WASHINGTON — A tree is a tree is a tree, unless of course it's the 65-foot Engelmann spruce sitting in front of the US Capitol. Then it's a political football.
In case you haven't heard by now, the Capitol Christmas tree is back. Since the 1990s it had been the "holiday tree," but this year House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R) of Illinois declared the greenery again be called by its proper Christian name.
All things being equal, this qualifies as progress in this town. Calling things by their actual names is a rare occurrence here: Is that a "revenue enhancement" or tax increase?
But before we all run up to the top of Mount Christmas to sing carols, could we all please get a grip? Because the annual game of "whose holiday is it anyway," usually played out over this school's Christmas pageant or that city's nativity scene, has gotten a bit wacky this year.
Consider some headlines. An Ohio couple is selling bracelets asking people to "Just say Merry Christmas." Some recipients of a White House greeting card were offended because it excluded the C-word and spoke of the "holiday season." And a group called the Committee to Save Merry Christmas urges a boycott of stores that exclude Christmas from decorations and advertising.
What's happening to Christmas in 2005, anyway?
The root may lie in John Gibson's delightful holiday tome "The War on Christmas: How the liberal plot to ban the sacred Christian holiday is worse than you thought." On its website, Penguin, the publisher, says: "The annual debate will be hotter than ever in 2005, and this book will be perfect for everyone who's pro-Christmas."
Yes, the debate is hotter than ever. In fact, TV commentator Bill O'Reilly has made the issue something of a cause célèbre. Mr. O'Reilly, by the way, works for Fox News, which also employs ... John Gibson.
Yet the whole debate strikes Laurie Henrichsen, a spokeswoman for American Greetings, as "kind of funny." Judging by the way card sales break down, she says, Americans seem to have a handle on holiday greetings. For years boxed cards have basically been split evenly between Christmas greetings and Holiday greetings.
"Box cards are for groups of people," Ms. Henrichsen says, and some aren't Christian. Individual cards, where one presumably knows the recipient, are Christmas cards 85 percent of the time.
John Langan, a professor of Catholic social thought at Georgetown University in Washington, thinks the issue is a tempest in a "punch bowl," too. Telling people they should say "Merry Christmas" is "an effort to achieve a kind of social conformity," says Mr. Langan. "People get focused on the literal, and there's a widespread yearning inside churches and outside to have one rule or one book or one passage that simplifies everything."
In other words, it sounds a bit like political correctness.
And what does the retail validation of Christmas mean, exactly? Is Starbucks flogging Christmas this year because they wish to celebrate the birth of Jesus or sell more Egg Nog Lattes? Forty years ago, Charlie Brown railed against the commercialization of Christmas. Lucy wanted real estate. Sally wanted cash. When Charlie Brown couldn't take it anymore, Linus settled him down by quoting from the Bible about the birth of Christ, concluding: "And that's what Christmas is about Charlie Brown."
Linus is right, of course, in the most literal sense. But if that is truly what Christians want to celebrate, how does it jibe with pressuring retailers about what phrase they should use to help sell more copies of "Grand Theft Auto"? Ultimately the issue for Christians may be whether to embrace the religious side of Christmas or the secular traditions.
Which brings us back to the Capitol Christmas tree. Despite all the talk of a name change, staffers at the Capitol Architect's office can't find when or even if the official name was changed. In fact, the Congressional Record indicates the first mention of "Holiday tree" came in 1995, the year Republicans took control of Congress.
Considering all the outrage, though, one can only wonder why the name was not changed before 2005. Could it be that the media have made the topic "hotter than ever?" Could it be that Christmas, the time of peace on earth and goodwill toward man, is being harnessed as a wedge issue?
• Dante Chinni is a writer based in Washington.