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updated 11/29/2011 7:57:35 PM ET 2011-11-30T00:57:35

Rhode Island's governor said Tuesday that lawmakers upset with his decision to call the blue spruce erected in the Statehouse a "holiday tree" instead of a "Christmas tree" should focus their energy on feeding the poor.

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According to Gov. Lincoln Chafee, calling the tree a "holiday tree" instead of a "Christmas tree" is in keeping with Rhode Island's founding in 1636 by religious dissident Roger Williams as a haven for tolerance, where government and religion were kept separate.

"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," Chafee said, offering an initiative to feed the needy as a good place to start.

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But critics of Chafee's seasonal semantics said the independent governor is taking political correctness too far — and defying the will of the Legislature. In January, the House of Representatives passed a symbolic resolution declaring that the tree customarily erected this time of year be referred to "as a 'Christmas tree' and not as a 'holiday tree' or other non-traditional terms."

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The resolution's sponsor, Rep. Doreen Costa, said she plans to erect and decorate a tree at her Statehouse office on Dec. 6, the same day Chafee plans to host a tree-lighting event. Costa said she'll be taking up a collection of canned goods.

"Anybody that wants to go see a holiday tree can do so, but I will be decorating a Christmas tree," Costa, R-North Kingstown, told The Associated Press. "It may only be a little Charlie Brown Christmas tree but at least it will be a Christmas tree."

Chafee isn't the first Rhode Island governor to refer to the annual Statehouse tree as a 'holiday' tree. His predecessor, Republican Gov. Donald Carcieri, used both 'holiday tree' and 'Christmas tree' in his correspondence. Other past governors have made no specific reference to Christmas at all with invitations to "holiday celebrations" featuring a "tree lighting."

The 17-foot Colorado blue spruce at the center of the holiday hullabaloo was donated to the state by Big John Leyden's Christmas Tree Farm in West Greenwich, R.I. Tree farmer John Leyden said he's disappointed with Chafee's yuletide word choice.

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"It's not a holiday tree or even an 'X-mas' tree," he said. "We're a Christmas tree farm, that's what the name is."

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

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The colony's hands-off policy toward religion quickly attracted sects that had been persecuted elsewhere. Rhode Island boasts both the nation's first Baptist church and the oldest surviving Jewish synagogue.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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