Christmassy parts of the season to make me very slightly uneasy. The director added some Chanukah decorations, which of course have dreidels and menorahs. And to me, the image of the chanukiah, or menorah, is absolutely as religious as a nativity scene or three kings on camels. There doesn’t seem to me to be any question about it. And frankly, it makes me uncomfortable.

Now, as a private institution, they are certainly entitled to decorate however they want. And I understand the idea that if we have a tree we should have a menorah to indicate plurality of experience. I think we have had Kwanzaa candle sorts of decorations in the past as well, and those never made me uneasy. Of course, candles are (to me) an absolutely essential part of winter decoration, just because the days are so damn’ short. That is different from the menorah. And I don’t know what else we might have as a Chanukah decoration—plates of doughnuts and latkes? Chocolate coins wrapped in gold foil?

So, mostly I just wanted to ask if any of y’all also think of a menorah as being more like a crèche than a reindeer, in terms of public and private decoration for the Season. Or if you have any other feelings about seasonal decorations you want to discuss. Like that terrifying gingerbread man with his feet dissolving slowly in the cocoa. I’m ready.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

6 thoughts on “Holly but not jolly?

  1. Nao

    Why are candy canes religious? IIRC, that thing about their origin being somehow symbolic of Christ turns out to be bogus…

    1. Vardibidian Post author

      Well, and the difference between a peppermint stick and a candy cane is that the candy cane is in the shape of a bishop’s crozier. Or, alternately, they are both in the shape of a shepherd’s crook, symbolizing the Christ who is both sheep and shepherd.

      As the actual origin or the lived experience of the candy cane… not so much religious, actually. However, it remains a food associated specifically with Christmas, so if I were attempting to make a ‘winter display’ that was avoiding religious symbolism, I’d leave out the candy croziers.


  2. Michael

    The candy cane is in the shape of a cane for the men who had been crucified with Jesus, whose legs were broken by the soldiers (John 19:32). It is sweet to represent our joy that the soldiers did not break the legs of Jesus. What I don’t understand is how it became associated with Christmas instead of Easter. And why is there no Christmas rabbit?

  3. Michael

    A menorah is a religious object. But more than that, the act of publicly displaying the lit menorah is a public statement of both specific religious observance and general adherence to the faith, which Jews are obligated to (by custom? by religious law?). (That’s not to say that many Jews don’t simply light the menorah because it’s fun and pretty to do so, and not because of its religious significance.)

    I’m discomfited by non-Jews displaying a menorah because of the cultural appropriation, because as with most cultural appropriation there’s no serious attempt to understand, explain, or care about the symbol being appropriated, and because it weakens the effect of Jews displaying the menorah.

    And while I also understand the benefit of supporting plurality and diversity by displaying holiday symbols from other religions than just the dominant one, it does have the unfortunate effect of also privileging the included religions, expanding the sense of the in group, and therefore further othering those who are still not included. For that reason, I don’t feel that adding holiday symbols is the best resolution to the question of what the government should do to show deference to the majority religion. I prefer a separation of church and state.

    And the movement this year to reclaim blue as a Christmas (Advent) color is just rude.

  4. Chaos

    Yeah, i definitely think the menorah is a religious symbol. Though, i dunno, a few years ago i went to a hockey game on one of the nights of Hanukkah, and they “lit” a giant menorah before the game (without blessings), which i thought was pretty cool. But a giant plastic menorah strapped to the roof of your car? That is right out. (And, yes, that is a thing i have ever seen.)

  5. k ferg

    I make (exterior) seasonal displays of live greenery for customers in my residential gardening business .
    I was unsure about including holly berries in a particular setting.
    This is a helpful and interesting discussion!


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