The Durham Town Council meeting on Monday received an icy reception to its plans to revamp the town’s “Annual Tree Lighting Ceremony” as a “Frost Fest” from many of its own residents, with some arguing that the council’s push for a seemingly more inclusive event could backfire by deemphasizing longtime Christmas-based traditions.
An editorial from Town Administrator Todd Selig, read by Council Chair Kitty Marple, set the stage for the night’s public comments segment, stating that Durham, like other communities, has to deal with difficult issues, but that a “critical and sustainable component of successfully addressing these issues” is a civil and peaceful discussion as opposed to enraging and provoking back-and-forths.
“Residents are, therefore, encouraged to be thoughtful in their feedback, to treat one another with respect, to try to listen, as well as to convey, and to be willing at times to accept some measure of compromise to meet the collective needs of the community,” the Selig’s editorial added.
As attendees began to make their case at the podium, most opposed the town’s revisions to the yearly event, with the most common argument being that the council’s interpretation of a more diverse occasion would result in a mere “tolerance” of some traditions compared to others, a claim made by citizens such as Jennifer Burns, who also serves as a high school counselor outside of Durham.
“I chose to move to Durham because I firmly believe in inclusivity and I firmly believe in everything Durham stands for,” Burns said, ”and that’s kind of why I told my husband, ‘this is where I want to live, this is where I want my hometown to be.’”
Burns said that her major concern stemmed from her belief that communities should go beyond “tolerating our differences” and celebrate them for why and how they are different instead, and that the event runs the risk of falling into a “tolerance trap” by muting traditional Christmas aspects of the event, such as the tree-lighting and the arrival of Santa Claus, by simply “tolerating” them over other holidays instead of celebrating all holidays equally.
“It’s not enough to just say, ‘I’m okay with who you are.’ You should be celebrating how that person is different,” she said. “…their difference is a good thing to bring in.”
Others, meanwhile, expressed more critical jabs at the new event, with resident John Kraus calling the event a “Frost Farce” and the committee’s handling of the event a “colossal failure of imagination,” as well as a “backdoor endorsement of a bad idea” that could “ignite a firestorm of unhappiness among Durham citizens at large.”
Kraus urged the council to put events like the “Frost Fest” through the Durham electorate to decide upon instead of through a “disengaged council,” concluding his argument by reading his last point while playing an 8-bit Christmas melody through his themed-tie.
“Where is the Durham business community in this ‘Frost Fiasco’” he asked. “Surely, they will hurt when citizens choose to go elsewhere for a real Christmas celebration.”
Bruce McKenzie, a five-year resident of Durham, served as the producer of the National Tree Lighting ceremony at the National Mall in Washington, overseeing the event for both the tail-end of the George W. Bush administration and the first term of Barack Obama’s presidency.
McKenzie told the council that, in his six years as producer, “the president of the United States flipped the light on for the tree” and there “was never any issue.” In Durham’s case, however, he echoed previous concerns of inclusivity through exclusivity of Christmas-specific elements.
“On the National Mall, there’s a menorah, there’s a Kwanzaa firepit, and there’s a Christmas tree, and everyone gets along and it’s all inclusive,” he said as he compared his experiences to Durham’s. “When I just heard mention of the menorah [earlier in the meeting], if a rabbi came to the town and said ‘gee, we’d like equal time, we want to have a menorah,’ I think the answer is, ‘great, let’s put a menorah in;’ you want a Kwanza pit, let’s put a Kwanzaa pit in, because we want to be all inclusive. Let’s not take away what already exists and works for the town.”
McKenzie also recalled how, in order to display Santa’s Workshop at the National Mall, the display had to be approved by Congress, the White House and the National Parks agency.
“In my mind, if it’s good enough to do a Christmas tree lighting, named the Christmas Tree Lighting, in Washington, D.C., it’s good enough to do the same thing in Durham, New Hampshire…” he said.
Despite the council’s desire for a “civil” discussion, resident William Hall brought charged critiques of the council to his time at the podium, as he not only critiqued the council’s dropping the wreaths from the street lamps, but also attacks on the council on the whole for other issues as well. Tensions reached a high point from the start, when Hall blasted the council for its handling of a collection of recently-installed signs on Bagdad Road, saying that it would be an easier process to remove the signs, based in concrete and bolts, than what Selig had originally described.
Following Hall was resident Kathy Brunet, who voiced one of the night’s few praises for the event and said she wanted to “thank you for the efforts you made to make Durham a more welcoming place” despite negative reception to the council’s changes to the event.
Brunet stressed that Durham’s push for inclusivity and diversity plays a role in people coming from around the nation and the world to visit, live and study in Durham despite public rebuffing to the event from both real life and online.
“Some of the comments [on social media] I’ve seen are that ‘oh my god, what’s going to happen to the children, the poor children of Durham? Their Christmas will be ruined,’” she said. “And I say…that the children of Durham are resilient, and we can handle this.” She added that the event could serve as a “teaching moment” for long-time residents and visitors alike about the importance of diversity in holiday celebrations.
Beyond the forum, however, some residents still feel wary about the prospect of Durham diminishing traditional elements.
“The idea of replacing decorations [like wreaths] for the holidays just because some folks think wreaths might be less inclusive, I think that’s a huge mistake,” resident Stephanie Graham said outside the council room. “From the people I know and my own family experience, hardship, and trying to cover our taxes to stay in Durham…the idea of spending thousands of dollars replacing good decorations with different decorations is not acceptable to me.” Graham pointed to rising college tuition costs at colleges like UNH as her example as to why the extra costs do not add up in her mind.
Hall told The New Hampshire following the public comments segment that the council’s connecting of the Christmas tree and similar elements to religions like Christianity and then downplaying those elements in favor of other celebrations goes against cases like Lynch v. Donnelly, where the Supreme Court ruled in 1984 that items like Christmas trees and Santa Claus had lost their religion-exclusive status.
“I feel that whatever the Supreme Court decided, we should be following, and if that says light a tree and wreaths, by all means, light a tree and [hang] wreaths, and who are these people to start pushing around and saying we can’t do that,” he said. “Now, if last year, they wanted to put up a nine-foot menorah and I said, ‘no, we aren’t doing that…anymore…we’ll put up a nine-foot cross…’ [then] we would start getting into issues that are difficult to deal with; so let’s just keep it basic and do what’s legal and quit trying to push the other 10,000 people in town around.”
McKenzie also expressed disappointment with the decision outside the meeting, adding that now comes the moment when they will try and cement their public reasoning for the event and try to convince a divided town as to why the new “Frost Fest” can and could work.
“I think if they really were courageous, they’d say, ‘you know what, maybe we moved a little too quickly on this, we’re going to go back 100 percent to what’s worked and been tradition for decades, and instead of taking something away, we’re going to do is keep what works and add to it rather than change it all together.’” he told The New Hampshire. “That’s my opinion.”