Wanted: cultural anthropologist to sort out Seattle's 'holiday trees'

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The Independent US

In Seattle, Christmas has already come, and gone, and come back again. One day, the seasonal trees that adorn the international terminal at Seattle-Tacoma airport were there, all twinkling with lights and brightly coloured decorations.

The next day they were gone, victims of a bizarre bureaucratic tussle involving a litigious Orthodox rabbi and a cast of overzealous, politically correct officials terrified of either offending or indulging anyone's religious sensibilities.

In the US as in Britain, this sort of nonsense is becoming an annual phenomenon that right-wing cable news pundits like to call "The War on Christmas".

The furore in Seattle began when a Jewish building consultant wondered if it would not be a good idea to erect a giant menorah next to the traditional airport Christmas trees to acknowledge the Jewish seasonal holiday, Hanukkah. When that idea was rejected, a local Hasidic rabbi, Elazar Bogomilsky, became enraged and threatened to sue the airport if he was not personally allowed to erect and light an 8ft menorah.

At that point, the airport authorities themselves went a little nuts. Late on Sunday night, they wheeled away the nine Christmas trees, or "holiday trees", as they call them to avoid religion-specific overtones. An airport spokeswoman, Terri-Ann Betancourt, who has rapidly acquired the reputation of Scrooge and Dr Seuss' Grinch rolled into one, breezily said her colleagues didn't "have time to play cultural anthropologist" and would prefer to have no seasonal decorations at all than risk having to indulge the whims of every last religious and cultural group in the Pacific north-west.

That provoked a furious backlash, and instant wall-to-wall coverage on national television. "Sheer lunacy," was what one liberal rabbi called it. Letters and e-mails sent to the airport ran 99-1 against the decision. Airport officials went to ground. Then Rabbi Bogomilsky, after a day of being hounded by reporters, meekly withdrew his threat to sue.

By Monday night, the trees were back, as if nothing had happened. Airport officials, frantically wiping egg off their collective faces, thanked Rabbi Bogomilsky for seeing the light and promised to rethink their seasonal decorations for next year. Cultural anthropologists across the US are no doubt busy honing their application letters already.

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