- Associated Press - Tuesday, December 6, 2011

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.

Mr. 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.”

Mr. 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. Mr. Chafee argues 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. Mr. 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,” Mr. Chafee said after the tree lighting. “Now we can get back to next year’s budget … with pleasure.”

Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee defends his "Holiday Tree" declaration by saying it simply honors the state's origins as a sanctuary for religious diversity. "Use of the term 'holiday tree' is a continuation of past practice," he said. (Associated Press)
Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee defends his “Holiday Tree” declaration by saying ... more >

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

Rhode Island has one of the largest percentages of Catholic residents in the country. Timothy Reilly, chancellor of the Providence diocese, said Mr. 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,” Mr. Reilly said. “It’s all about the baby Jesus. We tend to almost forget this.”