The Governor of Rhode Island Celebrates a ‘Holiday Tree’ and a Christian Group is Pissed Off

Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee caused controversy last year when he failed to treat Christians with the privilege they think they deserve:

lawmakers [were] upset with his decision to call the blue spruce erected in the Statehouse a “holiday tree” instead of a “Christmas tree.”

Chafee insists he’s just respecting the state’s history as a place respectful of all religions.

It’s one of those things that shouldn’t be a big deal… unless you’re one of those Christians who constantly feels under attack. It’s a respectable move for Chafee, anyway. And he’s doing it again this year, too:

… Chafee, an independent, said the term is in keeping with the state’s founding as a sanctuary of religious tolerance and pointed to the text of Rhode Island’s Royal Charter of 1663.

“The charter, which for the first time in the world gave ‘full liberty in religious concernments.’ Those are the words. First time in the world. It happened right here in Rhode Island,” Chafee said.

Chafee also said the State House is public building paid for by Rhode Islanders of all faiths.

Christian groups like Liberty Counsel are up in arms over the word change. They can’t believe a government official would dare to be inclusive of any non-Christians this time of year:

“Governor, what do you call a green, pointed, prickly tree we decorate in December? Everyone except for the governor knows it’s a Christmas tree,” said Mat Staver, Founder and Chairman of Liberty Counsel.

Renaming a Christmas tree to a ‘Holiday tree’ is political correctness run amok. A Menorah is associated with Hanukkah. Its name should not be changed. Santa and his sleigh appear during December bearing Christmas gifts. His name and those of his reindeer entourage should not be changed. Everyone knows that an evergreen tree decorated with lights and ornaments in December is a Christmas tree. The only reason to change the name is due to crass bigotry and ignorance.

Everyone knows the Bible said Jesus walked on water, too, but that doesn’t make it true or an idea we need to keep perpetuating. Trees, lights, Santa Claus, reindeer, mistletoes — none of those things belong exclusively to Christians. (Menorahs, on the other hand, do belong to the Jews.) The history of Christmas trees doesn’t revolve around Jesus. No one is bound to call an evergreen tree a “Christmas tree” anymore than they have to say “Merry Christmas” as a greeting just because it’s December. It may be tradition, but it doesn’t need to continue.

It’s still just a tree.

This is a fake controversy created by Christians. It’s not enough that their beliefs are already celebrated across the country; they want it to be the only game in town.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • Andrea Crain

    A Jewish man I know gets similarly annoyed by this, too, though. He sees it as a false inclusiveness since the tree is obviously about Christmas and there is no such thing as a Chanukkah tree. 

  • Salford3lad

    A Christian commenting on “crass bigotry and ignorance”,  pot, kettle, black.

  • Ggsillars

    As a descendant of Roger Williams, I’m disappointed. 

  • Dannyjo62

    Evergreen trees were used to celebrate the winter solstice prior to Christianity, what did the pagans call it?

  • Thomas Lawson

    I’m afraid I’m siding with Liberty Counsel on this one (gag). There’s no other American holiday that requires a decorated tree indoors. The government didn’t make December 25th “Non-descript Winter Holiday Day.” It’s Christmas. The governor better be working on getting the word “Thursday” changed if he doesn’t want to play favorites…

  • Ggsillars

    I should clarify:  I’m disappointed that so many in Rhode Island don’t seem to understand the importance of the “wall of separation.”  Jessica Ahlquist discovered just how deep that ignorance runs.

  • Conspirator

    Last year I recall that one of the states in the NE, perhaps it was Rhode Island, put up a “holiday tree” and naturally Christians complained, and Fox news ran stories on it with their annual “War on Christmas” nonsense, and claimed it was a tradition to call it a Christmas tree and all the previous governors had done so.  The only thing is that was a lie, the previous governor, who I believe was a republican, had also called it a “holiday tree”.  Anybody remember anymore details on that?  

  • Thomas Lawson

    Exactly, it’s like bringing a bat and ball to a field and saying, “Let’s play a sport!”

  • Neal Fournier

    Personally, I don’t care what he calls it. There’s no legal mandate behind any of this, so while he calls it a holiday tree (which it isn’t… I’m a RI resident, an atheist and even I can see why kids love Cinnamon Toast Cr-… I mean, that it’s a Christmas tree), anyone else is free to call a spade a spade.

    To be honest, this shouldn’t even be buzzworthy except for people like John DiPietro to have an apoplectic fit over yet again.

    Would have been more amusing if he called it a Festivus tree, though. For the rest of us.

  • Sam B

    “Santa and his sleigh appear during December bearing Christmas gifts. His name and those of his reindeer entourage should not be changed.”

    Except in the UK where he is known as Father Christmas.

  • ortcutt

    Are you suggesting that Chafee is legally required to refer to a decorated tree in the month of December as a “Christmas tree”?  If not, then what are you siding with Liberty Counsel about?

  • Raising_Rlyeh

    I really want that tree topper. 

  • C Peterson

    My family puts up a tree every year. We call it a “solstice tree” because that’s what we celebrate. So clearly, an evergreen tree during the winter holidays has different significance, and different names, to different people. Given that, what could possibly be more inclusive and reasonable than calling it a “holiday tree” in a pubic setting?

  • Thegoodman

     I actually agree with the Christian guy. Renaming the Christmas tree doesn’t make it “not” a Christmas Tree, it just lets the Christians pretend they are being inclusive.

    I think the state should refrain from promoting any religious holidays, not try to dance around all of them. How about they just don’t waste time with a stupid tree anyhow?

  • Thegoodman

     I can’t speak for Thomas, but personally I agree with him, I do not think they should put up a tree to begin with.

    Put a big stupid sign that says “Happy Holidays” and be done with it.

    Despite that fact that Christmas Trees are relatively new to Christians (most seem to be completely unaware of this fact), the thing is still a celebration of the birth of their oh-so-convenient winter solstice savior. Calling it something else is actually disrespectful IMO, don’t call it anything, don’t put the damn thing up.

  • Dats3

    I don’t get the outrage about this and the war on xmas.  No one is forcing christians to call the tree a holiday tree or threatening them with jail for saying merry christmas.  I call my tree a christmas tree out of tradition.  But I don’t really care what someone else calls their tree whether it’s a neighbor the godd*mn governor.  I just don’t get why christians get so wrapped around the axel over this.  They seem to have too much time on their hands.  All I can say is way to go Chaffee.

  • RowanVT

    In my family we have a christmas tree, a hanukkah bush, and a yule shrubbery depending on which household we’re in.

  • C Peterson

    Pagan trees?

  • BeasKnees

    Me too!

  • Bottle Rocket

    Por Kettle Black sounds like a movie title.

  • Baby_Raptor

    Except that, like most other things “Christmas,” christianists blatantly ripped off decorating trees from the Pagans and their holiday set around this time. And there are still people in the US who practice Yule. 

    Christianists don’t own Christmas. They stole most everything about the holiday, including the date. They have no right to whine when someone decides that maybe the practitioners of the original holiday deserve some respect too. 

  • Baby_Raptor

    You know, except for Yule, the Pagan holiday that christianists ripped everything from to create “Christmas.”

    And yes, there are still people who celebrate Yule. 

    So don’t worry. You don’t have to agree with Liberty Counsel on anything. 

  • Octoberfurst

    Personally I don’t care if they call it a “Christmas” tree or a “Holiday” tree. Christmas is a SECULAR as well as a religious holiday. Christians don’t own this holiday any more than they own Easter. (I know many secular people who color Easter eggs and have silly Easter  bunny displays in their yards.)  So if you want to call it a Christmas tree by all means do so. But I applaud Governor Chaffee  for trying to be inclusive.  

  • Baby_Raptor

    Because they have to be persecuted somehow, Jebus said so. And since nobody is feeding them to lions or jailing them for wearing crosses, it ends up as shit like this. 

  • FilthyCreature

    I had an amazing Israeli girlfriend.  One year, she came to my parents place to decorate the Christmas Tree.  She was a bit apprehensive about participating in such a Christian tradition.  After a few eggnogs she remarked, “this doesn’t really have anything to do Christianity does it, you guys just like to get drunk and have something to hang the lights on, right?”  BINGO!

  • ortcutt

    So, we can’t have lighted trees because the Christians claim them for themselves exclusively?  What about seasonal lights on public streets?  Are we all supposed to live in the depressing darkness just because Christians claim an entire month for themselves?  He should just put up the damn lighted tree and say “It’s dark and cold outside, and the economy sucks ass, and this tree is bright and smells nice and that’s a perfectly good secular reason for it to be here.  Happy two days off from work.”  But he won’t do that so calling it a “holiday tree” is fine by me.

  • Helanna

    A lot of the people here are saying that “Well, if you’re going to decorate a tree, just admit you’re celebrating Christmas and call it a Christmas tree”. 

     . . . Why? I suspect they’re decorating the tree because it’s pretty, fun, and it celebrates winter and the holiday season in general, *not necessarily* Christmas in particular. The same reason my town put up lights and wreaths and bows in the street and it’s only November. The same reason my nonreligious family puts up a tree – it’s a fun tradition, it’s pretty, and it gets us all in the holiday spirit. There’s no reason simply decorating a tree *has* to be a celebration of Christianity. 

    Right now, if you refer to Christmas most people will view it as an endorsement of Christianity, right or wrong. One day, I hope Christmas will be an entirely secular holiday, but until then, does Christianity really have to rule and overshadow every other holiday? 

  • curtcameron

    Jeremiah 10:2 refers to them as “heathens.” 

    “Heathen tree” has a nice ring to it.

  • namrehybbor

    You know what?  I actually agree with the ‘Liberty Council’ on this one.  

    I should mention that yes, I am an atheist (for about 4 years now.)  

    Yes I know that Christians stole X-mas trees from the pagans x number of centuries ago.  But you know what… even so, they *are* now Christmas trees.  As far as I know, no other holiday lays claim to the tradition of decorating trees with lights and ornaments during the month of December, or at least not a serious contender.  Due to this, I do not see the idea of calling a tree decorated because of Christmas, a Christmas tree, nor do I see it as an attack on atheists or atheism.  

    Please understand, I agree that Christians take the attack on Christmas a little too seriously, and that they do tend to overreact to not getting their way.  But I must disagree with the governor’s decision on this case.  

  • Patterrssonn

    You are of course referring to cricket.

  • RobertoTheChi

    It’s that good old christian persecution. They thrive on it.

  • ReadsInTrees

    How is it “obviously” about Christmas? Did the shepherds and the wise men decorate a tree alongside the manger? Seems to me that this was another pagan tradition that was “obviously” absorbed by Christianity. 

  • TerranRich

    You know what, it’s hilarious… WPRO, a RI conservative talk station, refrains from calling it a “Christmas tree”, pretending like they’re being forced somehow by the governor to call it a “Holiday tree”, and getting all petulant and self-righteous about it.

    When local alt rock station WBRU reports on it, they call it a “Christmas tree”, report the news, and get the fuck on with it.

  • Marella

    This argument depends on your definition of Xmas. If it is any celebration related to the 25th of Dec then the tree is an Xmas tree. But if it is a religious celebration of the  birth of Jesus then the tree has absolutely nothing to do with it and you can call it whatever you like. If you are celebrating the mythical birth of a magic baby, then call it a Xmas tree, if not call it whatever you want. I have been an atheist my whole life and I call it a Christmas tree or just ‘the tree’. I love festive solstice trees and I would hate to think that they couldn’t be put up in public because the Christians stole the idea from the Germans. Take back the solstice tree I say!

  • TerranRich

    Funny how there are multiple sports that involve a bat and a ball. Unless you were being sarcastic. In which case, very smart. ;)

  • TerranRich

    We want… a SHRUBBERY! *orchestra hit*

  • TerranRich

    He literally spends an entire hour or two every other day on this subject. He’s obsessed, the poor little thing.

  • TerranRich

    Same state, same governor, same tradition, same complaints, same persecution complex. :)

  • TerranRich

    This makes about as much sense as eliminating marriage entirely in order to solve the marriage equality issue. How about no… there are many people who celebrate a very secular Christmas and who don’t care what the tree is called. Nobody is being forced to call it a “Holiday tree”… that’s just what Governor Chafee has decided to call it (much like the governor before him). Furthermore, why let the Christians keep Christmas all to themselves by kowtowing to them in this fashion?

  • TerranRich

    So you agree with forcing the governor to call it a specific thing, instead of what he wants (and how the governor before him did it as well)? How does that make any sense?

    In every single “controversy”, I always err on the side of choice. If Chafee chooses to call it a Holiday tree, let him… you and I can call it whatever WE want, as well! Or would you object if I personally called MY tree a Kwanzaa Pine? Or a Celebration Evergreen? Or a Solstice Plant? Would you object to my calling my own tree whatever I want? Would you become belligerent and demand that I conform and call it the traditional name of “Christmas Tree”?

  • C Peterson

    It does, although it kind of brings to mind imagery from the Hyperion Cantos.

  • Question Everything

    I think most tree setups are aided by drunkeness or at least fun times.  No religion, just “heyyyyy, I remember this from when I was, you know, like 5… it was aweshome.. wait, my cup is empty..”

  • MineApostasy

    It’s the title of a Tilly and the Wall song, that’s for certain.

  • Question Everything

    Yeah, no.  I have fun putting up a tree with friends and family.. playing “find the pickle” (this is not a euphemism;  it’s actually a pickle ornament that you’re supposed to find, then move on the tree for someone else to track down) is fun and completely secular, but even my very religious parents take part when I visit.

    I put up a “glowy, blinking, bedazzled, awesome tree because I love such things and they fit this time of year for discounts at stores and I take any excuse to put up glowy stuff”.  IMHO, that’s still enough of a reason to have one, even without faith, and I don’t see why you’d find that disrespectful, given you know it wasn’t a Christian tradition.

  • Question Everything

    The name “Christmas Tree Lot” for places that sell them is something of a giveaway… perhaps they weren’t in the manger, but it sure was absorbed, much like many other traditions of Christianity.  If you think this is wrong/bad, you’re on the wrong side of a lot of Christians or faux Christians looking for a fight, like those on Fox News.

  • Coyotenose

     The great part is that Santa DOES have quite a few names*, and that the reindeer names are a post-Colonial American invention. And Rudolph is younger than my dad.

    *including “Odin”.

  • Baby_Raptor

    There are still lots of people who practice Yule, the holiday Christmas was ripped from.

    But I guess since they don’t have the sheer numbers christianity does, they’re not “serious.” And we all know that the Constitution only offers serious religions freedom, right?

  • Coyotenose

     This sums up pretty much the entire thing. It’s like how humans seek out tension and imagine threats where they don’t exist because they’re wired to look out for danger. Actually, it might even come from the same instincts.

  • Carla

    I actually know several Jews who celebrate Christmas, decorations and all, just cause it’s pretty and fun. And cause this is America and they can. 

  • TerranRich

    My ex-wife, also an atheist, refuses to even acknowledge Christmas by name and instead calls her tree a Solstice Tree. I disagree with the practice, especially since I think it’ll confuse our kids. But do I go into her apartment and demand she call it a Christmas Tree, because that’s what it IS, dammit! No. She can call it whatever the hell she likes. Same goes here.

  • vexorian

    I love it because if the Governor called it a Christmas tree and an atheist asked for it to be removed because it is an endorsement of a religious holiday. The Xtians would be all over it and blaming the atheist for not noticing that “Christmas is an inclusive holiday”.


  • Edmond

    Oh, wouldn’t the Tree of Thorns look lovely by the bay window?  The children are all nestled in their resurrection creches, dreaming of the Technosphere, waiting for the Shrike to arrive!

  • Edmond

    Jeremiah 10:2-4

    Their own book forbids this practice, but (like so many inconvenient elements of the Bible) they ignore it.

  • Renshia

    I think they should just call it whatever they want. The Jewish guy, he gets to call it a  Chanukkah tree. The secular can call it a holiday tree and yeah, we can even let the christians call it an Christmas tree. It could be an allah tree, a Joseph tree. How about you can call it any damn thing you want.

    Now everyone can be happy,  get along and enjoy Christmas. 

  • Librepensadora

    Jewish comedienne Gertrude Berg (1898-1966) told a great Xmas tree story on one of the TV variety shows that my family watched back in the 1950s.  Most of her school friends were Christian and she desperately wanted a Christmas tree like they had.  But her father was having none of it.  No Christian symbol in HIS house.  (This being before the pagan origins of the custom was widely  known.)  Then, just before Hanukkah, Dad came home from work with an evergreen tree. Setting it down, he solemnly announced, “This is our Haukkah bush.”

  • Librepensadora

     ooooooooooooooooops–Make that HANUKKAH bush.

  • Thomas Lawson

    Well, not in The States. Baseball’s the national past time. People would assume you meant baseball, so to just say “insert your preferred euphemism” when everyone knows you mean baseball is kind of disingenuous and patronizing.

    I would like to send the governor DVD copies of “A Holiday Carol,” “National Lampoon’s Holiday Vacation,” and “A Holiday Story,” so that he might be able to have a movie night at the Capitol without offending anyone. Spoiler alert: that last one is about a little boy named Ralphie that wants to exercise his 2nd Amendment rights, not about Jesus.

  • TerranRich

    Good lord you’re thick. So, no, you weren’t being smart. Got it.

  • Helanna

    “Celebration Evergreen.”

    I like it. 

  • Paul

    every year i decorate my tree with condoms… instead of a star on top i have a sign which says: “MARRY FUCKING XMAS”

  • Baby_Raptor

    Except that the christianists wouldn’t be happy, because letting other people celebrate how they want is “persecution.” 

  • Sue Blue

    “Festivus for the rest of us” ! Decorate an aluminum pole today, and save a tree!

  • Willy Occam

    But first, you must cut down the mightiest Holiday Tree in the forest… with a HERRING! *orchestra hit*

  • pagansister

    Hooray for my former Governor.  I lived 18 years in that fantastic little state, and I’m happy to hear Chafee is not giving into the Christians, who feel they own the state.  (a very Catholic state).     Did those folks who are ticked off realize that decorating evergreens started with those Pagan Romans celebrating Saturnalia?  They brought evergreen branches inside to decorate.     Pagans wouldn’t have cut the trees down, as that would have been destructive.  The winter solstice is celebrated at this time, before Christmas was even thought about!
    Way to go, Governor Chafee!   

  • pagansister

     Well said, C Peterson, well said!

  • pagansister

     I used to listen to PRO because they had the traffic reports during my drive to work.  Other than that–listened to WBUR in Boston—PBS station.  I can relate to your comments about them above.

  • m6wg4bxw

    Some Christians are displeased by mere wording about such a thing. Nearly as odd is that some atheists are pleased by it. It’s the same event, whatever the language. Sure, the sentiment behind the words chosen matters to some degree. But would atheists be relieved by a “holiday crèche?” I strongly doubt it.

  • Michaelbrice

    Observant girl isn’t she?

  • Aspieguy

    Perhaps the governor should call it “ein tannenbaum”.

  • Alex W

    OPeople in the south should call them evergreens by their right and proper names, as established by our Canadian government:

    Festive bushes!

  • Javox

    This is about as cringeworthy and ridiculous as renaming Halloween costumes to holiday costumes. Halloween is also a Christian term for their holiday that usurped the pagan Samhain…. but Halloween is still the word we use, just like we say Thursday even though Thor isn’t real and way goodbye even though we don’t mean it as a short form of “god be with ye”.

  • Riccardo

    As the chairman of the American Association for the Worship of Baldr, I strongly object to this outrageous change of name of the tree that is meant to represent the bough that killed our god. The only reason this tree has been renamed is due to crass bigotry and ignorance and the perpetrators will surely freeze forever in the ice of Niflheimr.

  • Greg1466

    What?!?  How dare Christians call a Yule Tree a Christmas Tree?  Why, it’s almost as if they want to steal another cultures traditions and symbolisms and make them their own.  Wait…

  • Jennifer

    I’m siding with the “get government out” of holidays, celebrations or any other activity that takes away from the purpose of government, serving the people without judgement or favoritism. The time and funds wasted decorating government offices accomplishes nothing by way of taking care of the business of the state. It’s all so unnecessary and should be done away with completely.

  • watchemoket

    From the web site of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops:
    Blessing Of A Christmas Tree
    The use of the Christmas tree is relatively modern. Its origins are found in the medieval mystery plays that depicted the tree of paradise and the Christmas light or candle that symbolized Christ, the Light of the world. According to custom, the Christmas tree is set up just before Christmas and may remain in place until the Solemnity of Epiphany. The lights of the tree are illuminated after the prayer of blessing.

    In the home the Christmas tree may be blessed by a parent or another family member, in connection with the evening meal on the Vigil of Christmas or at another suitable time on Christmas Day.  << The Catholic (and most Christian) tradition regarding the tree is to set it up in one's home shortly before Christmas. Strictly speaking, it's not even supposed to be lit until after it is 'blessed' on Christmas Eve or even Christmas Day.What is put up and displayed in the capital Building (called the State House in Rhode Island) is a symbol of the several holidays being celebrated, and is appropriately called a Holiday Tree. Anyone can call the tree they erect in their home (or in their church) whatever they want, but at a government sponsored and paid for event should not be advocating or supporting any religion – even one in the vast majority.

  • Anna

    Interesting! You learn something new every day. I had no idea the Catholic church decided to set up official “tree blessing” rules. How much you want to bet that almost none of their members have ever heard about this? Maybe some of the fundie Catholics, but I can’t imagine normal Catholics being on board with it.

    The use of the Christmas tree is relatively modern. Its origins are found in the medieval mystery plays that depicted the tree of paradise and the Christmas light or candle that symbolized Christ, the Light of the world.

    I love how they totally ignore the pagan origins. Historical revisionism FTW!

  • Mr T.

    Lucky for us here in pagan Scandinavia (Sweden in my case), we still call this holiday jul (yule), so we don’t have to put up with the linguistic argument. Call it “yule spruce”, that’s what we do :)

  • nakedanthropologist

    Ni! Ni! Ni!

  • amycas

     harumph /crossing arms

    Festivus has an unadorned aluminum pole, not a tree

  • amycas

     You’re not supposed to decorate the Festivus Pole! Why are you waging a war on Festivus?!?!1111~!

  • amycas

     I had a friend in high school who lived with her mother and they always decorated the tree with bras (they would buy cheap ones at the store and after Christmas donated them to the local women’s shelter).

  • amycas

     I wouldn’t say putting up decorations accomplishes nothing. It can be a nice morale booster. I had to go to the student activities office the other day and they were having a great time decorating a tiny tree (it was funny, because all the decorations looked huge compared to the tree). It was fun, brightened up the office and provided a small distraction to otherwise monotonous office work. They also invited me to help (I don’t work in the office, just a student), and I couldn’t because I didn’t have time, but it did make me feel welcomed by employees at my school.

  • Guesty Guest

    And yet they were oddly silent when his predecessor, a Republican, did the same thing.