Removing the Christmas trees from two libraries was an embarrassing gaffe for UNC-Chapel Hill. Students have complained, media have ridiculed it as an extreme form of political correctness, and Chancellor Holden Thorp has gone to great lengths to prove that the university isn’t anti-Christmas. His staff even put together a 78-second video showing that Christmas is, indeed, celebrated on campus.
What were they thinking? Apparently, this: all hints of Western culture are out of place in a truly global library.
The decision not to display the trees this year was made by Sarah Michalak, the university's associate provost for university libraries. She told the Raleigh News & Observer that over the years, library employees had complained about the trees. In her view, the library is a place for offering information and descriptions “without judgment.” “Displaying Christian symbols is antithetical to that philosophy,” she said.
To support her decision, Michalak said that Duke and N.C. State libraries don’t display Christmas trees. (Western Carolina and East Carolina do, but she didn’t check with them.)
Perhaps this decision is not a big deal. It received publicity partly because this Christmas season has been a quiet one for the watchdogs who pounce on any sign of religiosity. But it reveals how ready some university officials are to reject anything that reflects the culture of Western civilization, even if it is as non-confrontational as a piece of greenery.
Certainly, if they were attacking religion, the university watchdogs chose a poor symbol. Men such as Oliver Cromwell and William Bradford decried Christmas trees as non-Christian in the 17th century. Christmas trees were popularly viewed as pagan in American churches until the mid-1850s when Pastor Henry Swan of Cleveland, Ohio, decorated the first Christmas tree in an American church.
Although the story goes that Christmas trees were invented by Martin Luther, the use of evergreens by Christians probably started as an effort to make Christmas more acceptable to other religions. The use of plants (especially evergreens) to celebrate the winter solstice can be found across a variety of ancient cultures such as the Egyptians, Romans, and Vikings.
The assistant provost’s decision was really part of the ongoing effort throughout our universities to undermine anything that smacks of Western culture. Theoretically, this means giving every culture the same bland attention (or neglect). But by saying that “we want to be open to all” Carolina’s library has excluded many. By saying, “we don’t want to exclude anyone,” Carolina has refused a time-honored emblem of community and inclusiveness. And by removing a non-religious traditional symbol associated with a religious holiday, the UNC-Chapel Hill library staff negatively targeted a particular faith rather than accepting it, even as one faith among many. It appears that what is being called tolerance and “open-mindedness” has bred its own closed-minded variation.
Michalak would certainly have an ally in Peter Alexander, Dean of the Southern Illinois School of Law, who for the past couple of years has attempted to obliterate Christmas as much as possible. Dean Alexander has made a point to send memos to staff and faculty to instruct them properly on how and how not to decorate for “the government holiday called Christmas.” In these memos, decorations have been limited to a tree loaded with candy canes that students are encouraged to eat for “quick energy” (it’s called the “Finals Tree.”) SIU faculty and staff have been allowed private decorations in their offices, but were “encouraged” to leave religious symbols at home.
Indeed, why not take the argument to its logical conclusion and ban the “federal holiday known as Christmas” due to its religious connotations? And ban the word “holiday,” too, because, after all, it means “holy day.” The logic of politically correct inclusion simply does not work, and the Carolina library case proves that the argument for diversity eventually turns back on itself. The logical end of Michalak’s (and others’) arguments is infinitely regressive exclusion.
Fortunately, this has been a calm season for this ridiculousness. Maybe, that’s because all the symbols of the Christmas season have already been discarded.
Perhaps if faculty and staff spent more time worrying about the quality of education that is being provided or the quality of reading material in their libraries, our colleges and universities would improve. Instead, students are forced again, as in Christmases past, to accept not an open-minded environment but a closed-minded environment disguised as being all-accepting. All the removal of the Christmas trees has done is to expose parts of academia for rejecting anything having a feel that is (real or imagined) Western or Christian.