DURHAM — This may be the last year the town of Durham decorates a tree for the holidays on public land.
Durham’s Human Rights Commission has recommended ceasing the longtime tradition, with members saying it is associated with the Christian faith and Christmas celebrations, which may be exclusionary to some people who follow different faiths or are atheist.
The issue came up this year because Rabbi Berel Slavaticki at the UNH & Seacoast Chabad Jewish Center asked to place a 9-foot menorah in the same public park on Main Street where the tree is lit.
Slavaticki was asked to complete an application for a permit, which was denied by Town Administrator Todd Selig because of concerns about vandalism and public safety. It was agreed that Slavaticki could host a one-time ceremony at a different public park, which took place Sunday evening, the first night of Hanukkah.
On Monday, Selig said that he has received correspondence about decorating the town’s tree over the years, but he views it as a nonreligious symbol. A menorah is a religious symbol and subject to more scrutiny, Selig said.
“The menorah raised a broader concern for me. I have a concern about the display of religious symbols on public property. We should have it for all, or none at all,” Selig said.
The menorah request and whether to have a tree on the public square at public expense were discussed at the Human Rights Commission’s Nov. 26 meeting, and that led to the panel’s recommendation.
Selig said there isn’t room on the small plot of land known as Memorial Park for symbols from every religion, so community members will have to talk further about what should be done with the tree. The Parks and Recreation Department might come up with a “winter carnival” theme instead of the traditional lighting of the Christmas tree, he said.
“I think it’s a topic we really need to be thoughtful about,” Selig said.
Kitty Marple is the chairman of the Human Rights Commission and the town council. She said she could support a winter carnival theme.
“I am a person of no religious affiliation. These things don’t bother me, but I understand how they might bother someone else,” Marple said.
Marple said the commission has not gotten a lot of feedback from residents on the issue yet.
Sally Tobias is a member of the town council and said the annual tree lighting in Durham is not a religious ceremony and is a tradition that takes place throughout the country during the darkest time of the year.
“The whole idea behind the lights is to bring light into darkness. It’s a positive thing,” Tobias said.
Tobias said she is looking forward to having an in-depth conversation on the subject. Residents in Durham are not afraid to take on tough issues and it may be time to evaluate the meaning behind the tree, she said.
The Human Rights Commission in Durham is the group that pushed for the celebration of Indigenous Peoples’ Day on Columbus Day. The town council approved that idea in September 2017.