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Politics as Usual: Arguing about trees? Must be the holiday season! (OPINION)

December 14, 2011

It is Christmastime once again; a time of peace on earth and good cheer, a time for generosity and caring about one’s fellow man, a time of family togetherness and gift giving, and a time to claw each other’s eyes out in a vicious brawl about what to call the decorated tree.
This ugly, name-calling fight over whether to use the term “Christmas tree” vs. “holiday tree” has become a Christmas tradition right up there with hanging stockings, singing carols and drinking eggnog. (BTW: If eggnog were any good, don’t you think people would drink the stuff on the other 51 weeks of the year? Yuck!)
But this year the brouhaha has been stepped up several notches, in Rhode Island at least. Our Christmas fracas has been spotlighted on national TV (mostly Fox News Channel) and even locals are all lathered up. Talk show host John DePetro is – swear to God! – organizing a flash mob to sing “O Christmas Tree” during the “holiday tree” lighting ceremony. Other radio talk hosts have been haranguing the governor about his tree nomenclature.
I’m sorry, but I get a whiff of politics about all this nonsense. This isn’t about some “War on Christmas.” It is a war on Chafee.
Where was the flash mob when Gov. Donald Carcieri lit a “holiday tree,” which he did just about every year he was there? I remember going around and around on this topic with Jeff Neal, who was press secretary in Carcieri’s first term, so that was probably 2003 or 2004. Carcieri appeared on Fox News almost as much as he did on the local TV stations. They never once busted his chops about a “holiday tree.” Anyone who says this is a change being made by Chafee is wrong at best and intentionally deceitful at worst.
But now that Chafee is in the governor’s office the sky is falling because he won’t call the damn tree a Christmas tree. Why is everyone’s hair on fire over this? Can’t they just look at it and say, “that’s one more thing Linc Chafee is wrong about”? I mean, these are people who already think that Linc Chafee is wrong about six things every day before breakfast. Why does this one stick in their craw?
I am a “Christmas” kind of guy myself and think it is kind of dumb and overzealous political correctness to not call a Christmas tree a Christmas tree. Thanksgiving, Memorial Day, Veteran’s Day and Independence Day are all “holidays,” but you don’t see people putting up trees in the Statehouse Rotunda, the White House lawn and Rockefeller Center on those days. Only in the days leading up to December 25 are trees erected and decorated. That makes them Christmas trees. I have written columns about this on probably eight of the last 10 Decembers.
But for people to get this worked up about it is just as dumb as the political correctness they rail against. As William Shakespeare never said: “that which we call a Christmas tree by any other name would have just as many presents under it.”
The Rev. Donald Anderson, head of the RI Council of Churches, has it absolutely right. All this fighting over the word “Christmas” is nonsense. Jesus Christ would not give a whit what we called the tree as long as we loved one another and helped our fellow man. In fact, He would probably recoil at the idea of chopping down a perfectly good tree, dragging it indoors and lading it with garish decorations, all in His name, no less. As Holden Caulfield said of what Christmas has turned into: “old Jesus probably would’ve puked if He could see it.”
Unless you are a Druid, or you belong to some kind of cult that worships Santa Claus, a Christmas tree is not a religious symbol. It just isn’t. A cross, yes; a crèche, absolutely. But a tree? No. That gets us to the crux of the problem.
Many devout Christians still consider Christmas to be principally religious holiday. Let’s face facts: It isn’t and it hasn’t been for some time now. That ship sailed many decades ago. People who consider Christmas as the time of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth the Savior (which probably was NOT December 25th) are far outnumbered by people who consider Christmas as the time of Santa Claus and candy canes, of office parties and brightly wrapped packages, of Black Friday and Cyber Monday
I guess that’s why some people just can’t get past this “holiday tree” thing. The reason this one makes them nuts is that they think it falls under the rubric of religion, which is fraught with all kinds of emotions and beliefs. The United States is a secular nation, but most of its people identify with Christianity and Christianity never really got past that “one true religion” thing. Christians (and I am one before you start with all the e-mails and phone calls) tend to get on our high horse whenever somebody won’t kowtow to a public display and recognition of our traditions and customs. How many times do we hear about prayers in school and crèches in public buildings and overtly religious songs at Christmas and Easter and banners in high schools and all that other stuff? We Christians just can’t keep our religion in our churches, as other faiths are content to do; we always seem to be trying to shove our religion down other people’s throats (for their own good, of course). It is as though ostentatious public piety provides proof that we are Good People.
When asked about the suddenly controversial tree, Chafee correctly pointed to Rhode Island’s founder, Roger Williams, who famously said, “Forced religion stinks in the nostrils of God.”
It gets even worse anytime politics and/or government intersects with religion. Then you get nothing but problems.
I have always maintained that every time – no exceptions! – a politician gets involved with religion in a public way, it is for the greater glory of the politician, not God. That goes for other folks in the political/governmental arena, which includes the media.
One of the people who ginned up this bogus notion of a War on Christmas that we must protect ourselves against is Bill O’Reilly. This whips up his audience into a frenzy and gets him big ratings when he fans the flames every year. What Jesus gets out of it was never really clear to me.
By using “holiday tree,” Chafee, to his credit, acted to take the religious aspect out of the Statehouse display, rather than make a public spectacle of his own religiosity. Good for him, even if it is silly not to call a Christmas tree a Christmas tree.
Now let’s stop fighting among ourselves over what to call Christmas trees and go back to picking on illegal aliens and labor unions.
Merry Christmas!

Jim Baron covers politics and the statehouse in Rhode Island for the Rhode Island Media Group. He can be reached at

Southern Rhode Island Newspapers
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