Wisconsin governor returns 'holiday tree' name to evergreen

FILE - In this Nov. 30, 2012, file photo, Fourth-graders from Medford Elementary and Stetsonville Elementary schools perform during a Christmas tree lighting ceremony at the State Capitol in Madison, Wis. Gov. Tony Evers has gone back to calling the state Capitol Christmas tree a holiday tree, reigniting an old fight over what to call the evergreen. Wisconsin politicians began referring to the tree as a holiday tree in 1985. Former Republican Gov. Scott Walker declared the tree a Christmas tree in 2011, drawing the ire of the Madison-based Freedom from Religion Foundation.

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers has gone back to calling the evergreen on display at the state Capitol a holiday tree, reversing his predecessor who declared it a Christmas tree.

The state Department of Administration places a huge evergreen in the Capitol rotunda every year ahead of Christmas. The tree has been a tradition in the Capitol since 1916.

Politicians called it a Christmas tree until 1985, when they began referring to it as a holiday tree to avoid perceptions that they were endorsing religion. DOA allows other groups to place displays in the rotunda as end-of-the-year holidays approach, including a menorah and a Festivus pole, a nod to the fictional holiday in the "Seinfeld" television series. But the controversy over what to call the tree has never really died.

In 2007 the Republican-controlled state Assembly passed a resolution to call the tree a Christmas tree, but it died in the Democratic-controlled Senate. Former Republican Gov. Scott Walker, the son of a Baptist minister, declared the tree a Christmas tree when he took office in 2011.

Evers, a Democrat, called the tree a holiday tree on Friday. He announced the tree's theme will be "Celebrate Science" and asked schoolchildren to submit science-related ornaments to adorn the tree.

Evers spokeswoman Melissa Baldauff didn't immediately respond to an email asking why the governor has gone back to calling the tree a holiday tree.

Republican Scott Fitzgerald, the state Senate majority leader and a 2020 congressional candidate, tweeted that Evers' move was "'PC' garbage. It's a Christmas Tree (sic)."

Tweeted Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos: "We all know it's a Christmas tree no matter what @GovEvers calls it ..."

Asked for his thoughts on calling the tree a holiday tree, The Rev. Andrew Kurz, the Knights of Columbus Wisconsin state chaplain, said in an email that "anyone who is intent on keeping Jesus Christ out of Christmas could be considered as working against our mission, but we would forgive them with an invitation to find the way, the truth and the life that is Jesus Christ."

Asked in a follow-up email if he was saying Evers is removing Christ from Christmas, Kurz said he wasn't sure what the governor's intentions are.

Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the Freedom from Religion Foundation, applauded Evers' decision to rename the tree. She said the move shows the governor is trying to be inclusive and noted the Christmas tree originates from pagan traditions.

She also praised Evers for promoting science, saying the real reason for the end-of-the-year holidays is the winter solstice, the day in the northern hemisphere with the shortest period of daylight and longest night of the year.

"So many people don't even know that that means," Gaylor said.

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Follow Todd Richmond on Twitter at https://www.twitter.com/trichmond1

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