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A wow-worthy Christmas

PIERRE, S.D. -- It took about 30 people and a lot of rope to pull a two-story-tall Black Hills spruce tree up the grand front steps of South Dakota's Capitol in Pierre and into its marbled and muraled rotunda.

South Dakota Tree
The South Dakota Tree, decorated by the South Dakota Florists Association, is the showpiece among the 100 trees in the 29th annual Christmas at the Capitol in Pierre, S.D.

PIERRE, S.D. -- It took about 30 people and a lot of rope to pull a two-story-tall Black Hills spruce tree up the grand front steps of South Dakota's Capitol in Pierre and into its marbled and muraled rotunda.

But ever since, adorned with flowers, basketball-sized gilded papier-mâché ornaments and yards and yards of green ribbon, the tree has been the star of the wow-worthy Christmas at the Capitol, an annual event that features more than 100 decorated trees and will draw 40,000 visitors.

For 29 years now, South Dakota's Capitol building in December has hosted a display of Christmas trees. The first year, there were about 12 trees decorated with ornaments handmade by schoolchildren and senior citizens. This year, there are dozens of trees, most from 7 feet to 15 feet tall, lining the rotunda and on three floors, plus two hallways on the main floor. Corporate sponsors pay for the trees and volunteers decorate them.

Some trees are patriotic, with red, white and blue lights and photos of South Dakotans who are in the service. Others, honoring farms and ranches that have been in the same families for at least 100 years, are covered with family pictures and memorabilia. Other trees represent communities, churches and organizations, from small towns celebrating anniversaries, to schools, clubs and businesses, to breast cancer survivors.

Honey bears and more

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The South Dakota Beekeepers Association tree is decorated with plastic honey bears filled with sparkling gold tinsel and topped with a beekeeper's hat and veil. Delta Dental's tree has a spray of red, green and blue toothbrushes and messages from schoolchildren about why they brush their teeth. (One budding Casanova, age 14, wrote, "To pick up chicks.") A Red Hatters group hung red lights and ornaments and crowned its tree with a red hat. The South Dakota Association of Nurse Anesthetists used syringes and stethoscopes in their decorations and Marty Indian School used teepees, dolls, canoes and dreamcatchers.

And throughout the Capitol, everything smells like Christmas trees.

"Every year I hear, 'This is the best year ever' (for decorations)," said Marty Davis, co-coordinator for Christmas at the Capitol, who works for the governor's office and the Department of Tourism and State Development. "It kind of puts the pressure on."

On the main floor, at the foot of the biggest tree -- so big, it towers to the rotunda's second floor -- church choirs and school kids and other entertainers sing and play Christmas music for guests to enjoy on nights and weekends.

Gov. Mike Rounds hosted the lighting ceremony for Christmas at the Capitol, which has been open daily since Thanksgiving weekend from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. and will close at 10 p.m. Sunday. One of the exhibit's busiest days was Pie Day on Dec. 12, sponsored by the attorney general's office, in which every visitor got a free slice of pie.

The trees are like jewels in the Capitol's marble hallways, but the exhibit has a definite small town vibe. Visitors come dressed in everything from their hunting camouflage to colorful Christmas sweaters. People stop to take photos and listen to whoever is singing. Sometimes, they sing along. They bring their kids and grandma and sometimes even their family pets.

Despite the Christmas theme, which includes a 100-year-old Knights of Columbus nativity scene, no one has contested the religious nature of the exhibit since its first year. The state's position, Davis said, is that the Capitol is the people's house, and it represents all the people of South Dakota.

The state also displays a Jewish Menorah on the Capitol's front steps during Hanukkah. The first year of the exhibit, the ACLU approached then Gov. Bill Janklow about the appropriate-

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ness of a religious display in the state Capitol. His response was that they leave a space each year that has nothing in it, This space would be designated for those people who believe in nothing.

"Hopefully, we haven't left anybody out and that's what it's all about," Davis said.

From the day in November when the trees arrived and were manually hauled into the Capitol and set up for decorating, it has taken many workers to get Christmas in the Capitol ready for visitors.

The tallest tree was cut at the South Dakota National Guard Camp in Rapid City, S.D., where it was coming down to make way for a construction project. About 30 men used a series of ropes to drag it up the steps and through the front double doors into the rotunda.

"Before they ever lifted it up, we had to put the tree topper on," Davis said. "Then, the same guys got stationed on second floor and pulled it up with one guy down on the main floor guiding them." The tree was secured with ropes and a huge tree stand to keep it upright. The South Dakota Florists Association used scaffolding and long, hooked poles to decorate the tree.

Davis said she takes calls throughout the year from groups that want to decorate a tree for Christmas at the Capitol. Organizers want to keep the number of trees at just about 100, so not everyone gets a tree. The state tries to pick individuals and groups who've never been chosen before, she said.

Decorators are told the theme and then make decorations. Christmas at the Capitol also has an inventory of donated lights and ornaments.

For years, a now-retired state employee named Dottie Howe organized and guided Christmas at the Capitol as it grew. Some years, especially the dry years, Howe added giant flocked and decorated tumbleweeds to the display.

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Christmas at the Capitol has become one of the most popular events in Pierre and a source of pride not just to the city but to South Dakotans everywhere, Davis said. And it's become a tradition. Adults who first saw it as children are now bringing their children to see it. Last year, a man brought his girlfriend there and got permission to set up a special tree just for the occasion so he could propose to her there. Christmas at the Capitol was the scene of their first date.

"I think the first thing that always comes to my mind is you don't see a frown on anyone's face there," she said. "Everybody is smiling. The employees in the Capitol building just love it. It brings so many people in. It's the atmosphere. When you walk through you're going to come out with a different feeling."

To see all the trees, go to sdgov.com and click on Christmas at the Capitol.

Reach Tobin at (701) 780-1134; (800) 477-6572, ext. 134; or send e-mail to ptobin@gfherald.com .

Related Topics: PIERRE
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