Holiday out on limb

The official state spruce referred to as a “holiday tree” by Gov. Lincoln Chafee is lit up in the rotunda of the statehouse in Providence, R.I., on Tuesday while some hold signs and sing Christmas carols. The governor’s name for the tree prompted protest.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- Carolers singing "O Christmas Tree" crashed Rhode Island's Statehouse tree-lighting on Tuesday after Gov. Lincoln Chafee unwrapped a holiday hubbub by calling the 17-foot spruce a "holiday" tree.

Chafee insisted his word choice was inclusive and in keeping with Rhode Island's founding as a sanctuary for religious diversity. But his seasonal semantics incensed some lawmakers, the Roman Catholic Church and thousands of people who called his office to complain that the independent governor was trying to secularize Christmas.

"He's trying to put our religion down," said Ken Schiano of Cranston, who came to the tree-lighting after hearing about the controversy. "It's a Christmas tree. It always has been and it always will be, no matter what that buffoon says it is."

Chafee did not address the several hundred people who filled the Statehouse to watch the tree-lighting. Afterward, he said he was surprised by the heated reaction to his word choice. Chafee argued that he is simply honoring Rhode Island's origins as a sanctuary for religious diversity. Religious dissident Roger Williams founded Rhode Island in 1636 as a haven for tolerance, where government and religion would forever be kept separate. Chafee's immediate predecessor also referred to Statehouse trees as "holiday" trees.

"If it's in my house it's a Christmas tree, but when I'm representing all of Rhode Island I have to be respectful of everyone," Chafee said after the tree-lighting. "Now we can get back to next year's budget ... with pleasure."

After Chafee lit the "holiday" tree, a few dozen carolers interrupted a performance by a children's chorus to sing "O Christmas Tree." The dispute also prompted the Providence diocese to schedule a competing Christmas tree-lighting a block from the Statehouse. A Republican state lawmaker erected a tree in a Statehouse hallway to give Rhode Island residents an alternative to the official state "holiday" tree.

After the flap made national news, Chafee's office received 3,500 calls of protest, with all but 700 coming from out of state. According to a tally by Chafee's spokeswoman, his office received only 92 calls supporting his choice of words.

Timothy Reilly, chancellor of the Providence diocese, said Chafee's desire to be inclusive is laudable, though he chose the wrong way to do it. He said he hopes the controversy will prompt Christians to contemplate the holiday's true meaning, which he said far outweighs any spat over what to call a tree.

"He probably had the best of intentions but somewhere, somehow we lost hold of the true meaning of the season," Reilly said. "It's all about the baby Jesus. We tend to almost forget this."

But by citing Roger Williams, Chafee is upholding Rhode Island's legacy as one of the first secular governments in the modern world, according to Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State.

"Rhode Island is Roger Williams country," said Lynn, who is also a United Church of Christ minister. "He was one of the great champions of religious freedom and diversity in our history. There is no war against Christianity. We have a dizzying level of religious freedom in America."