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How contentious are thy branches?

Montville — Christmas came early for those who enjoy political controversy.

Decorated for 20 years by Jeff Roderick and his daughter, Theresa Quibble, both of Montville, a well-known Christmas tree located at the Interstate 395 south on-ramp on Route 163 is causing a stir.

Though in the past the tree was decked with Christmas ornaments, the decorations are different this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Roderick said he wanted to support essential workers, so the tree sports "Thank You" hearts, toy firetrucks and other tributes to first responders — including handcuffs.

Beckah Donehey posted a video on Facebook of the tree, saying that the handcuffs were proof of a “police state” and insensitive, given ongoing protests against police brutality. People on the town’s community Facebook groups weighed in soon after.

Donehey could not be reached for comment on Tuesday.

Roderick noted that the decorations have been up since March. “I decorated it way back when the pandemic first started as a thank you to the essential workers,” he said. “I represented the fire department, the police department, and red, white and blue, that’s the best I could do. I represented the police department with several sets of handcuffs, they’re like tinsel on a tree.”

He plans to acquire apple ornaments to celebrate teachers, too.

He said he’s been adorning the tree for so long he used to be able to walk up to it to put the star on top; now he has to bring a ladder to reach. He and Quibble clandestinely handled the tree together for years before announcing in 2016 that they were the mystery decorators.

Police and people in town have been supportive of Roderick and how the tree looks, he said. He mentioned that he was recognizing Montville police even though he’s been handcuffed by them before.

“I’m on a first-name basis with the police in this town, and they love the tree,” he said. “I was joking with the chief this morning: ‘I’ve had handcuffs on at least a half-dozen times, I never complain. Once in a while they’re a little tight.’ I thought this was the nicest thing I could do for people working during a pandemic.”

While Roderick is concerned the tree will be taken down by the Department of Transportation at the behest of people upset by it, since the tree is on state-owned land, he said people are being too harsh on the woman who posted the original video complaining about the handcuffs.

Most commenters, whether on the left or right of the political spectrum, indicated the handcuffs were being blown out of proportion. The issue even made it into Monday’s Public Safety Commission meeting.

During that meeting, “Out of frustration at being called a racist and a fascist all day, I said that maybe it would be better if the tree were taken down,” Mayor Ron McDaniel wrote in an email Tuesday.

He has since backpedaled, saying he spoke with the DOT and asked that the tree be left alone.

“I never had a problem with the tree, as I know the individual who decorated it in honor of our first responders,” McDaniel continued. “There is and never was any bad intent meant. I believe it may have even been decorated before the George Floyd tragedy on May 25.”

Mickey Gillette, a member of the Public Safety Commission, expressed his disappointment in the mayor’s earlier comments.

“I have an issue with him bowing down,” Gillette said Tuesday. “That was put up there for the simple fact to honor everything essential workers have been doing, to say thank you. Now you’re bowing down because one person is offended by a handcuff, a 50-cent toy you can get at Dollar Tree.”

“I think taking the tree down would be a slap in the face,” Gillette added.

McDaniel said he has received calls from people both angry about the tree and people angered at the possibility of it being removed, and he has called everyone back. He said at one point, he was accused of putting up the handcuffs.

“I understand that people are very sensitive and there are a lot of raw emotions out there on many levels, but this tree has a history of being a beacon of holiday blessings and now serves as an honor to all our first responders,” McDaniel wrote in his email to The Day.

McDaniel and Quibble are family friends, she said, and she empathizes with the position he’s been put in. He was one of the few people that knew the secret about Quibble and Roderick decorating the tree before the rest of the town.

Quibble said the tree is supposed to be a positive symbol for the town, and this is the first time she’d seen it become a problem, “which is heartbreaking.”

“As soon as it started on Facebook, people were tagging me and private messaging me, telling me I need to see what’s going on,” Quibble said. “I thought, ‘Wow, that’s sad that woman would feel that way.’ After reading the more than 330 comments, they were all opposed to her viewpoint. I was surprised that she didn’t take it down.”

Quibble tried to explain the decorations on the post in hopes that it would prove the handcuffs were not meant to be read as a symbol of a police state.

“She came right back at me, saying it was a disgrace and she still had an issue with it because handcuffs never mean anything positive,” Quibble said. “I’m not saying I don’t understand where she’s coming from, but I told her that’s not what the handcuffs mean. It was mind-boggling that she continued to fight with me and everybody else.”

She said she only hopes this debacle doesn’t lead to the loss of the tree.

A few years ago, after coming out of the shadows, the father-daughter duo ceded responsibility for decorating the tree; Roderick had his foot amputated in a work accident and it seemed time to move on.

Still, they couldn’t help but go and beautify the tree again.

“The first Christmas that came around my dad was like, ‘I can’t not do it, I have to do it,’” Quibble said. “So I’m out there with him, holding him on the ladder with one foot, praying to God he doesn’t take a digger. I actually put a picture on Facebook that says, ‘This jolly jackass has me out here again.'”

s.spinella@theday.com

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