PROVIDENCE, R.I. (CBS) – After his decision to call the official, 17-foot spruce in the Statehouse rotunda a “holiday” tree, Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee was flooded with complaints. So he knew, going into this evening’s tree lighting, that he was in for it. So, as a children’s choir sang Christmas carols, he quietly approached the podium, flipped the switch, and just walked away, smiling.
It was not the moment that hundreds of protesters had anticipated. They had gathered at the Statehouse, hoping to sing “O Christmas Tree” over the Governor’s speech. They were left only able to shout down that same kids’ chorus. Which they did.
One of the protest carolers was Elena Tassoni of Johnston. She is outraged over the tree’s name. “It is a Christmas tree and is not a holiday tree,” she explains. “Since I’ve been born I’ve always known it as a Christmas tree. It’s part of Christmas… It’s tradition and it kind of hurts to just refer to it as a holiday. What holiday is it?”
WBZ-TV’s Jim Armstrong reports
This year is certainly the biggest fight over what to call the tree, but this isn’t new territory. Previous governors, Republican and Democrat alike, have alternated between calling it a Christmas or holiday tree, going back at least to the mid-1990s.
“Call it what it is: It’s a Christmas tree,” says State Representative Doreen Costa. “You know, we can’t be afraid to keep Christ in Christmas.”
The first-term Republican held her own protest by decorating a Christmas tree – and calling it that – in the hallway outside her first-floor office. The ceremony she held to light her tree after the official one attracted dozens of supporters who clogged the hallway.
“I did the right thing and this is what the people want,” Costa explained.
Plenty of people are also upset since they see the Governor’s choice of words as a direct contradiction to a House resolution passed last year that specifically calls the evergreen in the Statehouse rotunda a Christmas tree. That resolution was non-binding, meaning the Governor did not have to abide by it but could have taken the House’s suggestion.
Still, not everyone in attendance objected to the term ‘holiday’ tree.
Steven Ahlquist, a founding member of Humanists of Rhode Island, calls the whole thing, “a completely manufactured controversy”.
“We have a right to refer to this tree any way we want,” he continued. “Keeping that secular is important if we’re going to do it in the Statehouse.”