Durham, New Hampshire, is a town known for its tradition. During the days of the colonies, Durham, which was settled in 1635, was home to some of the fiercest, most independent colonists known to the New World. But now the people of Durham have gone soft, axing the longstanding tradition of the town tree lighting ceremony because the annual holiday tradition “offended” some of the residents.
Because the tree lighting ceremony was alive with religious references, some nonreligious people wanted it to change. That’s why Durham is working on this year, trying to update the tradition to mirror the values of Americans in the 21st century.
In the past, the traditional was called the Annual Tree Lighting Ceremony. But now it has been changed to the annual Frost Fest, which no longer includes a formal tree-lighting ceremony despite many residents demanding it stays. However, Santa Claus will make an appearance at Frost Fest, but he will no longer be celebrated in the way he was in the past – arriving by a firetruck to cheers all around.
This year residents will also have to go without the Christmas wreaths that traditional adorned quaint Main Street.
Last holiday season, Durham faced a lot of backlash and controversy over their overly religious celebration. Town Councilor Sally Tobias spoke about the issue and how some residents reported the religious nature of the tradition to the proper authorities, forcing the hand of the New Hampshire town.
“There was another private citizen that came forward and said that he had always had a problem with the Christmas tree, as he called it,” Tobias said.
Because this complaint resonated with a lot more people than Tobias expected, Durham held a public meeting and formed a working committee to update the Annual Tree Lighting Ceremony and make it friendlier to people of all faiths and nonfaiths.
“There were a couple of people that did express some concerns about how they felt being included,” Tobias said.
While some people are happy that the tree lighting ceremony has been killed, others, including Rabbi Berel Slavaticki of the University of New Hampshire and Seacoast Chabad Jewish Center, believe that Durham is moving their holiday celebration in the wrong direction.
“To stop cultures and faiths from practicing publicly would be very un-American. I think that’s the beauty of our country,” Slavaticki said.
Instead of shutting down events because of their religious qualities, Slavaticki suggested including opportunities for other faiths to celebrate the holidays in their unique ways. That’s why he asked the town to display a Menorah during the eight days of Hanukkah last year – but the town coldly denied his request.
“The Supreme Court ruled in 1989 that the Menorah and the Christmas tree both represent the holiday winter season,” Slavaticki said. It is possible that he might have a case against Durham and be able to bring the town to court.
Tobias is not happy about the Durham resident forcing her hand.
“I will state that trees and Santas and wreaths are not Christian,” Tobias said, “And we would like to hear back from the community. We’d like to hear what they think about it, how they would like to see it evolve a little differently, and how we can make it better.”