A small but fervent group of Port Washington residents testified at a recent public forum on the subject of December holiday decorations. The announced reason for the meeting was that "some members of the public were unhappy with the library's new policy that allows only seasonal displays in December and asked the board of trustees to reconsider the decision."
The majority of those who testified were in favor of returning to the library's earlier practice of decorating the building in keeping with the traditional holiday motifs. A number of speakers, however, recommended conditions or stipulations with respect to such displays, among them: the avoidance of overtly religious symbols, an emphasis on educational displays, making the library festive, and having a representation of all major religions. Sue Fitzgerald said, "This is an educational institution. If you decide to put up a crèche or a menorah, you should explain what it is. People are looking for respect, and when you don't explain there is no respect." Gavin Pike commented, "I would ask that we be more tolerant and allow any religion to express itself." A number of individuals publicly who identified themselves as of the Jewish faith said that they had no problem with Christmas decorations like Christmas trees and wreaths.
Library Board President Julie Geller told the Port News, "I am very pleased that so many people took the time to come out to a meeting and express their points of view." Library Director Nancy Curtin expressed similar sentiments, saying "We want to be responsive to the public. Both Geller and Curtin pointed out that the overwhelming majority of those who testified at the meeting were members of the Garden Club, who traditionally provide the holiday decorations for the library. Ulla Nettersheim, president of the Garden Club, specifically objected to the library board's directive that they completely eliminate the color red from the holiday baskets. She further pointed out that Dec.. 25 is a national holiday. Geller and Curtin said that, since the meeting, they have received a number of letters and comments from other Port Washington residents who do not want to see Christmas/holiday decorations at the library. These individuals argue that the library is a public institution and therefore should be entirely secular. None of those who originally raised the issue before the board last year testified at this public meeting.
O'Connell declined to answer questions at the meeting about the history and the reasons for the library's change in policy last year. He said, "I think it is more productive to move forward than it is to dwell on the past." Geller explained to the Port News that last year's policy was in response to complaints that were received from members of the community. She commented, "The board really did not want to be in the position of deciding what is religious." The meeting testimony and this reporter's subsequent conversations with community residents illustrated her point. For example, Bob O'Brien pointed out at the meeting that the "Christmas" tree and wreath have their origins in ancient pagan traditions. He said, "I'm Irish, and I know that the Druids were celebrating the winter solstice and practicing tree worship long before Christianity." Another resident, Kathleen Hensel, said, "I just moved here from Manhattan, and we had no problem with this. Everyone seems to enjoy the wreaths around the lions and the Christmas tree at the New York Public Library." Other residents with whom we spoke, however, were firmly convinced that the Christmas tree is definitely a Christian religious symbol. Similarly, there was discussion at this meeting and at last year's board meeting about whether the menorah is a religious or secular symbol. Interestingly, a few individuals with whom we spoke privately said that because they consider the menorah and the crèche to be religious symbols, they believe that it is inappropriate to use either one for décor.
Geller said that the library board will study the issue and make a decision at a future public board meeting, taking into account the public input.