Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Gather Round the Holiday..Err..Christmas Tree

I received an e-mail this morning from a former colleague, still on active duty in the Air Force. This individual is a part of Air Combat Command, the USAF's largest command, tasked with (as its name implies) training and supplying combatant air power for global operations. ACC supplies most of the aircraft (and many of the personnel) for Air Expeditionary Forces (AEFs), deployed to hotspots around the world.

With that kind of responsibility, you wouldn't think the ACC would be concerned about something as pedestrian as base Christmas trees. Guess again. My colleage's e-mail included an attachment, outlining "command guiidance" for installation Christmas trees, lighting ceremonies and holiday parties. The guidance was produced by the command chaplain (a full Colonel), at the direction of the ACC Commander, a four-star general. And trust me, this wasn't something the general and his command chaplain cooked up on their own; I'm sure that this is being driven from the highest levls of Air Force leadership, in reaction to the "religion controversy" that has engulfed the service in recent years.

I'm still debating as to whether I should publish the actual memo. For now, let me summarize. After scrutinizing existing AF guidelines, applicable public law, and military tradition, the Command Chaplain has determined that ACC bases can have a Christmas tree, and better yet, they can refer to it as a Christmas Tree, and not a Holiday Tree (whew). In his memo, the chaplain noted that President Bush referred to the national tree in Washington as a Christmas Tree, so if it's good enough for the commander-in-chief, it's good enough for ACC.

Unfortunately, the memo is also a paen to political correctness. The command guidance recommends that installation Christmas Trees be located in front of the Base Chapel and not at the Wing Headquarters or Command Headquarters, since that might constitute some sort of official endorsement of the holiday, or the symbol.

And it gets worse. During official lighting ceremonies or similar events, the guidance recommends that speakers (say, the Wing Commander or Senior Installation Chaplain) recognize "other" holidays that are celebrated during the same period, including Ramadan, Hannakuh and, of course, Kwanza. Mentioning "other" holidays is supposed to be a means of promoting diversity and inclusiveness, according to the guidance.

Give me a break. Diversity and inclusiveness are fine, and the Air Force has gone out of its way to promote those causes. But this is a case of political correctness running amok, and the service's continuing, timid reaction to those who would remove all vestiges of faith and religion from military life.

The last time I checked, Christmas was supposed to be a Christian holiday, although it's sometimes hard to tell with the secularization and commercialization that's occured over the past century. Non-Christians are certainly welcome to celebrate the event, but that doesn't change the fact that the holiday celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ. Somehow, that message is being lost amid the scramble to acknowledge other faiths and holidays, lest someone be offended. Did we leave someone out? Will the Wiccans and Druids demand equal time?

And by the way, when's the last time you heard of any Muslim congregation acknowledge Christmas (or Christ) as part of their Ramadan celebration? As a Christian, I never felt slighted that the local iman didn't mention my faith or its holidays as part of their Ramadan observance. But, under this command policy, any Ramadan, Jewish, or (fill in other religion here) celebration would apparently have to include some nod to the Christians. Personally, I'm still trying to figure out how they can ensue compliance with this directive. Will someone be taking notes at the next base Christmas Tree lighting (sorry Colonel, you forgot the Buddhists, you'll be hearing from the IG, happy holidays, sir) or Yom Kippur celebration?

I've also got a little beef about celebrating Kwanza. To say the least, the holiday (and it's founder) have a checkered past, and there is little in the celebration that mirrors African traditions. But, hey, the Air Force wants to be inclusive. Perhaps I should invent my own holiday, and demand that the base recognize my "faith" during the annual tree-lighting ceremony. Why should I be excluded?

Years ago, when I was a young airman, it was customary for an Air Force base to have an official Christmas tree, and no one really cared whether it was in front of a particular building. There was often a manger scene and a usually a menorah, too. At the lighting ceremony, the speakers typically mentioned the Christian and Jewish holidays, reflecting our nation's Judeo-Christian heritage. If members of other faiths were offended, they never said anything, or (more likely) they were busy following their own religious customs to worry about a base Christmas tree. Somehow, the Air Force managed to survive.

One final note: while it is okay for ACC bases to have an official Christmas Tree, any installation or unit party should be referred to as a "Holiday Party." Apparently, the command can tolerate Christmas (and its meaning), but only to a point.

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