Steven Walters
The State of Politics

Pandemic Ends Holiday Traditions

It's a special time in Wisconsin’s grand Capitol. But not this year.

By - Dec 21st, 2020 09:33 am
Wisconsin State Capitol. File photo by Dave Reid.

Wisconsin State Capitol. File photo by Dave Reid.

December is usually a special time in Wisconsin’s grand Capitol.

But this year the Capitol is deserted, eerily empty and silent, closed since March by the COVID-19 pestilence that has sickened, hospitalized and killed. This year, only the 5-foot, 5-inch. gold-gilded statue atop the Capitol — her arm extending eastward — had immunity.

When you spend more than 30 years covering state officials and decisions they make, you learn the Capitol’s December traditions. But, this December, you walk through the Capitol and lament what is missing.

There should be a huge Capitol Christmas tree (if Republicans control the Capitol) or a Holiday Tree (if Democrats are in charge) that arrives a few days after Thanksgiving stretching from the ground floor of the Capitol past the first floor. Instead, two Republican legislators – Reps. Shae Sortwell and Paul Tittl – have put up trees that state officials have removed, citing lack of a required permit.

There should be lights and beautiful handmade decorations on the official tree made by Wisconsin school children during in-person — and not online — classes.

There should be an annual tree-lighting ceremony presided over by the governor or another state official who invites a child to come and turn on the lights. Instead, Sortwell and Tittl used social media to post images of them putting up their trees.

There should be hundreds of families entering the Capitol’s ground-floor doors, coming into the rotunda and looking up, the children wide-eyed in wonder at the sparkling holiday tree.

There should be a model train set endlessly circling the official Capitol tree when the building is open, reminding all visitors of the state’s railroad legacy and power of diesel engines.

There should be signs and displays on the Capitol’s first floor honoring other religions and the annual notice from the Freedom from Religion Foundation, its office two blocks from the Capitol, debunking all faiths.

There should be choirs and bands from area middle and high schools, who have coordinated their noon or late-afternoon visits with Capitol schedulers, playing and singing Christmas carols and sectarian music. Every band and choir performance comes with adoring parents taking cell phone pictures. Sometimes, the music is so loud you have to close the Press Room door to get your work done.

There should be some year-end weddings in the Capitol. They are usually small affairs — no more than about a dozen people, including bride and groom — who want a beautiful, cheap background for that special moment. This year, the only wedding was a small one involving the daughter of powerful Republican Sen. Howard Marklein in the Senate parlor, a room controlled by Senate leaders.

There should be several reporters in the Capitol’s second-floor Press Room, between the Senate and Assembly chambers. The circular room offers reporters a sense of community and a common work area easily accessible for elected officials. You must  leave the room for a private conversation, however.

What was once an annual after-hours Press Room Christmas party, attended by governors and other officials, ended many years ago. It ended about the time that governors stopped inviting Capitol reporters to the Executive Residence for a holiday drinks-and-munchies reception.

There should be elected officials and staffers from both teams — Democrats and Republican — dropping into the Press Room to wish everyone a “merry Christmas” or “happy holidays.” Some of them are still working at that point, others are just pretending to be working.

There should be friendly goodbye office parties for the dozens of legislators — including 93-year-old Democratic Sen. Fred Risser, the longest-serving legislator in the nation — who are retiring or who lost in November and won’t be part of the 2021-22 session. Instead, Risser has been visiting his office alone, working through 64 years of legislative records.

There should be families signing up for tours of the beautifully decorated Executive Residence, home of governors and their families, in Maple Bluff. Instead, this year you are advised to “ride, bike or walk” past the Residence to see its front-lawn decorations.

There should be dozens of people meeting up daily in the rotunda before year-end lunches or happy hours. “Meet you in the Capitol rotunda” is one of Madison’s trademark expressions, especially in December.

Instead, in Wisconsin’s grand Capitol, this year there is only the frightening silence of a pandemic.

Steven Walters is a senior producer for the nonprofit public affairs channel WisconsinEye. Contact him at

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