Friday, December 14, 2012

The Power Of Symbols

 Amherst Town Common: A Menorah, Merry Maples, Town Hall, Oh My

When I was growing up in Amherst in the shadow of a smaller, quieter UMass, we townies had a minimum cut off for folks who transplanted here -- mostly because of the University -- as to how long it required before they could call themselves a  "local":  roughly 20-25 years. 

And of course the very first thing they needed to learn was not to pronounce the h in Amherst. 

So only you "locals" would remember off the top of your head the reason why the Am'erst Merry Maple is not called a Christmas Tree.  And why there's now a Menorah on the town common alongside those "holiday" trees.

In November, 1990 the Jones Library Board of Trustees voted 4-1 (Arthur Quinton being the lone opposition) to ban "religious displays" at the library, including a small five foot tall Christmas tree that traditionally adorned the Children's Room.

The reaction was instantaneous and largely negative:  A tidal wave of Letters to the Editor and columns in the Amherst Bulletin (back when it had influence), public meetings, and even vandalism to the Menorah.

Because the Jones Library is a building governed by a Board of Trustees, they were well within their rights to implement the ban, even though it was excoriated by critics town wide.

Amherst cannot prevent a private group, like the Chabad House, from erecting a religious symbol on the town common; but the town itself, because of the separation of church and state, cannot put up a manger scene, or Menorah.

Even in the Jewish community opinion was sharply divided:   Jewish Community of Amherst stated public space (the Jones Library or Town Common) should not display any religious symbols, and the more liberal Chabad House invoked the "Constitution allows religious freedom" argument for the Menorah, and also agreed the Christmas Tree in the library was fine. 

So the simple answer today is: a private group, Chabad House, continues to make the effort to display a Menorah on the town common; but no private group has come forward to display a Christmas Tree.  Since the Merry Maple display is private, erected by the Chamber of Commerce and most recently assisted by the Business Improvement District, they can call it anything they want, including, gasp, a Christmas tree.

The original sentiment behind banning the blatantly Christian symbol so revered this time of year was of course not to offend ... anyone.

Although in so doing, the Jones Library Trustees managed to offend almost everyone


Tom McBride said...

After the many letters that I understand were sent to the Bulletin when the Jones voiced its opinion (I can't read these news articles), I wonder how many people now are offended now.

Anonymous said...

This transplanted Townie remembers when there was a manger on the Town Common ...

Anonymous said...

The Merry Maple is a Christmas tree because, well, it's a Maple. Ever been to someone's house and they had a decorated Maple in their living room?