PORTLAND — It’s big — a full 50 feet from trunk to tip, according to city arborist Jeff Tarling.

It’s green, although if the sun hits it just the right way, it actually takes on a bluish hue.

And Thursday morning, right on schedule, it rolled down the middle of Congress Street on the back of a flatbed truck and was expertly hoisted by a crane into its cavernous hole in the middle of Monument Square.

But if you want to know what “it” is officially called, I’m afraid you’ve come to the wrong place.

“We just call it the ‘tree lighting,’” said Portland’s Downtown District Executive Director Jan Beitzer, who oversees the annual (fill in the blank) tradition that will take place one week from today at 5:30 p.m.

Meaning there’s a name for the illumination of the tree but not for the tree itself?

“Correct,” Beitzer said.

Back in the day, of course, we’d be talking about Portland’s downtown Christmas tree. Like the one donated this year by a homeowner on Brentwood Street who wished to remain anonymous, it’s typically a majestic blue spruce that has grown too large for someone’s backyard but fits just right as a yuletide centerpiece in wide-open Monument Square.

But alas, the term “Christmas tree” is no longer in vogue — at least among those who fear that such a reference might offend those who don’t consider Dec. 25 much different from any other day.

Hence this week’s press release from Portland’s Downtown District. It heralded the imminent arrival not of the city’s Christmas tree, not even its “holiday tree.”

Rather, we were advised to be on the lookout for “the tree that signals the holiday season in Portland.”

Beitzer said it’s all rooted in a decision 12 years ago by the Downtown District’s board of directors to do away with what was called Portland’s “Victorian Christmas Tree” — a reference that tied in nicely with the organization’s branding of Portland’s “Victorian holidays.”

In an effort to appear more inviting, the Downtown District resolved to focus its holiday marketing campaign more on the lights and less on, well, Christmas.

“Words do matter,” Beitzer said. “Words do signal to people inclusiveness and desire to come downtown and shop and visit. That’s why we say ‘light up your holidays.’“

Portland, to be fair, is hardly the only community that finds itself knee-deep in such seasonal semantics.

Boston officially changed its “Christmas tree” to a “holiday tree” back in 2005, but quickly reversed itself after Liberty Counsel, a Florida-based conservative Christian group, threatened to sue.

(That tree came as a gift to Boston from the city of Halifax, Nova Scotia. Its donor, Donald Hatt, told the Halifax Chronicle Herald at the time that if he’d known Boston was going to call it a holiday tree, “I’d have cut it down and put it through the chipper.”)

Seattle ran into a buzz saw a few years ago when officials received a simple request from a rabbi to place a menorah next to the traditional Christmas tree display at the entrance to the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.

Rather than happily make room for the menorah, airport workers quietly removed the entire Christmas tree display in the dead of night — only to put it back a day or two later, after all hell broke loose.

The next year, figuring it’s better to confuse people than to offend them, the airport took political cover behind a grove of artificial birch trees nestled in faux-snow. They called it a “winterscape.”

But hey, at least it had a name.

What makes Portland’s situation so confounding is that, in its effort to offend no one, the Downtown District has left those of us in the news business with a gaping hole in what should be a very routine story.

Looking out our fifth-floor window here at One City Center, we can all see it.

If we walk out into Monument Square, we can even smell it.

And when the 1,500 low-energy LED lights get flipped on the day after Thanksgiving by a Make-A-Wish-Foundation recipient and some heavy-set guy in a red suit and white beard, Lord knows we’ll all gather round and admire it.

But what in the name of St. Nick are we supposed to call it?

Contacted via e-mail Thursday, WGME anchor Gregg Lagerquist recalled that Channel 13 viewers who responded to an on-air poll last year overwhelmingly sided with “Christmas tree.” Still, he said, “I’m not sure what we’ll call it this year.”

Over at Maine Public Radio, “Morning Edition” host Irwin Gratz (brave man) went way out on a limb Thursday morning and, without so much as a quiver in his voice, called it a “Christmas tree.”

Ditto for WCSH anchor Pat Callaghan, who told me in an e-mail that he’d be going with “Christmas tree” on Channel 6’s evening news.

“I have always called it a Christmas tree, and intend to keep doing so,” wrote Callaghan. “It seems like common sense, really.”

Me? I’m not feeling that courageous.

The last thing I need, after all, is a flood of e-mails and phone calls calling me the anti-Christ on the one hand and a bigoted-middle-age-white-male-Christian on the other.

So I’m playing it safe on this one. I’m digging deep for a moniker that’s catchy, easy to remember and, above all, guaranteed not to upset a soul.

Citizens of Greater Portland, meet Bruce the Spruce.

Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at:

[email protected]


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