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RI State House artificial Christmas tree sparkles in Rotunda despite controversy

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An 18-foot artificial Christmas tree is aglow at the Rhode State House for the 2019 holiday season.

It’s the first time a fake tree has been used there in recent history.

"For whatever reason, we've gotten into trouble with the fire marshal in the past with the real tree and so many lights, so this year, we just decided to play it safe,” Gov. Gina Raimondo told NBC 10 News shortly after she and her family flipped the switch during a ceremony in the Rotunda on Wednesday night.

Raimondo said environmental conditions inside the State House make it difficult to keep a real tree alive from Thanksgiving to New Year's Day. She said the artificial tree is the perfect alternative.

“I think it’s one of the most beautiful,” she said. “They’ve all been beautiful, but it’s gorgeous. I love the lights.”

But the replica of a California Baby Redwood from the company Balsam Hill, which sparkled in white lights, red ornaments and golden poinsettias, has caused some controversy.

"I was insulted,” said Tim Leyden, who is the owner of Big John Leyden's Tree Farm in West Greenwich.

Leyden said he's donated trees to the State House in the past, calling a fake tree a slap in the face to Rhode Island family farms.

"It's a tradition that doesn't need to be changed,” he said. “The State House had always had a live, huge, beautiful tree where people gather around. And it's the smell, it's the aroma. An artificial tree just can't do it."

Leyden told NBC 10 large trees such as the one in the Rotunda require one to two gallons of water per day to stay healthy.

"There's a variety of different species that you can use to bring into a warmer environment so that the tree does not shed, it does not dry up," Leyden said.

In a statement, The National Christmas Tree Association shared similar sentiments. The organization said the fake tree “will end up in a landfill for 1,000 years as a non-biodegradable item” and also questioned if anyone sought advice from an expert about how to properly care for a real tree throughout the holiday season.

“It is a very unfortunate decision by the governor to choose a tree made from PVC plastic in a Chinese factory over a real Christmas tree grown by a Rhode Island family farm as the centerpiece of the state capitol’s Christmas celebration,” according to the statement. “It is a poor decision for the environment and unhelpful, at best, to agriculture and small businesses in Rhode Island.”

A few people said they knew right away the $6,500 tree wasn’t real. But they didn’t seem upset.

"It just looks nicer," said Raj Mammen. "And also, I don't like the mess of the real one."

While others have suggested putting a real, local tree outside the State House, Leyden doesn’t think it’s a good idea.

"I will not be second fiddle to a fake tree inside the State House," he said. "The real tree belongs in the State House, as the focal point, as the tradition, it's been there for years and it needs to come back in 2020."

The official State House tree has had quite a history in Rhode Island.

The tree turned brown and shed all its needles in 2005 after it was sprayed with fire retardant.

In 2016, a replacement Christmas tree was brought into the State House after the first one was deemed too small.

The tree died 10 days before Christmas in 2017.

And, of course, former Gov. Lincoln Chafee called the tree a holiday tree during his tenure, which set off a national debate.

Still, the 2019 lighting festivities began at 5 p.m., with the governor and first gentleman, Andrew Moffit, along with their son, Tommy, flipping the switch shortly after.

Raimondo and her husband then read "The Night Before Christmas,” accompanied by "The Governor’s Own" 88th Army Band.

“It’s a lot of fun and I love to watch the kids, whose eyes pop when we whistle or talk about Santa, so it’s a great tradition,” Raimondo said, also praising the band. “I could listen to them all night long and I love to see people dancing -- the children started to dance, and the place came alive.”

Moffit agreed.

“The band is so good,” he said, adding that the rest of the State House is also decked out for the holidays. “It’s a beautiful building and it’s a beautiful place. Rhode Islanders don’t necessarily come to the State House, but it’s the people house, so it’s wonderful to be able to have great music, a beautiful tree and Santa for people to come and enjoy.”

Felica Baker, who is from East Providence but now lives in Connecticut, is a singer for the band. She stunned the crowd with her rendition of “O Holy Night,” as well as other Christmas classics.

“This particular event I love because of the audience participation,” Baker said. “You can see that everybody’s here for the music and the spirit of the season. I love seeing the little kids running around and really interacting with all the audience members.”

Danielle Blue, of South Kingstown, also sang at the event.

“I just love the opportunity to play with the band and get out of my regular daily routine and have fun,” she said. “This was my third year performing and it’s always so fun.”

The celebration also included several other musical performances, with Raimodo saying the Scandinavian Women’s Chorus of Rhode Island “did a beautiful job,” while the La Salle Academy Concert Chorus “sounded fantastic.”

"I just want to thank everybody for coming. It's a happy time of year and this is a wonderful event that we do every year,” Raimondo told the crowd. “I love to see the children here. It's a time to come together as a community to take care of one another, to cherish one another, to find some unity and some peace, and some joy in our lives and our communities.”

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