In a column two years ago, I asked, “What looks like a Christmas tree, smells like a Christmas tree, and is decorated like a Christmas tree but isn’t a Christmas tree?”
From 2008 until this year, the Wisconsin State Capitol displayed a tree from the Friday after Thanksgiving through New Years. Decorated with lights and ornaments, the tall balsam fir was labeled the “Capitol Tree.” Prior to 2008, the tree was referred to as the “Holiday Tree.”
On Nov. 11, 2011, Governor Scott Walker published a press release announcing this year’s theme for the Capitol Christmas Tree would be “Honoring 163 years of Wisconsin’s Veterans.”
Walker wasn’t the only elected leader referencing the official tree as a Christmas tree. A Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article discussed the city’s Common Council vote to return to Christmas tree for their city’s tree. In saying he would sign the resolution, Milwaukee’s Mayor Tom Barrett stated; “It is what it is – a Christmas tree – but what you call it doesn’t exclude anyone from enjoying it.”
In fact, on Dec. 2, the White House Blog discussed President Barack Obama lighting “a brand new National Christmas Tree in the President’s Park outside the White House.”
With 95 percent of Americans celebrating Christmas each year (Gallup Polls Dec. 24, 2010), 60 percent of them prefer “Merry Christmas” over “Happy Holidays” (Pew Research Center Dec. 13, 2011).
As named, the “Capitol Christmas Tree,” is consistent with the U.S. Supreme Court’s position that government can sponsor displays of religious heritage (Lynch v. Donnelly, 1984). The celebration of Christmas, which has included the traditional Christmas tree for several hundred years, is definitely a part of our heritage.
Wisconsin however, isn’t promoting any one religion. During the week of Dec. 5, the capitol’s first floor rotunda hosted an interfaith week, displaying over a dozen worldwide disciplines. According to a Department of Administration spokesperson, the only parameters on the scenes are space. Groups are granted permits according to the order in which they were requested. Only obscene displays are prohibited.
Even the group against any sort of religion – the Freedom from Religion Foundation – put up an anti-religion display. Their display and plaque will appear alongside a Nativity Scene through the end of December.
Last month, I co-sponsored Assembly Joint Resolution 82, which will officially rename the “Capitol Holiday Tree” the “State of Wisconsin Christmas Tree.”
Codifying the renaming of the tree in the state capitol back to Christmas tree is reasonable, legal and consistent with the majority of Wisconsinite’s values and traditions.