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Who’s Behind The Handmade Ornaments Adorning The Wisconsin Capitol Holiday Tree?

Wisconsin Tradition Is Led By State's Youngest Citizens

Wisconsin state Capitol Holiday Tree
Children eye this year’s science-themed tree at the Wisconsin state Capitol on Dec. 6, 2019. Will Kenneally/WPR

In December at the state Capitol, it’s a common sight to see people crane their necks up at the large evergreen sitting in the middle of the rotunda.

Madison couple Megan and Zach Sweeney brought their kids to the tree lighting ceremony for the first time this year.

“(We’re) always busy on these types of days, and we just happened to have off today,” Zach Sweeney said. “(I’ts a) first time experience for everyone, you know — good family memories.”

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For Wisconsin children, those memories can include seeing their own artwork on the tree.

The tradition sparked a question for Wisconsin Public Radio’s WHYsconsin from Andrea Anderson of Janesville, who also works for WPR. She wondered: “Gov. Tony Evers is accepting homemade themed ornaments for the tree and I wanted to know if this tradition is new, and if not, how long it’s been happening.”

So WHYsconsin did some digging and found out.

Each year, students from around the state send in their ornaments to be hung on the tree. The tradition dates back to 1990, according to records from the state Department of Administration (DOA). That year, students from the Hurley and Mercer School Districts and St. Mary’s School of Hurley sent in ornaments for the tree.

Science-themed ornaments decorate the tree in the Wisconsin Capitol
Science-themed ornaments decorate the tree in the Wisconsin state Capitol. PBS Wisconsin

Melissa Baldauff, deputy chief of staff for Gov. Tony Evers, said this year’s theme came from a Wisconsin fifth grader.

“It was also a great connection to the governor, his background, being a science teacher, and his focus on education,” Baldauff said.

The tree themes often focus on topics the governor wants to highlight. In the past decade, themes have ranged from “Honoring Wisconsin’s Veterans” to “America’s Dairyland.”

To decorate the tree, the DOA collects the ornaments sent in by students and other groups, and hangs them while setting up the tree ahead of the lighting ceremony.

Aris Dinehart from Middleton loved his ornament so much he wanted to keep it at home.

“Mine was a water drop,” Dinehart said.

The capitol conifer was lit earlier in December, but not without controversy. Former Gov. Scott Walker has referred to the tree as a “Christmas tree” since 2011. Evers referred to this year’s tree as a “holiday tree,” which governors pre-2011 had used. The dust up sparked a state Assembly resolution declaring it a “Christmas tree.”

Whatever you call it, the tree will stay up through the end of December.

This story came from an audience question as part of the WHYsconsin project. Submit your question at wpr.org/WHYsconsin and we might answer it in a future Wisconsin Life segment.