At the last Board of Selectmen meeting, the selectwomen and selectmen heard from a resident a little younger than the typical speaker, when a 6th grader presented to the Board. She* spoke to them about wanting to see more diversity in holiday decorations displayed through the town at this time of year, and asked specifically about whether a Menorah could be added to decorations at Town Hall.

Her request, however, has gotten misinterpreted and misrepresented since that meeting, with some in town believing that a request was made to turn off lights and eliminate decorations altogether. Tonight’s BOS meeting, with more discussion about the issue on the agenda, promises to have members of the public who are upset about the issue attend, potentially even blaming her and her family.

Here’s what the child stated at the meeting on Monday, Dec. 4:

“I really enjoy the new snowflake banners around town. I look forward to seeing the Menorah in town center. Last year my family helped decorate the town gazebo with the J Families for Hanukkah. This year, when we drove through the town, I saw garland, wreaths and the snowflake banners, but nothing that reflects other cultures. Each year I look at the Town Hall and see the Christmas trees and lights (which just got changed). This makes me upset because the other cultures and religions are excluded. The town decorates only for Christmas and not for any other holidays, such as Diwali, an Indian celebration.

“Due to recent events at Middlebrook School, I feel it is more necessary now than ever for Wilton to recognize different holidays from different cultures. Therefore I believe our community needs to embrace diversity by adding a menorah to be displayed at Town Hall. I think each holiday needs to be represented. This will encourage others to celebrate with each other.”

First selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice complimented the girl on her maturity and thanked her for bringing her question to the BOS.

“I think we all appreciated getting your letter. It’s great to see someone of your age be, one, interested, and two, writing to us, because a lot of people–even adults–just complain and don’t write to us, so I appreciate that you did that.”

Vanderslice explained that by law, religious symbols can’t be displayed on public, town property. A menorah is currently displayed on the Town Green–which is actually considered private property, because the town leases it to Paragon Realty under a long term lease. It’s the same location for the creche–also a religious symbol–that is erected each year by the Knights of Columbus.

“The reason we have it put there is because it is private. The land here [at Town Hall] is public land. If you decide to put religious symbols on public land, then you have to put any religious symbol that anybody might have. That’s why we made the decision to have those things downtown rather than here.”

Vanderslice also explained that the lights on the trees at Town Hall were recently changed from traditional Christmas colors to white, which she said were more reflective of winter. She added that legally, trees with lights are not considered religious symbols. Her concern, she said, would be the implication of relocating a Menorah–a religious symbol–to Town Hall. That, she explained, would mean any and all symbols could be displayed–something that might have more significant implications.

She added that past efforts had been made to make town decorations and events more inclusive, and then brainstormed with her fellow BOS members and discussed what they could consider doing. They decided to consult town counsel Ira Bloom about what would be possible. In the meantime, Vanderslice said, that meant no religious symbols would be displayed at Town Hall until they determined what they could do.

Since then, Vanderslice shared that a few days after the meeting she obtained information that made her question keeping the tree lights on at Town Hall. She made a decision to keep them off temporarily until the matter could be discussed at tonight’s BOS meeting.

“Neither the student nor her family asked me to remove things from Town Hall. It was clear in my mind that the request, including after the discussions at the BOS meeting, was to broaden the Town’s outreach not lessen it,” she says.

Vanderslice said the girl’s request resonated with her for a couple of reasons–one being the recent events which had occurred at Middlebrook and the impact on the community; another, that more than 15 years ago her own son had made a similar appeal when writing to then First Selectman Paul Hannah about the lack of Hanukkah decorations in Wilton Center.

“Fifteen years later, some changes have occurred to not only recognize Hanukkah but also to reach out to the entire community during the holiday season,” she added.

Since the tree lights were temporarily turned off, discussion and debate have erupted on social media with posts earning 100-plus comments, some saying that Wilton Center has gone dark, and others critical of Wilton’s current decorations in town center–lampposts that still have greens and garland, red bows and white lights, but that now have navy-and-white banners showing winter snowflakes instead of traditionally Christmas colored red-and-green banners stating “Joy.” Comparisons to displays on other towns’ main shopping districts have been made, and the latest–a direct finger-pointing at the young girl and her family–has popped up on Facebook:

The family did NOT request any decorations to be taken down. Nor did the family threaten any lawsuit or make demands. In fact, the family reiterated their desire to NOT remove any decorations–only add one to Town Hall,” Vanderslice rebuts.

Costs for Lights in Other Towns

Residents and businesses in other towns invest significant funds–privately–to add decorations to their town centers.

Ridgefield has a Holiday Trust Fund to pay for the tree lights, the lamppost decorations and more, and an appeal for donors is made each year. In 2011, the Trust spent $26,400 for all new LED lights-all private donations. That year the cost of the electricity for the lights was $8,700. There’s a cost in manpower to put up the lights each year as well.

New Canaan‘s Chamber of Commerce has a donation website that stated the annual cost for the lights decorating 50-plus trees runs to $22,000. The town provides no financial assistance, and it takes 150 man hours to maintain the lights–change bulbs, put up the lights, etc.

“There have been conversations about adding lights to the trees along Old Ridgefield Rd., but the conclusion has always been that it’s cost-prohibitive. In neighboring communities, residents and businesses donate to fund the cost of the lights and annual associated costs. If there are residents in Wilton that would like to fundraise the approximately $20,000 that it would cost, plus the endowment for ongoing costs, I’d be very happy to speak with them,” Vanderslice adds.

*GMW is withholding the name of the young girl, in the thought that she’s already gotten enough backlash–something no child should be the target of.

2 replies on “6th Grader’s Holiday Diversity Query to BOS may be Blamed for “Ruining Spirit””

  1. New homeowner in Wilton here. We purchased our house with hopes of starting a family in the near future. Coming from Westport, I had absolutely no idea what we were getting ourselves into here.

    We purchased two “Hate has no home here” signs and were afraid to put them on our lawn because we did not know what would happen. We did not want to put ourselves at risk. AT RISK! for a sign with a loving and inclusive message. That truly saddens me to the core.

    We are still learning about this town, we hope is a loving, accepting and inclusive place. Not like it matters but we are your typical wasps. We knew there was not a lot of diversity here, which for us was a downside. I didn’t think about it very much until an underlying current in town news popped up.

    We hope to be here for a long time and invest our lives into a community that we fully support and believe in. It really saddens me that I currently do not feel that. If we knew more we would have chosen another town. At this point, mortgage and all we just have to do as much as we can to make this community one that will support and nurture the children we hope to raise into wonderful adults.

    I really hope this is and similar events are flukes and my concern has no basis. Please! Any info, advice or recommended organizations with like minded people would be worth its weight in gold.

    1. Welcome to Wilton! There are lots of good folks in town and plenty of Hate Has No Home signs proudly displayed – even with the snow. Unfortunately the internet gives the town’s outspoken residents a megaphone and a platform – please don’t make the mistake of thinking they represent the majority of Wilton. There is a lot of good here. As you get acclimated, many find the Newcomer’s club a good way to meet people. Depending on your specific interests there are lots of other good options too.

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