[->www.nationalpost.com/news/story.html?id=1059694]Graeme Hamilton - MONTREAL - The 15-metre tall evergreen had been erected outside Quebec City's National Assembly. It was draped in lights awaiting the Premier's flick of a switch. Only one small detail remained: What to call it?
In a reflection of the identity angst that periodically grips Quebec, the tree went from being a Christmas tree to a Holiday tree, before finally reverting to a Christmas tree just before Jean Charest lit up the tree's 6,000 bulbs late yesterday.
The confusion started on Tuesday afternoon. Mr. Charest's office released the Premier's agenda for yesterday, which included his participation in the "lighting of the Christmas tree" in front of the legislature. Half an hour later a correction to the agenda was sent out, saying "some modifications" had been made."
In fact, there was only one change to the previous version. At 5 p. m., Mr. Charest would no longer be attending the lighting of the "sapin de Noel," or Christmas tree. Instead he would attend the lighting of the "grand sapin des Fetes" -- the big Holiday tree.
Questioned about the change yesterday, members of Mr. Charest's Cabinet were divided. Claude Bechard, minister of Natural Resources, thought the Holiday tree was an inclusive gesture. He saw it as a sign of "openness and respect to all religious and other traditions." Benoit Pelletier, the outgoing minister of Intergovernmental Affairs who did not run in Monday's election, disagreed. "In my opinion we can talk about Christmas in Quebec without worrying," he told reporters.
The politician who has spoken out most passionately in defence of Quebec's Catholic heritage is Action Democratique du Quebec leader Mario Dumont. During the election campaign that concluded on Monday, he warned that Christmas trees were disappearing from schools as excessive secularism took over.
Yesterday Mr. Dumont, who announced his retirement from politics on Monday night, chuckled at the latest controversy.
"It's comical that this is happening the day after the election, after we talked about it during the campaign," he said.
Mr. Charest does not appear to have been laughing. By 5 p. m. yesterday, 24 hours after the tree was first renamed, his office issued a new release loaded down with references to Christmas.
"A big Christmas tree from the Eastern Townships lights up the capital," read the headline on the release. The text mentioned the "Christmas tree" three more times and added that a choir sang "Christmas carols" during the lighting ceremony.
It is not the first time that the holiday has tripped up Mr. Charest. In December, 2006, as debate intensified over the "reasonable accommodation" of religious minorities, Mr. Dumont jumped on Mr. Charest's reluctance to say "Merry Christmas" as the legislative session adjourned. The Premier had offered "best wishes" instead.
"I will be allowed a reasonable accommodation to wish Quebecers, in due form, a Merry Christmas," Mr. Dumont said.
Last year, Mr. Charest made sure to wish people a Merry Christmas in the cards he sent out. And in May he insisted that the crucifix will remain above the speaker's chair in the legislature, responding to a commission report suggesting the religious symbol sends the wrong signal in a secular state.
A tree by any other name still a political mess
Quebec Ceremony Premier wrestles with Christmas tradition