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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.

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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