Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Governor Chafee and the "Holiday Tree"

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’ Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.’”Matthew 7:21-23
The important thing, according to Jesus, is not that we call him “Lord,” but that we follow his teachings and do the will of God.

He was strangely silent on the importance of saying, “Merry Christmas,” or making sure that the evergreen tree with the lights and ornaments is called a “Christmas Tree.”

Governor Lincoln Chafee found himself at the center of a national news story when critics took him to task for issuing a press release announcing that, “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.”

Last January Representative Doreen Costa of North Kingstown sponsored a “symbolic resolution” declaring that the tree customarily erected in the State House at this time of year be referred to "as a `Christmas tree' and not as a `holiday tree' or other non-traditional terms." In his press release, the Governor ignored the non-binding resolution and called it a “Holiday” tree.

Roman Catholic Thomas Tobin called Chafee’s failure to use the word Christmas “most disheartening and divisive.” He said it was “an affront to the faith of many citizens." He went on to say, "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.”

Former Governors Carcieri and Almond had issued similar press releases in the past, so the designation of “Holiday” tree lighting is not new. But critics reacted as if it were a sign of the apocalypse. The Governor responded by pointing out that he was following past precedent, and honoring Rhode Island’s heritage of religious tolerance. He went on to say, “I would encourage all those engaged in this discussion – whatever their opinion on the matter – to use their energy and enthusiasm to make a positive difference in the lives of their fellow Rhode Islanders.” He suggested that an initiative to feed the hungry might be a good place to start.

When it comes to traditions, we tend to have short memories.

The Governor’s critics could not remember what previous governors had said or done. But in a larger sense, we tend to think of Christmas as something Christians have celebrated since the days of the early church. In fact, it is a relatively recent tradition.

Biblical scholars have known for centuries that Jesus was almost certainly not born anywhere near December 25, but the church originally focused on that date as a way to combat the pagan celebrations of the winter solstice. The blending of pagan and Christian themes was problematic from the start.

In the Puritan colonies, there were prohibitions against any but the most solemn observances. They banned wreaths and trees and other “pagan symbols.” Christmas first became a national holiday under President Ulysses Grant in 1870, but up until that time the public schools in Boston held classes on December 25.

Yesterday I was at a meeting focused on how the United Methodist churches in Rhode Island could come together to support the work of feeding the hungry and housing the homeless in Providence and Woonsocket. I could not help thinking that if all the people who are so concerned about the Governor’s omission of the word Christmas were busy doing what Jesus clearly told us to do, the problem would be solved.

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