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State lights ‘Christmas’ tree after naming controversy

The name ‘holiday tree’ spurred protest in past years from state residents and government officials

Holiday revelers will gather in the lobby of the Statehouse tonight to light Rhode Island’s first “Christmas tree” under Gov. Lincoln Chafee’s ’75 P’14 P’17 leadership, said Secretary of State A. Ralph Mollis. Chafee made national headlines in the first two years of his tenure when he called the state’s December decoration a “holiday tree.”

Chafee decided to call this year’s tree a “Christmas tree” in response to protests over the name “holiday tree,” he said in a statement released by his office Monday.

“This presumably happy event became a focal point for too much anger,” he said.

Two years ago, carolers at the Statehouse cut short a children’s choir in the midst of singing and began their own rendition of “O Christmas Tree” in protest of Chafee’s use of the term “holiday tree.” Protestors carried signs bearing slogans such as “saving Christmas one tree at a time,” according to a 2011 Politico report.

Rep. Doreen Costa, D-Exeter and North Kingston, said she has held her own annual Christmas tree lighting ceremony on a different day than the state’s to allow citizens to light a “Christmas tree” rather than “holiday tree.”

Mollis said he urged Chafee in October 2012 to use the phrase “Christmas tree” to “put some of the unnecessary controversy behind him” and to allow citizens to focus on his accomplishments, but Chafee had some reservations at the time, he said.

Mollis introduced the issue again this year and offered to run the lighting through the Secretary of State office, he said. Chafee accepted the offer and sent official invitations to a “Christmas tree lighting,” Mollis added.

“All the credit needs to go to the governor,” Mollis said. “This could not have been done without (his) flexibility and leadership.”

Costa said she is “thrilled” by Chafee’s decision and canceled her annual Christmas tree lighting, which was scheduled for Dec. 11.

“There’s no need to have another Christmas tree lighting if there’s going to be one at the Statehouse,” she said.

Many people expressed support for the new name because it more accurately describes the tree.

“When they lit the Hannukia I didn’t call it a holiday candelabra,” said Henry Bodah, associate University chaplain for the Catholic community.

Mollis said the national ceremony in Washington calls the White House tree a “Christmas tree” and celebrations at the State House for Hanukkah and other holidays use the specific terms, so it is natural that the tree should be called a “Christmas tree.”

“I don’t have (objections to) it being called a Christmas tree because there is no tradition involving a tree at this time of the year for Muslims,” said R. David Coolidge, associate University chaplain for the Muslim community.

Many people expressed surprise that Chafee’s decision in previous years to call the tree a “holiday tree” riled such a degree of protest, as the previous governor also used the same term and received little backlash.

“Generally I object to the exclusion of Christmas as if we should be ashamed for celebrating Christmas,” Bodah said, adding that criticisms of Chafee were surprisingly heated, given that former Gov. Donald Carcieri ’65 saw few protests.

Despite previous controversies, Rhode Islanders should rejoice in the holiday season and celebrate its history of religious freedom, Mollis said.

The Christmas tree lighting will take place tonight at 5:30 p.m. and feature performances by Damhsa Irish Dance Foundation, Quisqueya In Action Youth Group and Venezuelan Rhode Island Performers, according to Chafee’s invitation.

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