Jim Bryant  /  AP
Passengers wait and walk past the largest Christmas tree at Sea-Tac Airport on Monday. The trees were taken down by Port of Seattle workers this past weekend after a local rabbi asked to have an 8-foot menorah displayed next to the tree in the international arriving hall. The trees were put back up Monday evening.
msnbc.com news services
updated 12/12/2006 7:50:15 AM ET 2006-12-12T12:50:15

Airline workers at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport took the holidays into their own hands Monday, decorating ticketing counters with miniature Christmas trees after officials decided to remove all of the trees from the main terminal's public spaces.

The airport's director, Mark Reis, didn't mind the merry rebellion one bit.

"The passengers and the meeters and greeters are all happy about it," he said. "They provide a festive spirit."

The Port of Seattle's commissioners had maintenance workers remove the plastic Christmas trees, festooned with red ribbons and bows, over the weekend.

The commissioners believed that if they allowed the addition of an 8-foot-tall menorah to the display, as a Seattle rabbi had requested, they would also have to display symbols of other religions and cultures, which was not something airport workers had time for during the busiest travel season of the year, Reis said.

The airlines lease space for ticket counters from the airport, and can display trees there if they want, he added.

Taking trees into their own hands
Stefania Cottriel and other customer-service agents with Frontier Airlines took advantage of that Monday morning, pooling their money to buy four 1-foot-tall Christmas trees. Atop a Delta counter, workers put up a tree several feet tall.

Poinsettias and wreaths were also popular decorations, but it was unclear if any of those had been added in response to the airport's decision. Cottriel and other airline workers said their supervisors had instructed them not to speak with reporters.

The rabbi, Elazar Bogomilsky, had threatened a lawsuit if his request was denied. He said the airport's decision to remove the trees was appalling.

"For many people, the Christmas tree is an important symbol of the season. Our goal was to include a menorah in the airport as well so that we could bring extra light with Hannukah's universal message of hope," Bogomilsky wrote Monday on behalf of his organization, Chabad of Greater Seattle. "Our discussion of possible legal action was never about removing Christmas trees — it was about protecting the right to add menorahs."

Thirteen of the original trees sat above foyers that lead outside to the airport drive. The largest tree, which Reis estimated to be 15 or 20 feet tall, was placed in a large lobby near baggage claim for international arrivals.

Army Pvt. Jeff Klein, 18, was traveling through the airport on his way from Fort Collins, Colo., to Fort Lewis, near Tacoma. He said he could appreciate why the airport took down the trees, but added that a better response would have been to just add the menorah.

"Everybody comes through here, from every different religion," he said. "I'm a Christian, and I love Christmas, but this is international. They should try to make it a little more homey for whoever they can."

‘What's the difference?’
Ann Koziol, a program manager at the University of Washington's business school, noted that in the international arrival lobby, the airport had left up an enormous wreath, decorated with ribbons and fake snowflakes. The wreath didn't seem to be a religious symbol any more than a tree does, she said.

"It's a tree in a different shape -- what's the difference?" she asked. "It doesn't make me think of a baby Jesus or anything."

Reis said the wreath was left up because the rabbi hadn't mentioned it in the draft of his legal complaint. Christmas trees also remained standing in the Port of Seattle's private offices; they could be seen from the international arrival lobby.

Bogomilsky's decision to threaten a lawsuit upset some Jewish leaders in the area. Rabbi Daniel Lapin, who founded an alliance of Jews and Christians called Toward Tradition, asked Jews to volunteer labor to restore the trees, so that airport staff wouldn't be distracted from other duties.

"The outcome, whether intended or not, is that now vast numbers of passengers, most of whom are probably Christian, will be deprived of the cheerful holiday sight of ... pretty Christmas trees," Lapin said. "What is more, they will know that their deprivation was caused by a Jewish rabbi."

Rick Forcier, state director of the Christian Coalition, said the removal of the trees was an unintended consequence for a "a rabbi who made a bad call and probably now regrets it."

"Most of our friends in the Jewish community don't want the trees removed," he said. "I don't blame the Port of Seattle. It's a busy time of year for them, and they didn't want to waste time by paying a lawyer to deal with a frivolous lawsuit."

Rabbi gets hate mail
Meanwhile, Bogomilsky is receiving hate mail and angry phone calls over the Christmas tree flap, his lawyer said Monday.

Harvey Grad, the rabbi’s attorney, said it was never Bogomilsky’s intention to have the trees removed and the rabbi was “saddened” by the port’s decision to remove all holiday decorations instead of including the Menorah for Hanukkah.

“We are not part of the war on Christmas,” Grad said. “All we asked for was inclusion, and now we’re getting hate mail and angry messages.”

The Chabad of Greater Seattle asked the airport to put the trees back and will not pursue any legal action even if the airport does not include the menorah into this year’s holiday decorations.

In a statement, the Port of Seattle said it removed the trees to avoid litigation.

“The airport is not a traditional public forum and it would not be appropriate for such a ceremony, so we made the decision to remove the trees to allow the airport staff to focus on the busy travel season,” the Port said on its Web site.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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