The Great Christmas Tree Controversy: The Case for Celebrating Diversity

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Do Christmas trees belong in the workplace? Our correspondent reads your comments -- hundreds of them! -- and votes to err on the side of democracy

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To tree or not to tree in the workplace?

That was the question in this first edition of The Atlantic's new collaborative feature, "Working it Out." And in the past few days, more than 1,000 of you weighed in, 80 percent opining, "Up with Trees!" My editor, Derek Thompson, posted the most trenchant and amusing of your comments in two little collections: here and here.

And now here's my two cents.

The utilitarian in me believes that greater good accrues from having a (ahem) Holiday Tree in the workplace. While a small percentage of a workplace's employees may take minor offense, most workers are Christian and aren't likely to mind. It's also clear, from my experience and the comments, that most non-Christians appreciate the tree for its aesthetics. It's cheery. It looks and smells nice. It's a secular reminder of peace and good will, so easily forgotten in a cutthroat work environment. It's no more Christian than Rudolph, egg nog, and credit cards.

Also leaning me to tree, I worry about accommodating to such minor offenses as the tree's presence. If we legitimate taking offense at such piffling discourtesies, how can we ever "just get along"? Perhaps it's time to pot down our offensiveness meter's amplitude. Indeed, many workplaces become dysfunctional because of outrage and retaliation against flyspeck and even imagined slights.

If I were in charge of a workplace, I'd have a holiday tree on which people could hang ornaments of any persuasion, religious or otherwise: from Madonna (either one) to hammer and sickle.

That said, we live in an era of inclusion, in which people who perceive themselves as excluded or treated unequally are too likely to erupt. Or sue.

For example, one such case reached all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in County of Allegheny v. ACLU, where a majority found that a nativity seen next to a Christmas tree on the steps of the Allegheny County Courthouse violated the Establishment Clause (the legality of the tree was not considered).

Paul Hughes, an Australian art critic once said, "America is a land of people looking for reasons to be offended." That's true even of a small percentage of The Atlantic readers, one of whom wrote: "Although Christmas is widely celebrated in the U.S., such celebrations in the workplace have the effect of endorsing the Christian employees while alienating non-Christians and non-theists." Even calling a Christmas tree a "holiday tree" offends some who, for example, view that as wink-wink code for Christmas tree.

So perhaps our bright line between church and state need be extended to the workplace. After all, the Christmas Tree is a religious symbol. The most widely accepted story of the tree's origin is that St. Boniface, who brought Christianity to Germany, furious at a group of pagans worshiping an oak tree, chopped it down and, behold, what grew in its place? A fir tree. Add the usual star (of Bethlehem) or angel (that told the shepherds of Jesus's birth) at the tree's top, and red and green ornaments (red symbolizing Jesus's blood, green his resurrection), and even if no one hangs a creche ornament, The Tree provides a cathedral-worth of Christian symbolism right there in the Western Widget Waxing Co., Inc.

In the end, this writer opts to celebrate diversity. What will bring good cheer in a Corpus Christi company could yield too many Grinches in a San Francisco nonprofit. So, if there's a doubt, why not poll your workplace's denizens? If most vote for a tree, light it and seduce Scrooges to lighten up. Merry, um, Holidays.

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Marty Nemko holds a Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley specializing in the evaluation of innovation. His columns have appeared in the Washington Post and San Francisco Chronicle, and his sixth book, just published, is How to Do Life: What They Didn't Teach You in School. More

Marty Nemko was called "The Bay Area's Best Career Coach" by the San Francisco Bay Guardian. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley and subsequently taught in its graduate school. His columns and features have appeared in U.S. News, the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, and San Francisco Chronicle. The archive of his hundreds of published articles, his blog, plus chapters from his book, Cool Careers for Dummies, plus mp3s of his KALW-FM (NPR-San Francisco) show are on www.martynemko.com.
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