PROVIDENCE, R.I. — The governor said Tuesday that lawmakers upset with his decision to call the blue spruce erected in the Statehouse a holiday tree instead of a Christmas tree should focus their energy on feeding the poor.
Calling the 17-foot-tall spruce a holiday tree is in keeping with Rhode Island's founding in 1636 by religious dissident Roger Williams as a haven for tolerance, where government and religion were kept separate, independent Gov. Lincoln Chafee said.
"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," Chafee said, offering an initiative to feed the needy as a good place to start.
But critics of Chafee's seasonal semantics said he is taking political correctness too far – and defying the will of the Legislature. In January, the state House of Representatives passed a symbolic resolution declaring that the tree customarily erected this time of year be referred to "as a `Christmas tree' and not as a `holiday tree' or other non-traditional terms."
The resolution's sponsor, Republican Rep. Doreen Costa, said she plans to erect and decorate a tree at her Statehouse office on Dec. 6, the day Chafee plans to host a tree-lighting event. Costa said she'll be taking up a collection of canned goods.
"Anybody that wants to go see a holiday tree can do so, but I will be decorating a Christmas tree," said Costa, of North Kingstown. "It may only be a little Charlie Brown Christmas tree, but at least it will be a Christmas tree."
The head of the Roman Catholic church in Providence also criticized Chafee's decision not to use the word Christmas.
Chafee's decision "is most disheartening and divisive," Bishop Thomas Tobin said in a statement. He said it ignores 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," said Tobin, who was on retreat and was unavailable for additional comment.
Chafee isn't the first Rhode Island governor to refer to the annual Statehouse tree as a holiday tree. His predecessor, Republican Gov. Donald Carcieri, used both holiday tree and Christmas tree in his correspondence. Other governors have made no specific reference to Christmas at all with invitations to "holiday celebrations" featuring a "tree lighting."
The Colorado blue spruce at the center of the holiday hullabaloo was donated to the state by Big John Leyden's Christmas Tree Farm in West Greenwich, R.I. Tree farmer John Leyden said he's disappointed with Chafee's yuletide word choice.
"It's not a holiday tree or even an Xmas tree," he said. "We're a Christmas tree farm. That's what the name is."
Chafee insists he's just respecting the state's history as a place respectful of all religions.The colony's hands-off policy toward religion quickly attracted sects that had been persecuted elsewhere. Rhode Island boasts both the nation's first Baptist church and the oldest surviving Jewish synagogue.