Rhode Island 'holiday tree': A pox on Christmas or just the Puritan way?
Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee’s ‘holiday tree’ is part of a secular ‘War on Christmas,’ critics say. But a peek at the state’s history points to a deep tradition of religious liberty.
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Unlike other fronts in the war on Christmas, “this is really a religious and philosophical debate, and [Chafee] seems to want to maintain this idea that Rhode Island is still the cradle of religious liberty that it was at its inception,” says the Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State in Washington. “Instead of trying to hedge and fudge this issue, the governor tries to explain the history of the state to its own citizens, and I think that’s commendable.”Skip to next paragraph
In Pictures O Christmas tree
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Fox News personality and perennial Christmas defender Bill O’Reilly said Tuesday that the idea that Williams would have been offended at the mention of a “Christmas tree” is “insane.”
“There is no reason to mess around with the word ‘Christmas,’ ” Mr. O’Reilly said on his show Tuesday. “President Grant signed a law in 1870 making Christmas a federal holiday. So there really isn’t any controversy unless Congress revokes the holiday.”
Nevertheless, harsh views of Christmas as a public holiday run deep in Puritan New England. The Puritans, in fact, were as guilty as anyone in a zeal to control Christmas celebrations, including a Boston ban that lasted from 1659 to 1681. A 1710 transcript of vexed Salem Witch trial prosecutor Cotton Mather laid such feelings bare: “The feast of Christ’s nativity is spent in reveling, dicing, carding, masking and in all licentious liberty … by mad mirth, by long eating, by hard drinking, by lewd gaming, by rude reveling!”
But it was Rhode Island founder Williams who challenged, in part, the precept that government should have authority in spiritual or religious affairs.
“Do you want to light up a tree because in the last few centuries it has come to symbolize the Christmas story? Fine, but best not let your Governor, or Mayor, or Legislature do it,” writes Michael Kessler, associate director of the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University, in an e-mail to the Monitor. “Their political motives might compromise the symbolism of the event. Their theological proclamations might minimize or alter the theological ideas best expressed by religious institutions and individual conscience.”
To some, the larger point is that Christmas is bigger than any public official or ceremony.
“As a religious person, this idea that somehow anything that government does or what it calls a conifer – Christmas tree, holiday bush – that any of this has any effect on the integrity of the religious impact of Christmas for believers is just shocking, and really meaningless drivel in comparison to all kinds of other matters that do impinge on the sense of the season and the good spirit that may flow from it,” says Mr. Lynn.