West of Woolwich: Christmas on the Common

Posted Wednesday, December 21, 2011 in Features

West of Woolwich: Christmas on the Common

    … or … Can being politically correct be incorrect?

by Fred Kahrl

About 20 years ago, the phone company began installing remote switchboxes in area towns that routed local calls within a community without the calls needing to go all the way to Bath to be sorted out in the big terminal building.

The point of this was to reduce the need to run more cable to Bath (and to all other main switches) as more and more homes were built in rural and coastal communities. The result was that New England Telephone made arrangements with private property owners and municipalities to site these small tan-colored switch panels at strategic locations along their major cables.

I was a selectman at the time in a nearby community, and the Town was approached to see if we would allow “Ma Bell” to put a switchbox on the tiny town common in front of the Town Hall. The proposal included funds for some landscape planting to minimize the visual impact of the switch panel. As an added accommodation, I asked that a weatherproof outlet might be installed on the side of the panel for town use, and NE Telephone graciously provided one.

When we had the planting done, we made sure to include an evergreen tree with the more showy flowing shrubs. That Christmas, we bought a few strings of lights, and “dressed” the evergreen. NET provided the electricity at no charge.

This was the first expression of seasonal decoration by the town that I was aware of.

I have since moved to Woolwich, where the spruce in front of the municipal building is lighted at this time of the year, and sometimes other lights are hung from the eaves.

But back down the road, no lights were appearing on the tree planted during my tenure.

So I mentioned to a current selectman there that, Hey!, there was an outlet on the phone box and free power … and probably several strings of lights back in one of the Town storage closets.

The response was that perhaps not everyone (in town) wanted the Town to light the tree in the common for the Holidays.

Ouch!

You may recall that this was a period when a wave of “political correctness” was sweeping the country, especially in regard to “Getting Christ out of Christmas”. Crêche scenes on municipal property were under particularly critical attack, with Mary and Joseph and their plastic child were often banished to the lawns of Christian churches instead.

It got so heated that many Christians started saying only “Happy Holidays” and had to learn how to pronounce “Kwanza”. There was a run on Menorahs to be displayed in the windows of non-Jewish homes to deflect suspicion that the occupants might be seasonally narrow-minded.

This fervor has diminished over the past two decades, but there are still echoes. Some definite broadening of positive social sensitivity has occurred and endures, and I do not mind a bit that there are postage stamps with Muslim and African themes. But there are still dangerous pockets of suspicion and resentment waiting for a trigger to boil over again.

Yet, throughout all the furor and turmoil, those who were resenting and reacting mostly missed the point: Christmas was already an INCLUSIVE celebration with a message of “ … Peace on Earth and Good Will to (all) men.” In fact, the Christians hijacked pagan traditions that preceded them, and arbitrarily dated their celebration of Jesus’ birth to correspond with non-religious but deeply spiritual celebrations of the Winter Solstice, all to tap into pre-existing seasonal enthusiasms in Northern Europe and the British Isles.

Further, I would bet that every European emigrant family in the U.S. at the turn of the last century brought with them from the old country different traditions for celebrating, many of which are now blended in to the potpourri of ethnicity expressed in this festive season.

But Ben Stein said it far better in 2005 in a Christmas commentary on CBS. Here is an excerpt that touches on the inclusiveness of the American Christmas:

“I am a Jew, and every single one of my ancestors was Jewish. And it does not bother me even a little bit when people call those beautiful lit up, bejeweled trees, Christmas trees. I don't feel threatened. I don't feel discriminated against. That's what they are, Christmas trees. 

It doesn't bother me a bit when people say, 'Merry Christmas' to me. I don't think they are slighting me or getting ready to put me in a ghetto. In fact, I kind of like it. It shows that we are all brothers and sisters celebrating this happy time of year. It doesn't bother me at all that there is a manger scene on display at a key intersection near my beach house in Malibu. If people want a creche, it's just as fine with me as is the Menorah a few hundred yards away.”

Yes, if you go to a Christian Church at this time of year, you will witness a celebration of the birth of the Christ Child. But out on the streets, in the lanes, in the stores … wherever the grand mix of America is mingling, this is the time of year for celebrating brotherhood and sisterhood and our common hopes for what is good in mankind.

So, I am going to add two more strings of lights to the tree in the yard … after all, it just keeps growing!

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