Oh Christmas Tree, Oh State House tree

Nov 30, 2012

Once again, the holidays in Rhode Island are greeted by pitched battles over the public symbols of Christmas. RIPR political analyst wonders 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 crèche 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 crèche 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 crèche 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 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 twinkly 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. Has anybody noticed that in the last two election cycles every candidate hyped by Rhode Island’s talk show shouters was clobbered by voters? Or that President Obama, the bête noire of Fox News and talk radio, had his third best finish among all states in Rhode Island? Makes one wonder who is out of touch.

Chafee deserves some criticism. Once again, his ham-handed media handling of the tree lighting ceremony diminishes his office. Why would a governor lower himself to play dodge-ball with the likes of  John DePetro and Buddy Cianci? Chafee has lately been focusing on creating jobs and growing the economy, so why does he allow himself to be knocked off that message by seasonal silliness?

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 for 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.

Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday on Morning Edition at 6:45 and 8:45. You can also follow his political reporting and commentary at our `On Politics’ blog at RIPR.org