South Dakota state capitol

CHRISTMAS AT THE CAPITOL

by John Andrews
From South Dakota Magazine

Dozens of festive trees bring holiday spirit to our seat of government’s historic halls.

South Dakota’s state capitol is a wonderful landmark any time of year, but step inside the door in November and December, and you’ll be greeted by the refreshing scent of mountain pine. A soft glow radiates through the halls. Carolers and musicians fill the air with holiday music. And if you stop on the right day, you might get a slice of pie.

Christmas at the Capitol is one of South Dakota’s unique holiday traditions. It began with just 12 trees in 1981. Today nearly 100 finely decorated trees fill the capitol rotunda and three floors of historic hallways. The centerpiece is South Dakota’s official Christmas tree, often a stately spruce carefully chosen and plucked from the Black Hills.

The annual event begins with a lighting ceremony on [the Tuesday before Thanksgiving], and the capitol remains open from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily through [the day after Christmas]. Special events through the holiday season include story time for children and Pie Day on [the second Saturday of December].

Cities, businesses, nonprofit groups and other civic organizations apply throughout the year for a tree. If selected, they spend the weekend before Thanksgiving busily stringing lights and tinsel and hanging handcrafted ornaments. Among the capitol’s most treasured pieces are a set of hand-painted porcelain ornaments from the state china painters organization and a wooden nativity, believed to be nearly 125 years old, that the local Knights of Columbus sets up on the second floor.

Christmas decorations in the Capitol building

Pierre’s three floral shops each decorate a 14-foot tree every year. Larry and Hazel Melvin have been decorating a tree since 1989, the year they opened Melvin’s Flower Shop. They begin planning their tree as soon as the year’s theme is announced. This year’s theme is “Starlit Wonderland.”

One year the theme was based on “The 12 Days of Christmas,” so the Melvins decorated a tree with large artificial pears and partridges. Another memorable theme was “Do You See What I See?” “That was fun because we did different elves on ladders,” Hazel Melvin says. “We tucked those into the tree, and others were peeking through the branches.” 

Trees are decorated to reflect each season’s theme. Many create memories that last forever. “My husband is former military, so one year I thought we should have a military tree,” says Dottie Howe, who became known around Pierre as “The Christmas Tree Lady” during 16 years of organizing the event. “I found out how many soldiers we had lost in the wars. We made a red, white and blue tree with flags. I used to walk around the display to make sure everything was all right. One day a lady asked who was responsible for that tree. I said I worked on it, but I had a lot of help. She thanked me and said her little boy is one who didn't come home.

Thousands of visitors come by car and busload from every corner of the state to see the capitol filled with holiday splendor. Just two weeks after the decorations are shelved, lawmakers return and rancorous political battles are again waged on the statehouse floors. That’s all the more reason to visit the capitol this fall, when it’s transformed into a peaceful, serene winter wonderland.

Christmas trees at the Capitol
Each tree is decorated with a theme in mind.
Holiday decorations at the Capitol
Garland, tinsel, elves and snowflakes suspended from high within the capitol’s dome add to the grand building’s holiday merriment.

Copyright © 2014, South Dakota Magazine