Victoria councillor wants less Christmas, more diversity, in seasonal decorations

VICTORIA — Victoria shouldn’t be decking public property with boughs of holly, lighting up Christmas trees or handing out poinsettias, says Coun. Ben Isitt, who has won council support for a review of the city’s seasonal decorations.

Councillors agreed to have staff to report back on options for further secularizing or increasing the diversity of cultural elements in seasonal decorations.

In suggesting the review, Isitt said that a poinsettia recently appeared on his desk at Victoria City Hall.

“I don’t want a poinsettia. It is a symbol of the Christian faith,” said Isitt, who also questioned the lighting of the giant sequoia in Centennial Square outside City Hall.

The city’s $64,000 “seasonal animation program” includes installation of banners throughout the city.

It also, in partnership with Downtown Victoria Business Association co-ordinates a seasonal decorations program which includes Christmas and Chinese New Year.

Victoria city councillor Ben Isitt.

While the city pays for seasonal lighting decorations such as the stars or snowflake lights on light standards, and the lighting of trees on Government Street, the lighting of Centennial Square is done by the business assoctiation.

Even though the association bears the cost of lighting up Centennial Square, it is a public space and the city should make sure it is inclusive and the city should not be turning the sequoia into a Christmas tree, Isitt said.

“Muslims, unless they are mixed families, they don’t have Christmas trees in their homes. Jewish people, like me, don’t have Christmas trees in their homes,” Isitt said.

However, he acknowledged that overtly religious symbolism has been “dialled back” over the years.

“I think there are still many elements of Christian symbolism that are paid for with taxpayer dollars and, for me, that doesn’t reflect a clear division between church and state.”

Isitt said having lights downtown “is great” and snowflakes “probably strike the right balance” but he city should ensure it is being inclusive.

While councillors supported the review, not all of them shared Isitt’s concerns.

Coun. Sharmarke Dubow, who is a Muslim, said rather than offending many immigrants, Christmas lights can be an interesting aspect of a new culture.

“I was born on Christmas Day. This is symbolic and I like them (the lights), on a personal note.”

Coun. Charlayne Thornton-Joe said efforts have been made over the years to rein in Christian elements of decorations and moved to outlines of snowflakes and candles as more reflective of a winter holiday. She said decorating downtown is good business.

“We take these opportunities to celebrate, whether it is for tourism or downtown businesses because when the downtown businesses thrive all through the year our whole community thrives. ”

Coun. Marianne Alto said it has to be remembered that the lighting is subject to interpretation.

“My family has never celebrated Christmas, but we always put up solstice lights. That’s from a tradition in northern Scandinavia, where life is so dark that it was an opportunity to provide some light in order to help people get through that terribly dark, long season,” Alto said.

“I do think we need to be cognizant of the fact that while we’re seeking diversity, part of diversity is also about tolerance.”

Isitt suggested something as simple as a review by a group with representatives of secular humanists and the Jewish, Christian and Muslim faiths might be all that is needed to ensure that publicly funded decorations are as inclusive as possible.

“Just get a temperature check. For me it’s the Christmas trees, it’s the poinsettias, it’s the hollies that sort of ruffle my sensibilities in terms of the expenditure of tax dollars. And snowflakes and even dragon symbols for Chinese New Year, they don’t, for whatever reason,” Isitt said.

bcleverley@timescolonist.com

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