KATE BRENNER/Herald photo

‘Holiday Tree’ at Capitol

Holiday cheer may soon be replaced by Christmas spirit at the Wisconsin Capitol because of a new proposal to change the name of the Holiday Tree to the Wisconsin State Christmas Tree.

Authored by Rep. Marlin Schneider, D-Wisconsin Rapids, the legislation could be enacted before Christmas Day 2007.

The tree’s official title should be changed because "it is what it is," Schneider said.

Wisconsin had a state Christmas tree starting in 1916. It was dubbed a holiday tree in 1985, and Schneider said he wants to revert back to the old name.

But Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, said a state-sponsored Christmas tree sends residents a different message than a holiday tree does.

"After 20 years, to turn around and name it for one religion is sending a territorial signal," Gaylor said.

The separation of church and state, Gaylor added, often becomes fuzzy in the winter months. However, the state should not "have anything to do with Christians or Christmas, [and] shouldn’t be celebrating a religious holiday."

If passed, the legislation would allow the Capitol to house a state-owned Christmas tree, thus affording Christians in Wisconsin the opportunity to promote their faith in a building that is not supposed to have religious affiliations, Gaylor said.

"This has caused divisions," Gaylor said. "The tree lighting ceremony can be quite religious."

Wisconsin residents who are not of the Christian faith have told Gaylor they feel uncomfortable during the holiday season because of the Christian undertones stemming from the state-owned holiday tree.

"I have been told by people of minority faiths for years they feel like outsiders when they go by the tree," Gaylor said.

However, Schneider said people of other religions should not be offended, as there are objects of importance to other religions in the Capitol as well.

"They put up a menorah there, which is a symbol of Judaism, and they don’t call it a Holiday Candle," Schneider said.

But Gaylor said the menorah is sponsored by a group of ultra-Orthodox Jews, who had to apply for special permits to place the candelabra in the building

"The menorah has a name attached to it," Gaylor said. "The tree is owned by the state. It does not require a permit because it’s put up by the state."

The menorah and an accompanying sign were both placed in the Capitol as a response to the holiday tree, and FFRF placed a sign in the Capitol as well to address its belief.

Despite the Christian beliefs pervading Christmas trees today, the tradition began as a pagan ritual, Gaylor said.

"[Trees predate] Christianity," Gaylor said. "Green signifies the continuation of life."