A 17-foot Colorado blue spruce is standing tall at the center of controversy in the Rhode Island State House rotunda for what is being – or more importantly, not being – called.
Gov. Lincoln D. Chafee has invited the public to a “Holiday Tree Lighting” ceremony next Tuesday at the State House, leaving many, including Bishop Thomas J. Tobin of Providence, to question the governor’s choice of such secular terminology in referring to a symbol most commonly associated with the Christian celebration of Christmas.
"Governor Chafee's decision to avoid the word Christmas at the State House ceremony is most disheartening and divisive," said Bishop Tobin, in a statement released to the media Tuesday night.
"It is sad that such a secular spirit has swept over our state. The Governor's decision ignores long held American traditions and is an affront to the faith of many citizens. For the sake of peace and harmony in our state at this special time of the year, I respectfully encourage the Governor to reconsider his decision to use the word Christmas in the state observance."
Earlier Tuesday, Gov. Chafee said in a statement that he is only following in the footsteps of how previous governors have termed the event.
“Use of the term ‘holiday tree’ is a continuation of past practice, and does not represent a change of course on my part,” the governor said.
The governor, attempting to diffuse the controversy, then suggested that those with opinions on both sides of the tree issue instead refocus their energy on helping the less fortunate.
“I would encourage all those engaged in this discussion – whatever their opinion on the matter – to use their energy and enthusiasm to make a positive difference in the lives of their fellow Rhode Islanders.”
Father Timothy Reilly, chancellor of the diocese, reaffirmed the irony of Chafee’s message.
“In the governor’s attempts to unify, his decision has done quite the opposite,” Fr. Reilly said. “The irony is that we see more confusion and lack of unity. Christmas is a precious and sacred word in our faith vocabulary.”
Fr. John Codega, pastor of St. Brendan Church, Riverside told WPRO News that Christians are “frustrated” with Chafee’s decision.
“The governor is continuing to turn his back on the faith community,” Fr. Codega continued, adding that by suggesting that Rhode Island lawmakers and others involved in the debate should focus their energy and enthusiasm on feeding those less fortunate, Chafee is insulting the faith community.
“These are the people that are serving the poor,” Fr. Codega emphasized, noting that St. Patrick Church on Smith Hill, the site of a Christmas tree lighting scheduled for next Tuesday, Dec. 6, serves those less fortunate through several outreach ministries including a soup kitchen and food pantry.
According to Fr. James Ruggieri, pastor of St. Patrick Church, the tree lighting will begin at 5 p.m. with a prayer service on the front lawn of the church, located at 244 Smith St. The service will be led by Bishop Tobin, and will be followed by the singing of Christmas carols.
“The idea is to light a Christmas tree, not a holiday tree,” said Fr. Ruggieri. “It’s to call attention to the true meaning of Christmas, which exists because of Christ’s birth.”
Rep. Doreen M. Costa, (R—Exeter, North Kingstown), who sponsored a resolution passed by lawmakers in January, declaring the annual State House tree to be called a “Christmas tree and not a ‘holiday tree’ or any other non-traditional terms.”
Costa, a parishioner of St. Francis de Sales Church, North Kingstown, said, “I think that the governor has overstepped his bounds. This is one way of keeping Christ out of Christmas and I won’t allow that.”
The lawmaker added that there would be a “Christmas tree lighting” outside of her office, Room 106, on Dec. 6 at 6 p.m. She asked those attending to bring nonperishable food items to be distributed to local food pantries.
Joseph Cavanagh, a Pawtucket attorney, asked, "Is there really any question that Dec 25th is the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ?”
Cavanagh argued that civilization has used the Christmas tree for centuries to remind people of “that momentous event which forever changed the world.
“Why then does our governor insist on ignoring reality as he unfortunately does with so many other fundamental issues, such as marriage and abortion, the intentional killing of defenseless children?” Cavanagh questioned.
Cavanagh emphasized that members of the faith community need to pray, then act, to stop the spread of “dangerous secularism, which the governor espouses.
“The notion of a "holiday" tree is sad nonsense,” he said.
Printed with permission from the Rhode Island Catholic, newspaper for the Diocese of Providence, R.I.