News / USA

Dual Tree Lighting Illuminates Annual Holiday Debate

The U.S. Capitol Christmas tree is seen after a lighting ceremony, in Washington, D.C., December 6, 2011.
The U.S. Capitol Christmas tree is seen after a lighting ceremony, in Washington, D.C., December 6, 2011.
Carla Babb

It's the Christmas holiday season in the United States, and with it comes an annual argument: Should local, state and federal governments put up Christmas trees, or even call attention to Christmas, in a country that has no official religion?

It's one of the most recognizable symbols of the season. But in the northeastern state of Rhode Island State House this year, the governor says the seasonal spruce is getting a name change: from Christmas tree to holiday tree.

"Times are changing and that's just the reality. The world's getting smaller. People are moving around. Religions are more accepted in our society and that's just the evolution that's occurring," said Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee.

The decision angers some Americans, and the governor's office has received thousands of calls denouncing the change. A state legislator even decided to hold a Christmas tree lighting in the State House Tuesday at the same time of the governor's holiday tree lighting.

Janice Crouse is a spokeswoman for Concerned Women for America, the country's largest public policy organization for Christian women.

"You know when it comes to Christmas time, the people who talk about inclusion and diversity and all those cliches of the left, they're the first ones to want to shut down Christmas," said Crouse.

Nearly 80 percent of Americans identify themselves as Christians and celebrate Christmas to mark the birth of Jesus.

"We celebrate other faiths, we ought to celebrate Christian faith as well. And there ought to be symbols in our public square. It's very much a part of who we are as Americans," said Crouse.

Erika Seamon teaches religion in American public life at Georgetown University. She said the Christmas tree illuminates the debate over separation of church and state - a fundamental concept in American law.

"The importance of this is it's not taking Christmas or taking religion out of American society. It's specifically the concern that this tree and this language is associated with government property and government endorsement," said Seamon.

Christmas is a federal holiday in the United States. The courts have ruled the Christmas tree a secular symbol that represents the season without specific religious meaning. That makes it all right to put up a big tree and decorate it here at the Capitol and at other government properties across the country.

But not everybody sees the Christmas tree as secular.

"All symbols point back to Christ for me, the reason for the season we so often say."

Seamon said the change just might be the governor's way of avoiding trying to dictate the meaning of symbols for individuals.

"One could argue that what the government is trying to do in a multiculturally diverse society is just move to the sidelines and not be involved in religious discussion or symbolism or language in the first place," she said.

As long as there are Christmas trees on public property, the seasonal semantics likely will continue.

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