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Standing Room Only For Debate Over Annual Tree Lighting in Mount Sinai

Residents came out to voice their opinions on a hot topic in communities all over America.

A national debate as well over 100 residents packed into the community center at Heritage Park to voice their concerns about the naming of an annual “Holiday tree” lighting.

Or is it “Christmas tree” lighting?

“Christmas became a dirty word,” said Candace Donin at the meeting.

Donin has been a leader in the community effort to establish the traditional event as a “Christmas Tree Lighting.” She said that years ago, people saw the word “Christmas” everywhere during the season and she is dismayed that it is disappearing.

What started as a comment by Donin on Facebook questioning the into a standing room only debate like others that are occurring in communities all over America.

Lori Baldassare, vice president of the Mount Sinai Heritage Trust, explained that she helped launch the annual tradition back in 1996 when no such tree lighting event existed in Mount Sinai. The first tree lighting took place at the Mount Sinai Post Office on Route 25A then moved to the Mount Sinai Fire Department.

When Heritage Park was designed, an area was specifically carved out with the tree lighting event in mind, according to Baldassare.

Although some speakers at the public meeting asked why the name of the “Christmas tree lighting” was changed to “Holiday tree lighting,” Baldassare insisted that it had not. She explained that from the first event it was called the “Annual Holiday Tree Lighting” and this was the first time anyone ever questioned the name of the event. She said the actual tree was never called a "Holiday" tree.

“It was always called a Christmas tree,” she said. “I don’t remember why it was originally called ‘Annual Holiday Tree Lighting.’”

The debate in Mount Sinai already garnered national attention. Baldassare said she was contacted by a Colorado radio station to talk about the issue but she declined saying she was more concerned with what was happening locally.

“This issue is national and we’re dealing with it in Mount Sinai,” she said.

Heritage Trust board member John Leonard also spoke to the crowd, saying that he didn’t think the wishes of the board and the community at large were that different.

“If anyone is expecting a big debate, well, we’re more in agreement on this,” he said, calling the results of an online survey sent out by the Heritage Trust and the feeling in the room that night “obvious.”

Regardless, the board did get a debate from the community.

Donin, whose husband is Jewish, gave a prepared statement calling the word holiday “bland” and equating it to the saying “long dead president” when meaning specifically Abraham Lincoln. She said in her house the family lights a Hanukkah menorah and puts up a Christmas tree. She said that the debate was in “no way meant to downplay Hanukkah.”

“In Brookhaven, Suffolk County and New York City it’s called a Christmas tree,” said a community member since 1974 who identified himself as Deacon Joe. He called the issue a “time bomb.”

Christians weren’t the only ones in support of changing the name of the event to a Christmas tree lighting. Jewish members of the community came out to support the cause on Tuesday.

Robin Merlo, a Jewish woman from Mount Sinai who said her husband was Catholic also defended the term “Christmas tree.” She thanked the board for starting the Menorah lighting at Heritage Park and said that the issue was important because “nowadays there are a lot of mixed marriages.”

“It’s a Christmas tree,” she said in reciting a passage that quoted the actor Ben Stein. “That is a fact.”

A man who described himself as Jewish said that calling it a holiday tree was “taking political correctness too far,” eliciting applause from the audience.

“Are you going to change it?” asked one member of the audience.

Leonard took the microphone to say that in order to change the name of the event, the board needed to see the results of an online survey emailed to residents but he assured the audience that it was going that way so far.

“To change it to a Christmas tree, it looks like it’s happening,” he said. “If the survey goes the way it looks like it’s going, we’ll change it."  The survey gives the board “cover to do what the community wants” in case anyone comes forward to challenge the decision.

“It’s so we can say we’re following the will of the community,” he added.

According to Leonard, 81 percent of the 155 people who took the survey as of Tuesday night were in favor of changing the name to “Christmas Tree Lighting.”

The poll closes on Sunday, the day of the tree lighting, and final results will be available on the website that day. Leonard said that the results will be announced on Sunday at 5 p.m. when the tree lighting ceremony is set to take place at Heritage Park.

Any members of the Mount Sinai community wanting more information about how to receive a survey can contact the Heritage Trust through its website.

Baldassare said the debate was a positive for everyone. She called the public gathering a “grand tradition.”

According to Baldassare, the debate got the most people out in the community to a public meeting in Mount Sinai in about 15 years and also provided an opportunity for residents to see the work the Heritage Trust has put into the park and facilities.

Many of the community members who spoke started off by thanking the four-member board of volunteers for their hard work.

Baldassare also said that 64 new people joined the Heritage Trust since the survey went up and stressed the importance of people getting involved and supporting the non-profit organization.

“I love that as a community we can come out for this,” she said.

Get Off My Lawn November 30, 2011 at 05:07 PM
While the country implodes people are worrying about a tree?? Controversy over whether or not Americans are exempt from a provision of the National Defense Authorization Act bill, set to be voted on this week by the Senate, which defines the the entirety of the United States as a battleground in the war on terror, has been addressed by Republican Congressman Justin Amash, who warns that the bill does apply to U.S. citizens. Under the ‘worldwide indefinite detention without charge or trial’ provision of S.1867, the National Defense Authorization Act bill, which is set to be up for a vote on the Senate floor this week, the legislation will “basically say in law for the first time that the homeland is part of the battlefield,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who supports the bill. That provoked concerns that American citizens could be targeted as terrorists and indefinitely detained without trial or charge. Stop the Traitors who took an oath to protect Freedom and the Constitution, not destroy it.
Danya November 30, 2011 at 05:49 PM
Skip, It is not just about a tree. Its about the secularization of our liberties! The same way that the National Defense Authorization Act infringes on our constitutional rights, freedoms, and liberties. Two seperate battles, but a common cause!
Get Off My Lawn November 30, 2011 at 07:25 PM
Amen !
Seth S November 30, 2011 at 09:53 PM
Why not just call it a Winter Solstice tree since the Christmas Tree is just a rip off of a pagan winter solstice tradition?
Danya December 01, 2011 at 01:49 AM
Thats cute Seth! Even though The Christmas tree has non christian origins. The fact of the matter remains that the majority of people celebrate it as a CHRISTmas tree not some type of winter solstice festival. As demonstrated in the meeting last night
Harry Seeward December 01, 2011 at 03:47 AM
They should change the name of their stinking town, too-- it's a biblical reference! How dare they offend my atheistic, cynical sensibilities!
Candace Gonzalez-Donin December 01, 2011 at 04:22 PM
Danya, you are the voice of reason! You really get what this was all about and for that I applaud you!! Thank you! Candace Donin Mount Sinai (sorry if that offends your atheistic, cynical sensibilities Harry)
Danya December 01, 2011 at 06:39 PM
Thanks Candace, Once again, your speech was great at the meeting Who would have known that you and our husband have so much in common! Danielle
Seth S December 01, 2011 at 06:45 PM
I think what people seem to be missing in this debate is the spirit and meaning of Christmas, Hanukkah and the other religious and non-religious celebrations that occur during this time. It is supposed to be about community and family, gratitude and generosity. If neighbors are at each other’s throats over symbols, than the meaning of these holidays have truly been lost to a proxy war over unrelated political and social issues.
R. Olsen December 01, 2011 at 07:09 PM
Time marches on. Many think the Christmas tree had its origins in pagan rituals. Historians note how the tradition spread from the Baltic region and the Northern Rhineland. Roman Catholics regarded it as a Protestant tradition for a long time and wouldn't countenance it. Gradually it spread throughout much of Europe through inter-marriage in royal houses (the original one-percenters). Whatever the origins of decorating a tree at this time of year, the tradition evolved. It most certainly wasn't always called a Christmas Tree. I'd bet that most people, whether they call themselves Christian or not, think that holiday lights are beautiful; they can make an otherwise dreary time of year a little more pleasant, a little more festive. I will put up a lighted tree this year. I find the lights inpirational without being religious about it. I call them lights. I call it a tree. When Candace says it's "NOT a Christian vs THEM situation" I think she is being disingenuous. It seems like she doesn't want the tradition to evolve to include others who also enjoy a lighted tree at this time of year. You can call it a christmas tree if you want. I think it's wrong for you to make others do that. I don't see anyone trying to force you to call it a tannenbaum.
Danya December 02, 2011 at 06:28 PM
Seth, The meeting was about bringing ''meaning" back to the different holidays. It also was not about symbols and very much about political and social issues of Today. R. Olsen You are aware of the fact that Candace's family has more than one religion beside being Christian and celebrates more than one religious holiday.
Seth S December 02, 2011 at 08:54 PM
Well at least you are honest, that this is really about politics - more of the them vs. us garbage that is ruining this nation - and not about the actual tree. If it was truly about the meaning of Christmas wouldn't your time be better served feeding the hungry and clothing the poor?
Danya December 02, 2011 at 10:31 PM
This is not about "Us vs Them". This is about "Us" who have stepped back over the years so we can be all inclusive with the community. When that wasn't good enough organizations like the ACLU have taken us to court to prevent us from celebrating our Holiday. While others have full access to celebrate their holidays such as Hanukkah or Kwanzaa. All we are asking is to have the same freedoms celebrate ours. We are not attacking anyone, or taking anything away. Just want to celebrate our holiday in public the same way other groups do. Imagine the outrage if the ACLU attacked Hanukkah or Kwanzaa! Why is it any different for Christmas, are we not created equal and have the same rights. I completely agree that I should be spending more time feeding the hungry rather than focusing on this issue.Especially since it is our duty as Christians. Even in a town as well to do as ours there are many people who need help. But I have news for you. Are you aware that the Lighthouse mission feeds almost 3,000 people a week on Long Island. Many of those are right here in Port Jefferson. Yet they get kicked out of one area of Port Jefferson to the next because people do not want the sight of them feeding the poor. They rather just push the problem under the rug or mock the hardworking Christians at the mission Bottom line Seth....Its a lot more involved than just fighting for the word Christmas. Its about taking a stand and bringing our freedoms back that have eroded in this country.
Alyssa December 06, 2011 at 10:31 PM
Who really cares whether it's called a Holiday Tree or a Christmas tree? Is it so wrong that they don't want other religions and cultures to feel left out of the celebrations? It's a tree lighting- and its not worth arguing over when there are way more important topics concerning our community. People are making way too big a deal about nothing!!! Here's a solution: how about YOU call the tree whatever the hell YOU want to call it! It has nothing to do with your civil liberties- give me a break! No one is stopping YOU from calling it a Christmas tree just because the town is calling it a holiday tree. It's just a freaking WORD. Why does it have to be defined as anything? Whatever the tree means to you, that's what you should call it. And for the town to call it a Holiday tree- that just means they don't want it narrowed down to just Christmas. But no one is going to stop YOU from calling it a Christmas tree if that's what you want to call it!!! I usually never side with the town, but on this one, I do. It's just a word. Get over it
Rachel December 07, 2011 at 01:52 AM
Alyssa, it looks like you're the one who needs to get over it!
JF December 07, 2011 at 02:13 AM
Hanukah Bush.
Rachel December 07, 2011 at 02:18 AM
Oy vey.
Alyssa December 07, 2011 at 03:26 AM
It just annoys me that this is where people's priorities are. It's a joke. Besides I am pretty sure the word Christmas has to do with Jesus- not a decorated pine tree!!

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