PROVIDENCE, RI – Once again, the holidays in Rhode Island are greeted by pitched battles over the public symbols of Christmas. Why we all can't embrace the true meaning of this season?
For a clue as to why little of consequence gets done at the State House, we bring you to the annual capitol kerfuffle over the lighting of the soaring evergreen tree that marks the arrival of the Christian Advent celebration.
As has too often been the case in our corner of New England, the rotunda tree has become an occasion for Rhode Islanders to be lampooned on national television and talk radio. The overt message is that Gov. Lincoln Chafee and other proponents of religious freedom are waging what Fox News personality Bill O'Reilly calls a ``war on Christmas'' by labeling the decorated Spruce a holiday tree rather than a Christmas tree.
The subliminal take away is that nothing can get done in Rhode Island's political culture without a silly debate of symbols over substance.
Unfortunately there really is nothing new under the fading sun in this realm. A generation ago the national media focused on Pawtucket and Barrington, where displays of the Christ child in a manger on public properties divided communities and drew national attention from reporters starved for slivers of news during the dozy winter holidays.
The Pawtucket 1980s cr che led to a lawyers' scrum that landed in the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled that the display did not violate the Constitution because it was part of a larger secular holiday scene. In Barrington, a cr che on the Town Hall lawn exposed nasty emotions among residents of that well-off suburb. The Barrington flame was doused when the local Congregational Church moved the cr che to the church's front lawn.
Now, the radio yakkers and Fox News are back, shining their spotlights on our State House tree. Chafee is branded a heathen who is suppressing Christianity in this most Roman Catholic of states.
Never mind that Chafee's stance is precisely the same as that of former Gov. Don Carcieri, who also dubbed it a holiday tree. And forget that there is no attempt by any politician or government anywhere from Narragansett Bay to San Francisco Bay to thwart Christianity. The United States is the most Christian nation in the western world. Christian churches are exempt from taxes and Christmas is a federal holiday. Every president of the United States has been a professed Christian - even those who haven't walked in Jesus' sandals.
The real enemy of the spirit of Christmas is the crass commercialism that buries this season of goodwill under a blizzard of tinsel, trinkets and the relentless rounds of shopping for the baubles that too many Americans grasp to define their status.
Christmas decorations festoon store walls the day after Halloween. Thanksgiving dessert isn't finished when we flee our tables to work in big box retail or get in line at the mall for Black Friday sales.
Too many Christians have allowed colored lights, presents, trees and Santa's reindeer to dilute the celebration of Emanuel, God's presence within us, in the birth of Jesus.
You can't blame right-wing radio and television commentators for taking advantage of this holy season as they grope for relevance.
Next year, let's vow to move beyond this foolishness. Let Governor Chafee announce that the holiday tree lighting will be an occasion to commemorate the season's spirit. Request that those who attend this ceremony bring food for the poor, toys for children whose parents can't afford them or clothes or the homeless.
That might tone down the debate and honor the beginning of the life, ministry and resurrection of Jesus. And maybe move Rhode Island a baby step out of its own shadow.
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