A Manufactured Controversy: The Holiday Tree

On November 28, 2011 in Rhode Island, Governor Lincoln Chafee’s office issued a routine and rather perfunctory press release entitled “Governor Chafee to Host State Holiday Tree Lighting.”  The press release read, in part:

Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee and First Lady Stephanie Chafee will host the annual State House holiday tree lighting in the State House Rotunda on Tuesday, December 6, 2011 at 5:30 p.m. All Rhode Islanders are invited to attend and see the 17-foot Colorado Blue Spruce lit for the first time. The tree was donated by Big John Leyden’s Tree Farm in West Greenwich.

Santa Claus and Mrs. Claus will be available for a visit with the children. Light refreshments will be offered, along with entertainment by the Rhode Island Children’s Chorus and the Governor’s Own 88th Army Band.

A display of international holiday trees will reveal how the season is celebrated in different ways across the globe. The exhibit of trees from around the world will be located on the second floor of the State House in the halls surrounding the Rotunda.

The potential First Amendment controversy surrounding the erection of a Christian symbol on state property had been avoided in Rhode Island for years through the simple expedient of declaring that the tree to be decorated and illuminated was a secular Holiday Tree, rather than a Christian Christmas Tree. This was an obvious attempt at getting around church-state separation issues, and by most accounts, it was a successful end run. There is a case to be made, however spurious some may feel it to be, that Christmas is essentially a secular holiday.

Of course, Jews, Muslims, atheists/Humanists, Pagans, Buddhists and Jehovah’s Witnesses may not agree with this idea of a secular Christmas enjoyed by all, but the present climate in the United States and present balance of the Supreme Court make it seem unlikely that there will be any successful legal challenges to the erection of Holiday Trees in the very near future.

A lighted, non-religious Holiday Tree lighting ceremony has been and will be the annual tradition at the Rhode Island State House for some time to come. In a very real sense, the Christian majority have gotten what they wanted: a symbol of their religion and their holiday prominently displayed in Rhode Island State House, and not just one tree, but “a display of international holiday trees” as well. For the time being, many of Rhode Island’s Christian citizens are winning.

But this ongoing victory was not enough for right wing talk radio news jock John DePetro. The day after Governor Chafee’s press release DePetro, in conversation with his guest, State Representative Joseph Trillo, invited a line of attack on the Governor based on a resolution passed at the Rhode Island State House of Representatives back in January, 2011 that mandated the use of the term Christmas Tree by all state employees.

It seems that way back in January, Trillo was a co-sponsor, along with freshman legislator and Tea Party darling Doreen Costa, of a House Resolution “Respecting Christmas Trees.” The resolution read, “RESOLVED, That it is the policy of the state that state officials and departments refer to the tree customarily erected or displayed in celebration of the period from Thanksgiving of each year to January of the following year as a “Christmas tree” and not as a “holiday tree” or other non-traditional terms.”

Of course, such resolutions do not have the force of law, which is fortunate, because this particular resolution would be in direct violation of the First Amendment if that were the case. As First Amendment scholar David L. Hudson Jr. pointed out, “The First Amendment allows people to believe as they wish. It also says the government cannot compel us to speak or compel us to believe anything. State employees should be able to call a tree in their workplace a ‘Christmas tree,’ a ‘holiday tree,’ or just ‘a tree.’”

In some ways the unconstitutionality of the resolution is the least of its problems. According to the Providence Journal, the resolution “was approved by the House within moments of introduction, without any of the lawmakers getting copies of the measure on which they were being asked to vote.”

Is it traditional to blindly pass resolutions without reading them? To make matters worse, buyer’s remorse set in immediately, with Gordon Fox’s chief legal council John Flynn pointing out that the resolution was “not properly before the body,” and therefore, presumably, in dispute. It is worrisome to those of us who care about democracy that the State House can pass resolutions without actually going through the trouble of reading them.

But let’s get back to John DePetro’s radio show and his guest Joseph Trillo, who helped sponsor the Christmas tree resolution. Trillo acknowledges that Governor Chafee had no legal obligation to follow the resolution’s directive, but added, “I would hope that he would heed to the fact that it was the request of the General Assembly… in most cases people do. So I’m offended to have him call it a Holiday Tree.”

Trillo added, “If you don’t feel that there should be a Christmas Tree at the State House then eliminate the Christmas Tree, but don’t call it something else.” This seems an odd position for Trillo, who portrays himself as very pro-Christmas tree, to take. He seems to want there to either be a Christian Christmas Tree erected in the State House, a clear violation of the First Amendment, or nothing. Of course, Trillo is not the Governor of Rhode Island, so it is not his call to make. He is putting Chafee, who Trillo sees as a political enemy, on the spot, forcing the Governor to either eliminate the tree altogether, alienating Christian and Catholic conservatives or violate the First Amendment, one of the core principles upon which Rhode Island and the United States is based on.Either way, Chafee loses.

John DePetro is a Rhode Island right wing talk radio host. His ratings depend on his ability to rile the conservative Christian base. A strong supporter of the Tea Party, DePetro seldom depends on nuanced or reason arguments when he speaks. His appeals are always emotive in nature, depending heavily on patriotism, religion and nostalgia. A local version of Rush Limbaugh, DePetro lacks the charisma and talent to go national, but that won’t stop him from trying. He is savvy enough to know that “War on Christmas” stories can rally the base, so he ups the ante in his conversation with Trillo, claiming that “…for the past eight years, Governor Carcieri and Mrs. Carcieri would host the lighting of the State House Christmas Tree.”

This was a lie.

In fact, as Ted Nesi of WPRI.com showed, Governor Carcieris 2009 invitation referred to the tree to be decorated and lit as a Holiday Tree. The next day, on November 30th, Politifact, armed with this info, confronted DePetro:

When we contacted DePetro Tuesday evening, he said he did a Google search and found that in 2010 it was referred to as a Christmas tree. “I just went on last year,” he said. “I think I said the eight years, but I didn’t have that as a fact.”

Politifact rated DePetro’s comment as “False” on their Truth-o-Meter, and of course, DePetro backed down and apologized, right? Wrong. Before this debacle would be over, DePetro would double down on the lie on national television.

The same day Politifact revealed Depetro’s lie, the radio jock was interviewing Timothy Reilly, Chancellor of the Roman Catholic Providence Diocese. Reilly said, “”It’s one of those things, the old phrase ‘what’s in a word?’ Well, for Christians it’s pretty much everything. That word Christmas is one of the most sacred and precious words in our vocabulary of faith.” Reilly added, “The [Governor’s] decision was probably meant to inspire a unity but as we are seeing in these days this has just the opposite effect.”

But where is this sense of division coming from? Governor Chafee was simply doing the same thing his predecessor Governor Carcieri did. In essence, he made no “decision” but simply followed established precedent. Carcieri, though, was politically far to the right of Chafee, and Carcieri was a Catholic. Chafee is a moderate Episcopalian, who supports gay marriage and a woman’s right to choose, so the Catholic Church sees him as a political enemy. The Catholic Church could have supported Chafee in this, as they supported Carcieri. The reason for their change in policy was political.

The Reverend Don Anderson, “Executive Minister Rhode Island State Council of Churches told WPRO News, ‘the tree has been called a variety of things over the year[s], it is in the statehouse which is a nonsectarian environment. Rhode Island has historically been the place where everyone is welcome, we’re the lively experience that said ever back in Roger Williams day, no matter what your faith tradition, you all come.'”

Chafee defended himself in a similar fashion, pointing out that Rhode Island’s founder, Roger Williams, worked to secure a Royal Charter from the King of England that would guarantee religious freedom, the first time such a concept was enshrined in law. This idea lead to the First Amendment, and to the principle of the separation of church and state so important to the Founding fathers of the United States.

The Catholic Church in Rhode Island thrived because of our fidelity to the principle of religious toleration and freedom, so it is especially galling to hear Bishop Thomas Tobin’s statement:

Governor Chafee’s decision to avoid the word Christmas at the State House ceremony is most disheartening and divisive. It is sad that such a secular spirit has swept over our state. The Governor’s decision ignores long held American traditions and is an affront to the faith of many citizens. For the sake of peace and harmony in our state at this special time of the year, I respectfully encourage the Governor to reconsider his decision to use the word Christmas in the state observance.

As we have seen, it was not Chafee who sought to politicize this non-event. It was DePetro, pursuing a right wing agenda, ratings and his own self-aggrandizement, and the Catholic Church under Bishop Tobin, who hope to weaken the Governor because of their disapproval of his position on issues that have nothing to do with Christmas. There is no reason, other than politics, that Bishop Tobin could not have agreed with Reverend Don Anderson, and supported the First amendment.

But there was still one more person who sought to make a career move out of this issue. Doreen Costa, the primary architect of of the bill Representative Trillo supported way back in January, the one that tried to force the State Government to call all decorated evergreens on State property “Christmas Trees.”

Trillo may be a local political hack, but Tea Party success story Doreen Costa is a true believer. Costa, who identifies strongly as a Catholic, introduced the Christmas Tree resolution, in her own words, “on a whim,” but was “excited” when it passed. This after she had run on the promise that all resolutions and bills placed before the General assembly must be analyzed to be sure that they pass Constitutional muster before being considered, and that all bills placed before the body be done so in such a way as to ensure the legislators time to read them. Hypocritically, her very first action as a Representative was to force through a resolution that broke both these promises, “on a whim.”

So on November 30th, while DePetro continued his assault on his radio show and Bishop Tobin issued his press release, Doreen Costa found her way to Fox News and the morning show Fox & Friends to be interviewed by Steve Doocy.Right off Costa misrepresents the passage of the bill, stating only that the resolution passed unanimously on the house floor, with no talk about the problems with the resolution’s passage or its questionable legality. Costa’s account also directly contradicts the lie told earlier by DePetro. She explains that as a freshman legislator, Costa walked by the tree and learned that it was being referred to as a Holiday Tree. This is the tree put up by the previous Governor, Carcieri. If Chafee was changing the rules this year as DePetro claimed and Tobin implies, then how does that square with Costa’s account?

After more conversation in which Costa got to extol her own virtues as a person who seemingly spends all her time doing volunteer work (when does she find time to legislate?) Steve Doocy puts the Governor’s phone number up on a national network for loyal Fox viewers to use if they feel like complaining. The Governor would receive more than 3600 calls, all but 700 from out-of state. The story had gone national in a big way. Only 92 calls supported the governor’s decision, which Christmas Tree supporters seemed to think was significant.At the end of the interview with Doocy, Doreen Costa delivered her masterstroke, saying:

We will be holding a Christmas Tree lighting so if you want to go to a Holiday Tree lighting you can join the Governor, if you would like to come to a Christmas Tree lighting you can join myself…

Suddenly, there was going to be two competing tree lighting ceremonies at the State House. Costa had stolen the controversy out from under DePetro and Tobin. Not to be outdone, the next day the archdiocese of Providence announced their own Christmas Tree lighting ceremony, to compete with the Governor’s, scheduled at the exact same time and date. The location would be only a short distance up the street from the State House.

Father James Ruggeri, Pastor of St. Patrick’s Parish, 244 Smith Street, today announced that the parish -in conjunction with the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence- will host a Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony and Prayer Service on Tuesday, December 6 at 5:30 p.m.

The event was scheduled to provide those Rhode Islanders who wish to maintain the celebration of Christmas rather than secularize the season with the ‘holiday’ label.

A choir will provide music then following a brief prayer service led by Bishop Thomas J. Tobin and Father Ruggeri, two children of the parish will light the Christmas tree.

Of course, as a protest, this Catholic tree lighting lacked teeth. Putting up a Christmas Tree on Church property is not only completely legal and expected, it’s practically mandatory. What Tobin and the Church wanted to do was draw crowds away from the Governor’s ceremony, in a perfectly acceptable example of separation of church and state. Beyond that, it’s unclear what point they expected to make.

To continue the controversy, Fox & Friends‘ Steve Doocy the next day interviewed John Leydon of Big John Leyden’s Tree Farm in West Greenwich, the guy who donated the Holiday Tree under the idea that he was donating a Christmas Tree. Doocy didn’t ask the obvious question, “Why didn’t Big John Leydon complain when Governor Carcieri called the donated tree a Holiday Tree?” and Leydon wasn’t interested in doing anything other than advertising his tree farm to a potential Catholic/Christian/Tea Party audience. The amount of publicity his donation garnered for his business must have been staggering, and all he had to do was sell out the Governor he had donated his tree to, the Constitution of the United States, and any appearance of ethical values.

With the Bishop Tobin and Doreen Costa now both planning to hold separate tree lighting events to protest the Governor, poor John DePetro, the original architect of this mess, was left out in the cold with nothing to do but field angry calls from his listeners. Fortunately, DePetro works in radio, and pulling stunts is one thing radio personalities know how to do. DePetro got his turn on Fox & Friends where he announced his intention to use his radio audience to generate a “flash mob” at the Governor’s tree lighting ceremony where they would all sing out “O’ Tanenbaum” during the lighting in protest. This would be weird, because Tanenbaum does not actually translate to “Christmas Tree” and in fact when the time came to sing, it was Christmas Tree, not tanenbaum that was heard. (Note that Gretchen Carlson claims that Fox News has been following the story for weeks, when it has actually been mere days.)

DePetro guesses that close to a thousand people will show up for his flash mob, and says that he already has four hundred solidly committed. He says that the time and place of the flash mob must be kept a secret, but that they will be at the State House at 5:30 on Tuesday night for the lighting. This obvious contradiction doesn’t even seem to slow him down. Then again, he is a liar. He claims the issue isn’t religious, even as he claims that Chafee is trying to lock up the atheist vote with his actions. DePetro can never be bothered to string together anything amounting to a coherent argument.

When asked directly about whether Governor Carcieri called the illuminated evergreens under his tenure Christmas Trees, DePetro repeats the lie Politifact caught him in, saying that it was called a Christmas Tree in previous lighting ceremonies. John DePetro lied with a smile on his face to a national audience. The governor’s number was repeated for angry viewers to respond to.

My own involvement in this debacle was fairly early. A blog post I wrote about Doreen Costa and Bishop Tobin’s involvement in this made up controversy was in December 3rd’s Providence Journal. Doreen Costa’s non-answer to my op-ed appeared on the 5th, and was disappointing, because it essentially said nothing. I felt as if I had worked hard on my piece, and done the research, only to have Costa appeal to the nostalgia of Christmas and an odd appeal to fidelity to language.

So now the stage was set. The annual tree lighting ceremony, overseen by the governor, was going to have to compete with two rival lighting ceremonies, one up the street at St. Patrick’s and the other inside the State House, just up the hall. Meanwhile, a right wing talk radio host was preparing a flash mob calculated to do nothing more than to embarrass the governor. What could possibly go wrong?

The night of the Holiday Tree lighting ceremony I arrived early and waited on the steps to meet friends. I watched as 88th Army Band unloaded equipment from their truck and hauled it through the doors. I watched as white shirted children from the Rhode Island Children’s Chorus arrived with their families to sing at the Governor’s event. I also noticed the so-called “flash mob” surreptitiously handing out photocopied fliers with the words to “O’ Christmas Tree” on them. Plenty of people showed up carrying large signs declaring the Holiday Tree to be a Christmas Tree. And a man who identified himself as transgendered Santa Clause was running around in his boxers, in support of the Christmas Tree. His messaging was more confused than DePetro’s.

The crowd in the State House, which the Providence Journal placed at about two hundred, consisted of three groups. People who had come to the tree lighting to see their kids perform in the choir, or to see the 88th Army Band, people who had come out to support John DePetro’s flash mob and/or Doreen Costa’s alternate tree lighting, and those there to support the governor’s decision to keep this celebration secular. Six members of the Humanists of Rhode Island, a group I co-founded, were in attendance.  I spotted some ACLU members, there to support the Governor, in the crowd. We were clearly in the minority, however.

Inside was chaos, with news reporters everywhere. All the local TV stations were represented, and all the local press. Before the night was over I had done interviews for WBZ in Boston, Channels 12 and 64 in Providence, another station I didn’t catch, and the Providence Journal. I was handing out fliers outlining my secular position on the issue, along with the rest of our group. I was also handing copies of my Op-Ed from the Journal. My friend Paul Auger attempted to give one to Doreen Costa herself, but she turned him down with false good humor.

One man went out of his way to return my Op-ed to me crumpled into a ball. I kept that one.

The Children’s Choir was singing their heart’s out. Some of the songs they sang used the word Christmas. They also sang other seasonal songs. It was while they were singing “Holly Jolly Christmas” that the Governor flicked the switch, illuminating the Holiday Tree, and then removed himself from the crowd. Instantly the John DePetro “flash mob” of about fifty to seventy-five people began yelling the song “O’ Christmas Tree” at the top of their lungs.

I was watching and listening from the third floor. Even as the mob burst into song, many of them realized how bad it looked to be suddenly drowning out a Children’s Chorus. They were hopelessly trying to silence there fellow mob members even as others, caught off guard by the sudden singing, began to join in. The Children’s Chorus, to their credit, didn’t miss a beat. Though you could see the confusion on their faces when the crowd started singing, they troopered through.

Those in the crowd who had come to watch their kids sing were appalled. One little girl, who had come to watch her older sister sing and was visibly annoyed by the actions of DePetro’s flash mob, was told by a protester that old people can do what they want.  I read a comment on one sight that attempted to blame to crowd’s rudeness on Chafee, because he flipped the switch and walked away, leaving the protesters no choice but to scream incoherent Christmas Carols at a bunch of hard working, innocent kids. If the Governor had stayed stuck around, the crowd would have targeted him, not the kids. But with no one to strike out at, the Children’s Chorus was left to suffer the brunt of the attack.

Parents said the group of 80 singers was interrupted by protesters. “They were in the middle of ‘Holly Jolly Christmas’ and all these adults started to sing and they drowned the children out,” said mom Denise Davis, “They were singing ‘Oh Christmas Tree’ and one of the things that was so upsetting is it was so planned.”

Ten year old Olivia Yonkmae was on the risers singing at the time. “It just felt like they were trying to disrupt us and doing what they weren’t supposed to do, even though we asked them not to,” she said, “It was just chaos.”

The fifth grader was supposed to meet Governor Lincoln Chafee and get a photo, but that didn’t happen because the governor left the event right after the tree was lit, and some parents said that’s because of all the protesters.

“It was a huge distraction,” said dad Todd Yonkmae, “I mean, the folks with the signs and they’re really kind of detracting from what the children were trying to do.”

Of course John DePetro, a liar, claims that what people heard and saw, and what the news captured so clearly in their televised reports, did not happen:

[DePetro] said [the flash mob] started caroling after the kids finished a song.

Costa’s lighting ceremony occurred after the Governor’s, with many members of the flash mob moving into the hallway outside her office for the lighting. It was singularly unimpressive, and I would like to think that many present felt embarrassed at their rude behavior, because the crowd was much less boisterous. Costa said “This is what Christmas is about. We have a Christmas Tree, we’re going to sing Christmas Carols…” Of course, that was exactly what was happening at the governor’s tree lighting. Costa’s distinction is meaningless, and her protest nonsensical.

Meanwhile, up the street at Bishop Tobin’s Christmas Tree lighting ceremony, which was held outdoors, it rained. The Bishop, unaware that the word Christmas had not been eliminated from the Holiday Tree lighting ceremony (the Children’s Chorus was singing “Holly Jolly Christmas,” after all) said:

We’re very disappointed that Governor decided to eliminate the word Christmas from his celebration, obviously there’s a reason we do it in December.


Our debate about the Christmas Tree is not a trivial thing even though some have suggested that it is.

There’s no question that Bishop Tobin could have used his position to build unity rather than to sow dissent. Had the Bishop simply attended the event his very presence would have given the Holiday Tree lighting the imprimatur of Christmas. In seeking to be divisive, the Bishop unintentionally reinforced the best kind of divisiveness, that of dividing church and state. In that sense the Bishop is right when he says this is no trivial issue. It is a fundamental precept upon which our Constitution is based.

Of course, I’m radically reinterpreting Bishop Tobin’s message here, his intention is to attack the governor, and weaken the wall of separation.

It is plain to see that the only people attacking and ruining Christmas in Rhode Island this year are DePetro, Costa and Tobin, even as they pretend to be defending it.

3 thoughts on “A Manufactured Controversy: The Holiday Tree”

  1. Christianity is supposed to be about loving your neighbor, and Christmas is supposed to be about goodwill toward all–not what you call a stupid tree. No one is stealing Christmas, because we talk about nothing but Christmas starting as soon as we’re done eating Thanksgiving food and going until New Years. I find it a bit ironic that actually including other faiths and traditions into the Christmas monopoly makes some people turn into absolute monsters. Not to be cliche, but what would jesus do?

  2. Kilroy —
    You are the fool — the root of the English word “holy” is a pagan word. Old English “halig” comes from Old Norse and German and other related languages that preceded the arrival of Christianity in England. (For more on that, read the Oxford English Dictionary.) If you mean the word that is translated as “holy” in the English Bible, read the Bible, because you will have to begin with the pre-Christian “Old” Testament, where the Jewish prophets used words translated as “holy” and “sacred” just about every other line.
    But none of that is important. What is important is that, around here, “Christian” is coming to mean a name-calling, ignorant, mean person who is willing to disrupt a performance of children singing Christmas carols in order to embarass others.

  3. The consolation I take from the whole “holiday” thing is that the fools think they are so inclusive when in reality the root of the word is “HolyDay” and you can’t get more Christian than that.

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