Continuing the Christmas Tree Debate

Disclaimer: Greenwashing has hijacked the debate! The great Christmas tree debate is now a discussion about the tree, and not so much about the tree itself! See here:

I love it- this is my yearly theme. The Christmas tree is a center of contention here in the Northwest, simply because of the presence of both practicing Pagans (legit ones, not the counterculture ones- but they’re here too) and devout, orthodox Catholics. The debate is typically around the Christmas tree as a symbol: some Catholics freaking out that its icon worship and that the symbol cannot be freed of its Pagan shackles, some Pagans claiming that it legitimates a belief that they have partial ownership over Christian holidays because their imagery is used, capitalists arguing that it is a neutral commercial symbol that stands for the holidays in general, and more Christians arguing that this is a way for capitalism to take the Christ out of Christmas. It’s a pretty round about mess of public symbols, private meanings, and sacred intentions (because as anthropologist Alfred Gell has argued, capitalism has always been about ancestor worship). There is an interesting discussion about the tree as a religious symbol vs. capitalist symbol in public schools here:, but even the secularist ‘it is a sign of American values, not Christianity’ has a lot of interesting sacral undertones!

Last year, I talked about the Christmas tree as a symbol itself (see here). This year, I’d like to discuss why there will never be a consensus in the whole debate, and in fact, that an intellectual discussion/debate is actually quite impossible.

The whole debate, I think, can be framed in terms of what Max Weber described as three types of rationality: bureaucracy, market, and religious. As a fan of Durkheim (after all, he was arguably the first cultural semiotician), I think that we can put this into a Durkheimian notion of culture; the classification of these rationalities, and indeed of any type of classification, underwrites all cultural production activities. The fact that cultural logic can even create these categories suggests that the logic was always already embedded in the social organization, and that these categories are just manifest versions of the un-named logic that pre-ceded them. As such, these three rationalities—as cultural categories—might be better thought of as positionalities that are as much about institutions as they are epistemology. They become stand-ins for the logic that rises out of hierarchical (the bureaucratic), individualist (market), and enclave (religious) organizations of society (aka, institutions).

The bureaucratic/hierarchical organization is bound up in notions of who occupies the position to say what, as determined by various economies (symbolic, material, cultural, etc). In the school debate, we can think about the whole xmas tree debate as one that actually has to do with xmas trees, and more to do about who has the ability to set rules, and whether or not their following is a responsibility or an option. Put plainly, the above debate over xmas trees in schools is as much about who has the power to make the rules as it is about the rule itself. Should a new superintendent arrive, he may overthrow the ruling as a symbolic gesture of ‘killing’ the authority of his predecessor. This, however, is the least interesting of the three.

The second category is the individualist organization, which stands as the beacon of the market economy. The individualist is focused on the material returns gained by labor- be it the labor of ‘producing’ the xmas tree, or the labor of making it meaningful. For the individualist and free-marketeer, their labor overwrites anything inherent in the object. They, to further exploit Durkheim, suggest that there is nothing immanent about the Christmas tree- it is what I say it is, and only because of such and not because of some immutable essence.

The final category is the enclave, i.e. religious, collective. The organization of the enclave is based on a overarching, unchanging ideology. It is universalism at its best: what I believe is what is true for all, and what is true is what ideology the object originally circulated in. These are the people who believe that iconology is pure evil, both for the Christian and the capitalist. The xmas tree is such an icon because of the semiotic ideology inherent in Christianity- semiotic ideology being a reference to Michael Silverstein, for whom semiotic ideology underwrites what one takes as a sign, and how they take it to be so. SOME Christians understand xmas trees as icons because it is the cultural category that the object xmas tree most easily fits into.

Now, to return to the debate, this is more than simply a dispute that is grounded in the organization of society: it is a debate about moral agendas that exceeds the simple boundaries of the xmas tree. Remember, as I said for Durkheim, that the naming of the three categories is an articulation of a pre-existing structure of society; the debate is really an articulation about the incompatibility of the moral agendas inherent in each of the cultural logics attached to a type of organization.

So, to fully come back to the great xmas tree debate, the debate between Pagans, Christians, and capitalists is a dispute between three parties who will never agree. No new facts will ever inspire an admission of ignorance or otherwise, because the logic of the cultural means of organization is a rationality- it is ideologically encoded into the fabric of a very person’s being. The individualist will cheerily assert that it will be well with hard work, and the holy man will warn of terrible danger to be unleashed if we continue to worship false idols. Whatever information is tendered, their difference are irreconcilable. Each party is speaking from a different cultural platform. The ideas exchanged are not neutral things, nor objective measures of society. The positions about what the xmas tree is stands for a particular system of values in interlocking institutions. A persons position in the debate is more than just a perspective and position on how they feel about xmas trees. It also expresses their loyalties and moral principles, and their responsibilities to other members of society as defined by the organizational structure they exist in. The Christians will hate the xmas tree, and attempt to convert people away from Paganism not because of sense of responsibility to their own faith (much of the ignorance passed around shows this), but because of a responsibility they have to the Church (and, further, a need to recruit more people to substantiate their worldview as THE worldview).

The message to take away here is that we should never consider conflict of opinions without looking for the underlying conflict between institutional forms (Lawrence Grossberg talks about this in his recent book Cultural Studies in the Future Sense). And that’s what I’ve tried to do- understand the great Christmas tree debate in terms of what it truly represents: not a debate over a symbol, but a debate about public meanings and the ethics of meaning making.

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