Courtesy of Jordan Ariel Rohde

In Dr. Suess’ classic story, “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” the grouchy green Grinch living on Mount Crumpit gets so weary of Christmas music from the nearby town of Whoville that he goes down and steals all the Christmas presents and decorations! This places the Grinch as one of the ultimate villains of childhood storybooks.  But what if the Grinch was actually justified in stealing Christmas? What if the Grinch wasn’t annoyed with Christmas carols?  What if he was dismayed with how Christian-centric Whoville had become?  What if the Grinch was fighting for first amendment rights?

Last month at UCR, a shiny, larger-than-life tribute to Christianity was placed in the entrance of the campus bookstore.  The Christmas tree was impossible to miss if walking by or glancing in the direction of the bookstore.  It was not accompanied by a single decoration representative of any other religion, but there were, however, several more Christmas trees and stars displayed throughout the rest of the campus store.  This seems a bit strange for a campus that boasts being one of the most diverse universities in the nation, and the most diverse of all the UC’s.

Most people don’t think twice about Christian decorations in public places.  What kind of world would it be if not for a Santa at every mall and blaring Christmas music from the start of October?  What’s the big deal anyways?  Well, when it comes to UCR, the first amendment is the big deal.  Although not legally a religious symbol, logic kicks you in the face and forces you to realize that a Christ-mas tree is a not secular symbol.  The name should say enough, but if you need more, look to the top of the tree for a vivid reminder of the Star of Bethlehem or the host of angels over the Nativity.  Moreover, when is the last time you saw an observant Muslim or Jew with a Christmas tree in their house?  You haven’t. That’s because a Christmas tree is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a secular symbol.

Having Christian decorations in public areas of campus isolates students that do not celebrate Christmas.  I personally observe Jewish holidays, and I felt completely left out of the way the university chose to celebrate winter.  I do not think, however, that a menorah should have been placed next to the Christmas tree or that a Star of David ornament should have been placed on its branches.  Once you start collecting various religious relics, there will undoubtedly always be someone left out.  If the university really believed in protecting minority students, then absolutely no religious decorations should have been displayed in any public areas of campus.  This country is already so drenched in Christianity that I would hope that at least at our supposedly secular, progressive university, constantly boasting about its diversity, I wouldn’t have had to feel like I’m not part of the norm.  Was it really worth it to the university to hurt countless numbers of Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Atheist, Buddhist and other non-Christian students for the sake of displaying a Christmas tree?

The United States Constitution guarantees the protection of minority religions and calls for the separation of church and state. The University of California, Riverside is run by the State of California and therefore is obliged by the Constitution to remain as secular as possible.  When the Vice Chancellor and the Head of Diversity Initiatives were contacted about removing the Christmas tree, the two gentlemen seemed to agree with me that a Christmas tree did not belong on university grounds. But despite their eagerness to agree with me and an agreement made that at least the stars would be taken down, absolutely nothing was done.  By having a Christmas tree welcoming in (or scaring away) students from the bookstore, our university chose to assert that Christianity and its holidays are valued above all other cultures and religions on campus (not to mention that our school breaks suspiciously always fall during Christian holidays).  If UCR wants to welcome minority students and provide a safe, warm environment on campus, then Christian idolatry has no right on public areas of campus.  Until then, the university has no right to brag that it is the most diverse of all the UC’s—it actually has to value, cherish, and protect minority students.  The least the university could do is not overtly celebrate Christianity on campus.

Jordan Ariel Rohde, Social Awareness Chair of Hillel