Given the growth of the tree, its location on land owned by Arlington County and the heavily trafficked surrounding roads, neighbors hoping to light the tree expected significant legal and technical hurdles. However, Arlington County promptly authorized use of on-site power and approved a right-of-way permit allowing access for the lighting installation. It helped, certainly, that federal courts have ruled that signs of the Christmas season — such as lighted trees — have legitimate secular purposes, such as the celebration of a public holiday with traditional symbols. Lighted trees do not, therefore, violate the Establishment Clause directive prohibiting governments from favoring or endorsing a set of religious beliefs.
The technical obstacles also first appeared formidable. The tree was more than 50 feet high, and adequate lighting would require hundreds of lights together with a professional lighting crew. With the advent of energy-efficient LED lights, however, scores of light strings can now be connected to a single conventional electrical outlet. In return for an advertisement in the neighborhood newsletter, a local tree service company offered the Civic Association a deeply discounted price for lighting services.
The major difficulty to overcome was neither legal nor technical. It was cultural. When we approached residents for help to offset installation costs, some conditioned their donations on a public designation of the tree as a “Christmas” tree and not a “holiday” tree. For those of us who have lived for decades in the Washington area, that reaction was not wholly unexpected. In recent years, an invented “War On Christmas” had opened new fronts on the grounds of both the Capitol and the White House. In 2005, then-Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) changed the name of the Capitol tree from “Holiday tree” to “Christmas tree.” His credentials as crusader for Christian values were tarnished somewhat when, in 2016, a federal judge referred to him as a “serial child molester” at his sentencing for violation of federal finance laws. In the Obama years, Christian nationalists perpetrated an Internet hoax charging the president with plans to change the name of the White House Christmas tree to the “Holiday Tree.” The White House switchboard was flooded with calls from outraged citizens.
Even less surprising, perhaps, were complaints from other neighbors that the display was insufficiently inclusive or nondenominational and should be abandoned or, alternatively, enlarged to include seasonal symbols of other faiths. They also urged that the tree be called a “holiday tree,” a “winter tree” or a “seasonal tree” — not a Christmas tree. Their objections reflected the nation’s growing secular/religious divide. Researchers have documented a steep decline in religious observance in recent decades, including in Christianity. Arlington itself is heavily blue and proudly progressive. Arlingtonians are, on average, far less likely to call themselves religious than residents of Virginia generally or the nation as a whole.
The resolution of this dispute was, perhaps, more characteristic of the modern Christmas season than we had planned. Instead of haggling over nomenclature with the neighbors, we simply asked local merchants to pay for the costs of lighting the tree. Their only questions were “How much do you need?” and “Is a check okay?” A cynic might say that merchants must be, by nature, ecumenical. Certainly, they viewed the tree lighting as a modest neighborhood beautification project with a potential commercial benefit. But they also seemed to view it, as many of us did, as an expression of community spirit in keeping with the season. A symbol of peace and good will and brotherhood, not an endorsement of a set of religious beliefs. And, most important, not an opportunity to skirmish in the culture wars.