The state of Rhode Island finally can put the “holiday tree” debacle behind it.
This week, Gov. Lincoln D. Chafee announced the tree that was lit Thursday evening at the Statehouse will be called a Christmas tree.
That makes sense, because that’s what it is.
But for two years, there has been controversy over Chafee’s handling of the tree lighting ceremony. In 2011, the first year of his governership, Chafee issued an invitation to the Statehouse “holiday tree lighting ceremony,” igniting a backlash that extended far beyond the borders of the Ocean State.
Even though Chafee explained then — as he did again this week — that all he did was issue the same invitation as his predecessors had, critics immediately pounced. They criticized the governor, who was elected as an independent, for using “holiday” instead of “Christmas,” calling it, among other things, “disheartening and divisive,” and “an affront to the faith of many citizens.”
Last year, in an apparent attempt to avoid demonstrations and protesters, Chafee pulled a fast one, lighting the Statehouse tree with only 30 minutes notice — an act that drew its own fair share of derision.
This year, the announcement was issued well in advance, giving plenty of notice to those interested in attending the ceremony. In addition, Chafee issued this statement: “Despite the myriad of pressing issues facing Rhode Island and the nation, this presumably happy event became a focal point for too much anger. Strangely lost in the brouhaha was any intellectual discussion of the liberties pioneered here in Rhode Island 350 years ago in our charter.
“Because I do not think how we address the Statehouse tree affects our ‘lively experiment,’ this year’s invitation calls the tree a Christmas tree.” Chafee added that non-Christian groups also had encouraged him to call it a Christmas tree.
With this concession, albeit overdue, we can at least put this aspect of the “holiday” debate behind us.
Certainly, symbols of holiday celebrations should be called by their specific names. Just as one shouldn’t call a Christmas tree a “holiday tree,” one wouldn’t call a Jewish menorah a “holiday candelabra.” And just as there was a Christmas tree lighting on Thursday at the Statehouse, there was a menorah lighting this year, as there has been in previous years.
In addition, Thursday’s tree lighting ceremony, to be led by Secretary of State A. Ralph Mollis, will feature a diverse array of participants, including the Damhsa Irish Dance Foundation, the Quisqueya In Action Youth Group and the Venezuelan Rhode Island Performers.
Indeed, the state’s cultural and religious diversity is something to be celebrated. During the holiday season — which, for many people, stretches from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day — events should bring people together, not drive them apart. Wonderful local examples include the 39th annual Community Wide Interfaith Service of Thanksgiving, held last week at Temple Shalom in Middletown; and the 12th annual Festival of Lights, which included the lighting of the Diwali Diyas, the Chanukiah, the Advent Wreath and the Fanoos, along with prayers and music, took place Wednesday night at Salve Regina University’s Ochre Court.
In the same spirit, while holiday-specific greetings are appropriate in many situations, the salutation “Happy Holidays” should not be taken as an insult if it is offered in sincerity.
Indeed, holiday greetings have been extended since at least Thanksgiving Eve between store clerks and customers, among friends and even relatives who may not see each other until Christmas or New Year’s Eve.
Saying “Happy Holidays” does not exclude Christmas — or Hanukkah, or Kwanzaa, or even “Festivus for the rest of us,” as was made famous in a “Seinfeld” episode. Rather, it recognizes there is more than one holiday being celebrated this time of year. And it wishes the recipient joy in celebrating whatever holiday he or she chooses.
After all, isn’t that the real meaning of the holiday season?
This editorial recently appeared in the Newport Daily News.