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.

Danny Moloshok/REUTERS/File
People view a nativity scene in Santa Monica, Calif., last year. The city has discontinued the scene after challenges by atheists. Critics say Rhode Island's decision to have a 'holiday tree' fits the same trend of a 'War on Christmas.'

Conflating public celebrations with the Christ mass was not how the 17th century New England Puritans rolled – and that twinge of religious discomfort is still evident in the debate over what to call the big spruce with all the pretty lights inside the Rhode Island state capitol in Providence.

Christmas-boosting protesters crashed the 2011 “holiday tree” lighting in the State House rotunda, but Gov. Lincoln Chafee, the nation’s only independent governor, vowed on Tuesday to press forward with another holiday tree lighting this year.

Fox News, in particular, has zeroed in on Governor Chafee as the latest prosecutor of the “War on Christmas” – shorthand for what many Christians see as a movement by secularists and progressives to diminish America’s religious traditions, specifically Christmas.

To be sure, the question of how to incorporate Christian symbols and celebrations in the public square continues to be an earnest question for many towns, cities, and states. Courts across the country have been busy adjudicating dozens of atheist challenges to Christmas scenes and symbols erected on public land, and Santa Monica, Calif., for one, decided to end its long-time nativity display this year rather than try to referee an argument about whether an atheist should be able to include an anti-God display.

Yet the case of the Rhode Island holiday tree stands in sharp contrast to the secular vs. Christian debate. Indeed, the battle over what to call the State House tree could be better described as one of faith vs. faith – an intra-Protestant battle of neo-Puritan ideals against Evangelical lines in the sand.

Expelled from the rigidly Puritan Massachusetts Bay Colony for his religious views in 1636, Roger Williams founded the Providence colony and called for a complete separation of church and state, a brave stance which eventually earned the Ocean State a reputation as a refuge for religious dissidents, particularly Jews and Quakers.

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.”

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.

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