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The North Andover Fire Department has been prohibited from putting up the “Merry Christmas” sign it has displayed annually for decades outside the downtown fire station. Now only “Happy New Year” appears.

NORTH ANDOVER — First it was the menorah on the town common. Now it's the Merry Christmas sign on the fire station.

The town has put an end to a longtime holiday tradition ordering firefighters to take down their homemade Merry Christmas sign from outside the fire station after people complained. The sign had been up for a week before it was taken down Friday.

Fire Chief William Martineau said the sign was made by firefighters some 50 years ago and was never an issue before.

"I think Christmas is officially a religious holiday. But to all of us, it has always been a holiday for the kids," Martineau said. "It just seems sad."

The sign is now sitting in the basement and there's only one decoration hanging from the station — a Happy New Year sign.

This is the second holiday controversy in two weeks for the town.

Andover Rabbi Asher Bronstein has threatened a lawsuit against North Andover after the selectmen would not let him place a menorah on the town common for all eight days of Hanukkah.

Selectmen voted on Nov. 23 to allow the menorah for one day. They argue that their new town common policy only allows displays to stay up for one day, no matter what they are. That way all groups have equal time and there is no discrimination.

Attorneys for the town and the rabbi are in talks.

Town officials said yesterday that the menorah fight is what caused Merry Christmas to be outlawed at the fire station for the first time in five decades.

"This is political correctness run amok," selectmen's Chairman Tracy Watson said. "It's really an unfortunate turn of events. ... This has become all about religion, and from the start it has had nothing to do with religion. We were enforcing a policy."

Selectmen's phones are ringing off the hook with calls from all sides. The town is divided into people who believe the menorah should get its eight days and those who think the selectmen's policy is fair. Some do not want to see any religious displays on the common, saying even a day is too much.

Watson said she expects taking down the Merry Christmas sign is only going to rile people up more.

"It's going to make a lot of people angry," she said.

Town Manager Mark Rees said the fight over the menorah brought a "heightened sensitivity to these kind of issues."

"Well, it is a public building and Merry Christmas certainly is a Christian reference," Rees said. "A public building should not be displaying things specific to a particular religion."

Rees said he hopes to work with the Fire Department to put up a more appropriate sign.

"Maybe a more generic 'Happy Holidays,'" he said. "Something more inclusive."

The town has wreaths with red bows hanging on poles throughout downtown and has decorated the trees in the town common with white lights every year. Those are allowed because they are called secular decorations.

Attorney Robert Meltzer of Framingham, who represents Bronstein on the menorah issue, said it was unfortunate that the sign was taken down from the fire station.

"I'm sorry they felt the need to do that," Meltzer said. "I don't like to see those things intertwined. ... It has not been part of any of our conversations with the town."

Meltzer said he is trying to work with North Andover town counsel to resolve the menorah issue without a lawsuit. North Andover selectmen meet in executive session Friday to discuss what to do — whether to take on the rabbi or make concessions.

"We haven't made any decisions yet," Watson said.

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