Gov. holds last-minute tree lighting to thwart protesters

Friday, November 30, 2012

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Gov. Lincoln Chafee pulled a festive fast one yesterday, lighting the Statehouse Christmas tree with only 30 minutes’ notice to prevent protesters angry about him calling the fir a “holiday tree” from crashing the party.

Yesterday’s hastily called and sparsely attended tree lighting was in stark contrast to what Chafee called the “chaos” of last year’s ceremony,  in which critics of his seasonal semantics interrupted a children’s choral performance with their own rendition of “O Christmas Tree.”

Chafee’s office announced the noon ceremony at 11:31 a.m. yesterday. It coincided with a previously scheduled Statehouse performance by a middle school orchestral group. Typically, the tree lighting is held in the evening and announced days in advance

“Last year unfortunately this event turned into a very disrespectful gathering,” Chafee told reporters seconds before flipping the switch that lit the 17-foot tree in the Statehouse rotunda. “So let’s light the tree, go and greet the performers and have a very merry holiday season.”

A state lawmaker critical of Chafee’s word choice said it’s unfair that people weren’t given enough notice to attend the ceremony. State Rep. Doreen Coasta, R-North Kingstown, said she plans to host a Statehouse Christmas party on Dec. 5. Costa sponsored a symbolic House resolution in January 2011 declaring the Statehouse tree to be a “Christmas tree” and not a “‘holiday tree’ or other non-traditional terms.”

“A lot of people are not happy,” she said of this year’s tree lighting. “People weren’t able to go. But it’s OK. We’ll have an actual Christmas party.”

The head of the Roman Catholic Church in Rhode Island also weighed in on the ceremony. Bishop Thomas Tobin said Chafee should respect the “heartfelt sentiments of the vast majority of Rhode Islanders” by calling the tree a Christmas tree.

“It’s very unfortunate that the governor has caused so much division in the state that he cannot even have a publicly announced Christmas tree lighting ceremony,” Tobin said in a statement.

Chafee, an independent, has said that while he calls the tree at his home a Christmas tree, he prefers a more inclusive term for the tree that stands inside the Statehouse. Chafee notes that his predecessor, Republican former Gov. Don Carcieri, also called it a holiday tree and argues that the term is in keeping with the state’s founding by Roger Williams as a sanctuary of religious tolerance.

“The tree should be lit, and it shouldn’t be a chaotic, disrespectful event,” Chafee said.

Radio talk show host John DePetro of WPRO-AM organized last year’s protest and said he had been planning one for the ceremony this year. He said the plan had been to sing the carol “Silent Night” after the tree was lit.

DePetro said he would call the governor’s office to arrange his own evening event where people can sing traditional carols.

He said no one intended to interrupt the children’s chorus during last year’s ceremony.

“The only disrespect being shown is from him (Chafee) referring to a Christmas tree as a holiday tree,” DePetro said.

Unlike the hundreds of people who turned out last year, yesterday’s ceremony was witnessed by a handful of state employees, reporters, student musicians and about two dozen family members. During the holiday season the Statehouse hosts student concerts on a nearly daily basis.

After he flipped the switch, Chafee spoke to the junior high orchestral students from Cranston and thanked them for performing.

Parent Lisa Gibb said she was delighted that Chafee attended her 14-year-old son Noah’s concert. Gibb had heard about the tumult over the tree, but she was thinking about other things yesterday.

“It’s beautiful,” Gibb said of the tree. Then she smiled at Noah, who plays guitar in the orchestra. “I’m really proud of him.”

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