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NEAL CONAN, host:

The winter holiday season brings with it a perennial discussion about where and when it's appropriate to talk about different religious beliefs. The discussion continues today with the proposed renaming of the Holiday Tree at the nation's Capitol. The speaker of the House, Dennis Hastert, is calling for the 80-foot white pine to be renamed the Capitol Christmas Tree.

Are you a town manager responsible for holiday decorations? What term do you use to describe them, or have you said `bah, humbug' and stopped decorating altogether? And of course these situations come up for all of us one way or another. Give us a call with your stories: (800) 989-8255. That's (800) 989-TALK. The e-mail address is totn@npr.org.

Washington Post Metro reporter Petula Dvorak is covering the Capitol Holiday Tree story, and she joins us now from the studios of The Washington Post here in town.

Nice to have you on the program.

Ms. PETULA DVORAK (The Washington Post): Thank you for having me.

CONAN: Now presumably at one point what used to be the Christmas tree was renamed the Holiday Tree.

Ms. DVORAK: It was. I think it was in the early '90s. There wasn't an official act or declaration, but at the time, the senior landscaper for the architect of the Capitol, Paul Pincus, was--he was the landscaper at the time, and whenever he was asked what tree he liked best, he always said, `I'm Jewish and this is a Holiday Tree.' So I think he kind of took it upon himself to name it the Holiday Tree. And that name stuck until this year, obviously.

CONAN: And why is there a controversy?

Ms. DVORAK: There's a controversy because I think the speaker is asserting himself a little bit in calling it a religious holiday by calling it a Christmas tree. He said through his spokesman to me--he said that for years he'd been lighting the tree and didn't realize that it was officially called the Holiday Tree. In fact, I looked at his speeches and every year he called it a Christmas tree and just decided to make it official this year.

CONAN: And does he have the authority to rename it all on his own?

Ms. DVORAK: He does. As speaker of the House, he's the boss for the facilities managers, which are really the architect of the Capitol. It's a very fancy way of calling this office the facilities manager and preservation officers of that Capitol complex. And the speaker kind of has the right to tell them what to do.

CONAN: Now this has been--in other circumstances, and I know that this came up, for example, in the city of Denver a year ago where--used to have a big sign on City Hall that said `Merry Christmas' and they decided to be more inclusive and have a sign that said `Happy holidays.' And of course that irritated some people and, well, eventually became a big controversy and they had to switch policies.

Ms. DVORAK: Right. And this is, I guess--I don't know if you could call it a response--a backlash to the inclusiveness? I--that would probably depend on your political persuasion, how you'd call the speaker's actions today. His office says they've gotten lots and lots of positive comments, lots of people thanking them. I haven't really heard a lot of reverberations on people feeling that the new name, as it will be this year, is adverse.

CONAN: Well, is there any kind of a lobby for the Holiday Tree? I mean, do they have a side pressing their case?

Ms. DVORAK: That's a good question. I haven't heard their side yet, if there is one.

CONAN: What's the response been thus far to this? I mean, as you say, some people seem to be rather pleased by what the speaker's been doing.

Ms. DVORAK: The speaker's office said that they've been deluged by e-mails and phone calls from people thanking them for doing that.

CONAN: This is something that has come up in the past. Well, here's an e-mail we have from Rushama Burrell(ph). `I'm a Jewish woman with Baptist ancestry and relatives. I find it perplexing and amusing that some Protestant Christians are insisting that celebration of Christmas be required nationwide in schools, even at Target and Wal-Mart; now, I hear, on the White House lawn.' Well, we're talking about the Capitol here. `Schools have been threatened with lawsuits and stores with boycotts if they omit Christmas carols. Anybody who studied the history of our country knows that the ancestors of the modern-day Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians and others outlawed the celebration of Christmas even when legal mobs sometimes broke in and destroyed Christmas decorations. In many states, it wasn't until the mid-19th century that Christmas celebrations were accepted. The one thing these people seem to have in common with their predecessors is a desire to impose their opinions and practices about Christmas on everyone else.'

Well, it could be looked on the other way, that people seemingly have a lot of traditional Christmas celebrations and worry that they're being renamed holiday celebrations.

Anyway, we're talking about this controversy. If you'd like to join us, (800) 989-8255. Our e-mail address, totn@npr.org. And this is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's get a caller on the line. This is Jennifer. Jennifer calling us from Norman, Oklahoma.

JENNIFER (Caller): Hi. Hi. Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

JENNIFER: I just want to say that, you know, I'm not Christian and I really don't understand why people feel the need to rename Christmas trees Holiday Trees, to refrain from saying `Merry Christmas.' You know, it doesn't bother me, even though I'm not Christian. I recognize the fact that the majority of people in this country are Christians and that they have their holiday. And I think people should be able to have their holidays. And, you know, if they want to include other holidays, for example, also have a Hanukkah menorah next to it or whatever else it is; that's not a problem for me and it doesn't threaten me as a non-Christian. And I think renaming the Holiday Tree back to the Christmas tree is perfectly fine. And I don't understand why it should be a big controversy.

CONAN: I'm not sure how big a contro--but it's popped up in other parts of the country as well, and I think part of it, Jennifer, is people's concern about government--in this case, the speaker of the House of Representatives, seeming to endorse religion.

JENNIFER: Is Christmas really a religious holiday? I mean, I understand that it is a religious holiday, but to simply want to wish people a merry Christmas, for example, or to display a Christmas tree which is not in itself an inherently religious symbol doesn't promote religion in any way. You know, if that's the case, what about, you know, the White House decorating for Christmas every year? You know, should the White House stop putting up Christmas decorations because this is also technically part of the government? It doesn't bother me and I don't see it as state promotion of religion at all.

CONAN: OK, Jennifer, thanks very much for the call.

JENNIFER: Thank you.

CONAN: Let's try another caller. This is Bobbie(ph)--Is that right?--in Boise.

BOBBIE (Caller): It is.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

BOBBIE: I just recently read an article in our local paper about the history of Christmas trees and how they talked about that actually the Christian religion took the tradition from--or someone in the Christian religion took the tradition from other ancient religious traditions, like the Roman traditions and the pagan traditions, and that they adopted it and made it their own, pretty much. So I'm one who's calling in advocacy of calling it a Holiday Tree, because this time of year was a sacred time of year for a lot of different religions, and Christian religion notoriously has adopted traditions from other religions as time went on.

CONAN: Yes, indeed. The date, December 25th, some people believe, is the first date without modern astronomical equipment you can detect days getting longer. So in some sense, a celebration of the solstice and the rebirth, the change of the seasons as well, and a lot of traditions caught up in that one holiday.

BOBBIE: Right.

CONAN: Thanks for the call, Bobbie.

BOBBIE: You bet. Thank you.

CONAN: OK.

And before we let you go, Petula Dvorak, it is important to point out that this is not the only controversy involving holiday or Christmas trees here in Washington, DC. There's kind of a rivalry between the tree there on Capitol Hill, the one we've been talking about, and the other one that gets set up on the White House lawn.

Ms. DVORAK: There is, there is indeed. And they say all politics are local, but in Washington all trees are political. There's a tree that the White House--or the National Tree has been there for 82 years. And in the '60s, the Capitol began their tree, which was the Holiday Tree, the Christmas tree. And the White House tree is lit by GE. It's usually accompanied by actresses and actors and singers and televised events. It's a little more pomp and circumstance. The Capitol tree comes from a state which donates it every year, and this is decorated by ornaments that schoolchildren make. And they call it the people's tree. Usually, there's a little bit of a rivalry, but I can say that this year there is--thanks to the politics at hand, there's a detente and neither side is calling their tree the prettier one.

CONAN: Oh, well, And everybody knows the best one's at Rockefeller Center anyway.

Ms. DVORAK: Oh, that's the worst thing you could say in Washington.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Petula Dvorak, thank you very much for being with us today.

Ms. DVORAK: Thank you for having me.

CONAN: Petula Dvorak of the Metro section of The Washington Post

Finally, an e-mail we got from Wendy in Michigan. `We have a tree set up in our home, but it's not a Christmas tree because we are not Christian. We are pagans. Our tree is a solstice tree. It does get very annoying being wished merry Christmas in December, and I often feel like snapping and wishing people happy New Year.'

Well, I guess that's another solution as well. Anyway, people responding to the controversy, the smallish controversy, over Christmas and/or holiday trees here in Washington, DC.

I'm Neal Conan. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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