A Christmas Tree is a Christmas Tree: Religious Respect in Today’s Air Force

  • Published
  • By Chaplain (Lt. Col.) Timothy Wagoner
  • 49th Fighter Wing Chapel
What an eventful year it has been for religious accommodation! Should we have a "Holiday Tree" or a "Christmas Tree?" Should we display "Christmas Cards" or "Holiday Cards" at the Main Gate? Should we greet one another with "Merry Christmas" or "Happy Holidays"? Do we invite members of our unit to a "Christmas Party" or a "Holiday Party"? 

These and other issues are addressed in an e-mail from Gen. Ronald Keys, Air Combat Command commander, and a Bullet Background Paper written by the ACC chaplain's office. In his e-mail, General Keys reminded ACC commanders that they should use mutual respect and common sense in planning holiday events: "Whether it is Ramadan, Easter, Kwanza, Yom Kippur or others through the year, there is no prohibition in using traditional terms ... A Christmas tree is a Christmas tree." 

Department of Defense Directive 1300.17, Accommodation of Religious Practices Within the Military Services, says one of the basic principles of our nation is the free exercise of religion. The use of a "Christmas" tree and other faith-specific terms like "Merry Christmas," "Happy Chanukah" and "Happy Ramadan" are now authorized because they are thought to accommodate the free exercise of religion for members of the Christian, Jewish and Islamic faiths, respectively. 

Frankly, this is a departure from recent years when the use of faith-specific terms representing religious diversity in the Air Force were discouraged or even prohibited. It was thought that religious sensitivity meant not using any faith-specific terms that might offend someone from another faith group. The unintended consequence of this line of reasoning is that instead of offending no one, it offended everyone! 

While affirming religious diversity, the recent Revised Interim Guidelines Concerning Free Exercise of Religion in the Air Force also points out the Air Force must remain officially neutral regarding religious beliefs or lack of religious beliefs. 

While affirming the free exercise of religion, we must also be sensitive and affirm those with no religious faith at all. 

This means that because of the many faith perspectives represented in our squadrons, as well as those who choose not to exercise any religious beliefs at all, a more inclusive "Holiday Party" is encouraged. 

If you have questions about any of the issues raised in this article, or desire clarification about other religious accommodation issues, you are encouraged to contact your chaplain or the base Chapel at 2-7211. 

During the upcoming holiday season, why not drive through the Main Gate and see a festive display of faith-specific greetings that represent the rich diversity of our Airmen and civilians who have found deep spirituality, truth and holiness in their faiths? And why not also include some cards that represent the traditional secular symbols that are part of the season we all enjoy?