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Originally published October 19, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified October 19, 2007 at 3:01 PM

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Sea-Tac airport determined to avoid another "war" over Christmas

After its removal of Christmas trees created a national furor last year, the Port of Seattle is now featuring "peace and harmony."

Seattle Times staff reporter

Have a merry, um, Wintertime.

There won't be a Christmas tree or a menorah displayed at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport this holiday season.

Instead, the decorations will be what designer Randy Trostle calls a winterscape, a collection of handcrafted birch trees surrounded by lights and nestled in a pseudo-snowbank.

"We're featuring peace and harmony," said Mike Feldman, deputy managing director of the airport. "We're using lights. Winters are so dark and dreary."

That means no Santa Claus at the airport. No Christmas tree. And no menorahs. Nothing that smacks of a religious Christmas or Hanukkah celebration.

The new display, created by Seattle's Displaymaker Productions, is the airport's attempt to avoid another debate over holiday decorations.

Last December, airport officials ordered Christmas trees taken down after Rabbi Elazar Bogomilsky asked to have an 8-foot-tall menorah put on display at the airport.

That created a national furor. Bogomilsky received death threats and the FBI was called in, according to Harvey Grad, his lawyer.

Eventually, the trees went back up, but the Port of Seattle subsequently created a Holiday Decorations Advisory Committee, which last summer said the decorations could include trees, fabrics and garlands, but nothing with religious ties.

"I find the whole thing stupid," said Grad, who was prepared to sue over the menorah issue last year, though his client didn't want to. "My view is that there was a need for accommodations. This is a multicultural city, and the airport should have gone out of its way to recognize different religious and ethnic views. I thought they would address that this year, but they decided to sidestep the issue."

Grad added, "At no time did my client or anyone ever seek, intimate or suggest the tree should be removed. The idea came solely from within the Port, and my personal view is that the people of Seattle are going to be really disappointed with no Christmas trees."

The controversy may add fuel to what Fox TV talk-show host Bill O'Reilly and some Christian groups have deemed a "war on Christmas." They are battling what they call a secularization of the holiday traditions.

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Bogomilsky said last year he was "appalled" by the Port's reaction to what he believed to be a simple request. There are public menorah lightings at the White House and cities across the Northwest, he said.

The Port's decision on this year's holiday décor came on the same day that the state announced it will allow a nativity display at the Capitol rotunda in Olympia. Other religious displays also will be allowed.

The state's decision stems from the settlement of a federal lawsuit filed by the Alliance Defense Fund, a Christian legal-rights group in Arizona. Various displays can now be included as long as the state doesn't promote any one religion.

Alliance lawyers said the nativity scene will be 4 feet by 4 feet and include a stable and figures of Mary and the infant Jesus, on the third floor near doors to the House and Senate chambers, from Dec. 3-28.

A huge Christmas tree sponsored by the Association of Washington Business has long been placed in the Capitol rotunda during December. It's now called a holiday tree, and Steve Valandra, a spokesman for the state Department of General Administration, said the tree is viewed as a secular display.

The Port's holiday committee, opting out of the Christmas theme entirely, said the new decorations should "reflect the Pacific Northwest environment and our diverse community."

That's what Trostle says he has created with his birch forest. He said he was aiming for an image that's conscious of the environment. That's why he's using recyclable cardboard tubes as the shells for his birches, and biodegradable cotton material for the snow. Hanging from the tree branches will be 30,000 pieces of acrylic ice. "Snow" will fall on the display hourly.

The cost of the contract with Displaymaker Productions is $300,000.

The work will be displayed at the airport from early November through January.

The Port said the intent is to make the airport "a festive and welcoming facility during the holidays, which is a very busy and often stressful travel time. We want our passengers to have a sense of celebration and comfort as they travel through our airport."

The main display will be 18 trees in a 24- by 24-foot area at the sound end of the airport arrivals area, on the baggage-claim level of the airport, outside security.

Smaller displays will be erected near the escalators.

In addition, Trostle has created six panels, surrounded by twinkling lights, that display local scenes, from the San Juan Islands to Mount Rainier. They will be erected on airport walls in the ticketing concourse, along with a depiction of a flock of winter birds.

Susan Gilmore: 206-464-2054 or sgilmore@seattletimes.com. The Associated Press contributed to this story.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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