The Durham Human Rights Commission (HRC) discussed moving Durham’s holiday tree and tree lighting celebration off public land or having an entirely new holiday celebration for the next holiday season during its November 26 meeting.
Town Administrator Todd Selig said that the next steps for the commission are to take feedback from the meeting to Durham Parks and Recreation. The commission and Parks and Recreation will also consider alternative activities for future holiday celebrations. According to Selig, Parks and Recreation Director Rachel Gosowski suggested a winter carnival celebration instead of a tree lighting in 2019.
Selig said he hopes news circulating about the potential changes will encourage residents to offer new ideas. He added that this is a conversation in progress and the next year is a chance to “discuss it, evaluate options, and formulate solutions.” Selig has already received blowback for the talk of moving the tree in the form of at least 10 voicemails from people outside of Durham, according to Foster’s Daily Democrat. Selig told Foster’s “You might not know this, but apparently I’m a piece of [expletive],” on Tuesday.
Durham received a request prior to the November 26 meeting to place a Menorah alongside the holiday tree in Memorial Park, according to Selig. The request from Durham’s Rabbi Berel Slavaticki was to place a nine-foot tall Menorah in the same park as the tree for eight days. Selig said he denied the formal application request after speaking with Durham Police Chief David Kurz about potential risks of vandalism by “inebriated young people” regarding the Menorah.
A one-night Hanukkah celebration was allowed to take place as long as everything was removed from public property at the celebration’s conclusion. The Seacoast Chabad Jewish Center held the small celebration on its lawn on Main Street with a 10-foot Menorah.
Discussion of Rabbi Slavaticki’s request led to a discussion of the holiday tree which was the main focus of the Durham HRC’s meeting.
The commission was joined by former Durham resident of 30 years and applied social psychologist Kenneth Sole. Sole, 73, a current Lee resident, said he has been trying to reach someone in Durham’s administration to talk about the holiday tree for 42 years but has been ignored until now. The first day he drove up Mill Road and saw the holiday tree Sole felt he “had been slapped in the face.”
Sole said a sectarian symbol shouldn’t be paid for by a group of diverse tax payers, including himself, a secular Jew. He said his concern is for people similar to him who don’t celebrate Christian traditions. Sole said those Durham residents may feel unwelcome to the celebration in their own community and have to pay for it as well.
He said the issue is about equality of opportunity. A public celebration is given to Christmas but residents with other traditions do not benefit from that opportunity. He said “inclusion comes from a sense of equality,” and the equality of opportunity is not present.
Sole said his intent was not to remove the tradition, but change the location of the tree so it is on private property. All Durham residents would be welcome to the ceremony much like the recent Hanukkah celebration but it would be privately funded. Sole said he has no problem with the celebration taking place but added “I’ll be damned if I have to pay for it.” Durham business manager Gail Jablonski said placing the tree on private property would be the best approach because there is a chance a certain group may feel overlooked if they are not included in the celebration.
Sole ended his statement saying “all change comes with loss” and he respects that Durham residents would be losing a beloved tradition, but “it’s not everyone’s holiday season.”