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When the Grinch Comes to Church

A Unitarian Universalist church loses its Christmas trees.

A Unitarian Universalist congregation in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, may be a new ally in the Christmas wars. Someone at a recent service turned in the church for apparently violating the fire code, which prohibits trees at all places of assembly.

The Rev. Roberta Finkelstein, minister of South Church Unitarian Universalist, was not amused.

"It's sad that someone who accepted our hospitality and attended a concert here would be the instrument that resulted in the loss of one of our traditions," she said.

Finkelstein confirmed that there has been talk about some kind of protest against the Fire Department's mandate. One of the suggestions that reportedly surfaced was that one of the trees be laid on its side outside the church with a sign on it that would read: "This congregation has celebrated the holiday season with evergreen trees as a central focus of its worship decoration since Rev. Charles Follen, Unitarian minister, erected the first Christmas tree in this country at his home in 1832 and (at) his Unitarian Church in Lexington, Mass., in 1839. We find this invasion into the religious practices contrary to our understanding of our national and state constitutions."

Finkelstein said the trees would be taken down, but did not rule out some kind of protest.

"I think it would be a reasonable thing to do to leave the trees on church grounds with an indication of our feelings on them," she said.

Ultimately, the church decided on a ceremony to "reflect on the symbolism of the trees, thank them for gracing our sanctuary for the brief time they were up, and say good-bye to them in ritual," Finkelstein wrote in a letter to her parishioners. "Then we will proceed, over the next few days, to welcome the Solstice and celebrate Christmas just as we had planned. Trees or no trees, the spirit of the season lives in our minds and hearts."

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