Tuesday, December 24, 2013

In re: Christmas Trees

In the spirit of this season, I want to share a short post on the subject of Christmas trees. Decorating a tree seems to be an ancient tradition, predating Christ himself, and a custom of having a Christmas Tree also seems to exist for several centuries, yet the appearance of Christmas celebration in the US law is not that old--the oldest cases I was able to find only date back to 1879.

An image of a Christmas tree is now well known, so easily it is recognized that it is even discussed as obvious, analogous to a pine tree and its scent. Car-Freshner Corp. v. S.C. Johnson & Son, 70 F.3d 267, C.A.2 (N.Y.) (1995). This was not a matter of fact just a hundred years ago. Only commencing from late 1879, cases started to refer to a "Christmas-tree" occasion or celebration. Shepherd v. State, 34 Ark. 659 (November Term 1879), Layne v. State, 72 Tenn. 199, 4 Lea 199, (December Term 1879).

By the way, a case first mentioning writing a letter to Santa Claus dates the letter to the same period, 1882. McConnell v. State, 13 Tex. Ct. App. 390 (Tex. Crim. App. 1883).

Just a decade before these cases, "mistletoe" was still referred to in its meaning ... as a parasite, Talladega Ins. Co. v. Landers, 43 Ala. 115 (Ala. 1869), even though Charles Dickens (who 30 years earlier painted a vivid episode of a custom of kissing under mistletoe in 1836-1837 Pickwick Papers) was already well known in the US. See a copyright dispute of publishing his works in America, presented in Sheldon v. Houghton, 5 Blatchf. 285, 21 F.Cas. 1239, 23 Leg.Int. 12, No. 12,748 (C.C.S.D.N.Y., December 1865).

Christmas trees came under the real spotlight a century later, in the Supreme Court's case Lynch v. Donnelly, 465 U.S. 668, 104 S.Ct. 1355 (1984). There it was discussed, under the Establishment Clause, whether the Christmas tree is a religious symbol or a secular symbol of a holiday, and whether the state has to entirely withdraw from any relation with the religion, or to engage in accommodating all religions.

Christmas trees are indivisibly associated with Christmas, so they often appear in the Constitutional law cases, but they are just as much trees as they are Christmas. Hence, they also appear in the environmental context. According to Justice Douglas' dicta in Sierra Club v. Morton, 405 U.S. 727, 92 S.Ct. 1361 (1972), trees should generally have standing and be recognized as a legal fiction, a party with interest in environmental cases. However, Christmas trees are often expressly exempt from  protections available to other trees. See for instance, California Public Resources Code, Section 4584(b), excluding persons harvesting Christmas trees from timber-harvesting regulations.

More history posts

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