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.
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."
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. 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. 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," Chafee said after the tree lighting. "Now we can get back to next year's budget ... with pleasure."
After 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, Chafee's office received 3,500 calls of protest, with all but 700 coming from out of state. According to a tally by 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 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," Reilly said. "It's all about the baby Jesus. We tend to almost forget this."
But by citing Roger Williams, Chafee is upholding Rhode Island's legacy as one of the first secular governments in the modern world, according to Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State.
"Rhode Island is Roger Williams country," said Lynn, who is also a United Church of Christ minister. "He was one of the great champions of religious freedom and diversity in our history. There is no war against Christianity. We have a dizzying level of religious freedom in America."
The state House of Representatives in January passed a symbolic resolution declaring that the tree traditionally erected in the Statehouse be referred to "as a 'Christmas tree' and not as a 'holiday tree' or other non-traditional terms."
Republican Rep. Doreen Costa of North Kingstown, the resolution's sponsor, hosted her own tree lighting Tuesday outside her Statehouse office. She said the uproar boosted attendance, which she called a silver lining to the controversy.
Squabbles over nativity scenes and trees have become a regular occurrence, though the first shots in the so-called War on Christmas were fired long ago. The controversy highlights a very old tension between the holiday's Christian roots, its links to pre-Christian celebrations and the many now-familiar traditions that are relatively new, according to Stephen Nissenbaum, a professor emeritus of history at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and the author of "The Battle for Christmas."
Nissenbaum said early Christians wouldn't recognize the modern holiday, with its reindeer, Santa Claus, 'round-the-clock shopping and poinsettias.
The tradition of Christmas trees was brought to America in the 1830s by German immigrants who were continuing a centuries-old practice from their homeland, Nissenbaum said, though the use of evergreens and candles or bonfires in winter holidays dates back to pre-Christian Europe, Nissenbaum said.
The Puritan leaders of 17th century Massachusetts actually outlawed the celebration of Christmas for several years because they didn't like the boisterous celebration of what they saw as a minor holiday.
"I don't think Christmas has ever been a settled tradition," Nissenbaum said. "We always look back to the days when Christmas was pure and simple and it never was."
Aside from the uproar over the tree, Tuesday's lighting ceremony was traditional. A giant gingerbread house was on display, along with a "heroes" tree decorated by the families of fallen service members. Choirs and a military band performed standards including "White Christmas" and "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree." State employees served cookies.
Some attendees said both sides of the tree spat need to focus more on the spirit of the season and not a label given to a blue spruce.
"Why are they making such a big deal about this?" asked Deborah McNerney of Pawtucket, who came to the Statehouse to see her son perform with a children's chorus. "It's Christmas, after all."