WALLA WALLA — A Christmas tree honoring veterans has returned for a second year, but this year its boughs will not be festooned with the red, white and blue, nor will it officially be known as the Veterans Administration Christmas tree.
"This year we just have to say it is a Christmas tree honoring the veterans everywhere," event organizer Chris Zagelow said.
The tree honoring veterans was set up for the first time last year in Land Title Plaza, where it was decked with American flags; red, white and blue decorations; yellow ribbons and photos of veterans, especially those serving overseas in the Gulf.
"There was a couple crying and taking pictures in front of the tree, and they said their son was being deployed. And they were so touched that the community would do this for them," Zagelow said, recalling one of many emotional moments she witnessed during her volunteer work to organize last year’s tree.
But the miniature American flags were also seen as unsightly to some, Zagelow said. And the Union-Bulletin published two letters over the red, white and blue Christmas tree decor, one in favor and one against mixing patriotism with a religious holiday symbol.
"All I wanted to do was to put a tree out that was beautiful and that would honor veterans everywhere," Zagelow said, which is what she did.
She will do it again this year, but without the flags and without the Veterans Administration name.
Last year, the tree was officially named the Veterans Administration Christmas tree and officially sponsored by the Jonathan M. Wainwright Memorial Veterans Affairs Medical Center, Zagelow said.
That was a breach of the organization’s policy regarding separation of church and state, explained Russell Lloyd, association director for operations for the Jonathan M. Wainwright Memorial Veterans Affairs Medical Center.
"As a federal agency we normally are not allowed to do something of that nature for Christmas," Lloyd said.
But Lloyd added that VA employees can and will support the Christmas tree honoring veterans everywhere, but not in an official capacity and on their own time.
Zagelow added that local VA Director Brian Westfield is expected to perform the official tree lighting Thursday.
As for the name, event organizers are still free to use the Veteran’s Administration title, but the VA may not take part in the naming, Lloyd said.
"The veterans services officers groups is still sponsoring it, it’s just that we will not participate in the naming of the tree," he added.
So with a community full of support, but no sponsoring organization, the Downtown Walla Walla Foundation has decided to get back into the spirit of a community Christmas tree, something it hasn’t done since Christmas 2007.
"We stepped in as the non-federal organization," Foundation Event and Public Relations Manager Jennifer Northam said.
She added that the foundation had sponsored a community Christmas tree in the past, and the last time was in 2007, when it had a 40-foot tree at Land Title Plaza.
"It was beautiful and fantastic. And it was the year of the high winds and it was knocked over three times," Northam said, noting that this year the tree will include tie-downs for extra support.
Some of the other organizations who are officially showing their support for this year’s tree include Klicker’s Christmas Trees, AMVETS Walla Walla Post No. 1111, Walla Walla American Legion Post 32 and VFW Post 992 and Land Title Plaza.
But the most important support, Zagelow pointed out, is not from any official organization but the community as a whole.
"I think that what we need as a community is to say we are here for you. And that is what this tree means to me. It is a beautiful lit-up tree. And it says you are not alone," Zagelow added.
Today at 1 p.m. at Land Title Plaza, First Avenue and Main Street, the community is asked to support veterans by helping to decorate the Christmas tree. Yellow ribbons and photos of veterans may be hung, but no flags.
On Thursday at 5 p.m., the community is asked to come out again for the official lighting of the Christmas tree honoring veterans everywhere.