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'Christmas tree or holiday tree?' issue haunts R.I. lighting ceremony

November 30, 2012|By Tina Susman

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas, that warm and fuzzy time of year when adults engage in public verbal brawls over whether to call a Christmas tree a Christmas tree.

Rhode Island’s governor, Lincoln Chafee, got so fed up with the debate after an uproar at last year’s state Christmas tree – er, holiday tree – lighting, that this year, he gave only 30 minutes’ notice before flicking the lights on the towering fir in the Statehouse rotunda.

The idea was to prevent protesters from crashing the party, as they did last year when a group angry over Chafee’s dubbing the tree a “holiday tree” crowded the annual tree-lighting event. At one point, protesters drowned out a children’s choral performance by belting out “O Christmas Tree” as the youngsters were singing another song.

"Last year unfortunately this event turned into a very disrespectful gathering," Chafee, an independent, said Thursday after summoning reporters to the rotunda, where the 17-foot tree stood. “So let’s light the tree, go and greet the performers, and have a very, merry holiday season.”

With that, he turned on the lights, and the seasonal bickering began, albeit in a far less combative way than in 2011, when protesters held aloft pictures of Christmas trees as they crowded the rotunda during the tree-lighting.

Rep. Doreen Costa, a Republican who last year labeled Chafee a “grinch” for insisting the tree be called a “holiday” tree, conceded that many people “are not happy” with this year’s tree-lighting. In addition to the event not being held in the evening, when more people could attend, it was not scheduled days in advance as in previous years.

“People weren’t able to go, but it’s OK,” she said. “We’ll have an actual Christmas party.” Costa planned to host a party in the Statehouse next week.

Last year, state lawmakers approved a non-binding resolution sponsored by Costa declaring the tree be called a “Christmas tree.” Chafee, though, insisted it be called a “holiday” tree to reflect the state’s religious tolerance and to avoid making non-Christians feel excluded from the holiday celebration.

He noted that he uses the term “Christmas tree” in his home. “But when I’m representing all of Rhode Island, I have to be respectful of everyone,” Chafee said after last year’s tree-lighting. Competing tree-lightings were held by religious and political opponents in protest, something that didn’t happen this year because nobody knew when the official state tree would be lit.

Chafee and commentator Bill O’Reilly went at it on Fox News’ “The O’Reilly Factor” on Thursday evening, with O’Reilly declaring the tree controversy part of the “War on Christmas" and saying of people who equate Christmas trees with religious symbolism: "These people are so stupid, it's painful."

“Times are changing,” said Chafee, noting that previous governors also had used the term “holiday tree.” "Merry Christmas," he added, before signing off.

tina.susman@latimes.com

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