Editor’s note: The state Assembly on Dec. 11 voted 84-12 to change the name of the holiday tree to the “Wisconsin State Christmas Tree.” To take effect, the change must be approved by the state Senate. However, a spokeswoman for the Senate majority leader said the Senate would not consider the proposal.
MADISON, Wis. — Oh, how the holidays can be stressful.
A debate over what to call the giant tree in the Capitol this time of year turned contentious during a public hearing on Nov. 28.
Rep. Marlin Schneider, D-Wisconsin Rapids, asked his colleagues to support his plan to rename the holiday tree the “Wisconsin State Christmas Tree.” He said the tree was known as a Christmas tree from 1916 until wobbly state officials changed its name in 1985.
“I am here today to voice the ire and frustration of the majority of people of the state of Wisconsin who want their Christmas tree back in the state Capitol, not a politically correct holiday tree,” Schneider said, nearly shouting.
But Annie Laurie Gaylor of the Freedom From Religion Foundation said lawmakers shouldn’t waste their time debating such trivial issues. Calling it a “Christmas” tree would offend nonreligious people and amount to a government endorsement of Christianity, she added.
“The state of Wisconsin cannot have a Christmas anything,” said Gaylor, whose Madison-based group represents atheists and agnostics.
Rep. Joel Kleefisch, R-Oconomowoc, wasn’t buying her argument. He said the word holiday itself “means holy day, representative of Christmas, the holiest day in the Christian calendar.”
“You will not be happy until we have a godless world,” he told Gaylor. “You ask for an unreasonable degree of political correctness.”
Gaylor shot back. “If you know you’re excluding people by calling it a Christmas tree, why should you do that? It’s impolite.”
Rep. Karl Van Roy, R-Green Bay, chairman of the Assembly committee on state affairs, said his committee and hopefully the full Assembly would approve Schneider’s plan before Christmas.
The tree this year is a 35-foot balsam fir. The Menominee Nation donated the tree, which was harvested on tribal land near Neopit. Workers moved the tree in Nov. 26, and an official lighting ceremony was scheduled for yesterday.
The Department of Administration says other religious symbols, including a menorah and a Baptist Church holiday sign, will be displayed in the Capitol in December. So will Gaylor’s group’s sign which calls religion “superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds.”
Schneider noted thousands of visitors come every year to see the tree, which is decorated with ornaments made by Wisconsin children and has a toy locomotive circling its base.
“If it looks like a Christmas tree, and it smells like a Christmas tree, and it’s decorated like a Christmas tree, and it has presents under it like a Christmas tree, (then) it’s a Christmas tree!” he shouted.