Eye on KELOLAND: 40 years of Christmas at the Capitol


PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — For 40 years, visiting Christmas at the Capitol has been a holiday tradition for many families across KELOLAND.

It began with around one dozen Christmas trees decorated with homemade ornaments and a large nativity scene filling the rotunda in the South Dakota State Capitol building in 1981.

Dottie Howe and her family, along with Governor Janklow, started the tradition to spruce up the Capitol.

“I get all the compensation I need from the looks on children’s faces and the smiles of senior citizens and from a lot of us big kids that really like to see this,” said Dottie Howe, founder in a 1983 interview with KELOLAND News.

It’s a joy that has been carried on for four decades.

“Word around the state Capitol is that this year’s Christmas display is the most creative ever….”

“It’s as though you walk into a child’s most fanciful dreams of Christmas. Trees everywhere, each one decorated differently…”

What started as a dozen trees is now a display of over 80 trees, lining the halls and the rotunda, along with a variety of other holiday decorations.

“As you walk through the Capitol, you’ll find all the little corners and the ledges on the third floor above the rotunda and just about every little corner of the Capitol is decorated for Christmas at the Capitol,” said Dawn Hill, co-coordinator for Christmas at the Capitol.

The largest tree you’ll see on display is the South Dakota State Tree. It stands at around 25-feet tall.

“It’s just a very fun, festive place to come and I think it seems so magical because of all the lights and just how many trees we have packed in here and just how awesome our Capitol is in the first place, and then to add all these festive lights and sounds I think it just makes it magical,” said Hill.

Thousands of people make the stop at the Capitol during the Christmas season.

“We see anywhere from between 20-25,000 people and they come from across the state, they come from across the nation, we even have visitors come from other countries,” said Hill.

Getting the display set up takes a lot of hard work from the committee and volunteers.

“It’s really fun actually. So we see the committee members come in for the couple weeks before, then the weekend before the lighting ceremony all the communities come in, so there’s about 65 groups from around Pierre, around the state that come in and decorate all the trees down the hallways and it’s just really fun on those three days to watch everyone come in and they’re all excited,” said Leah Svendsen, co-coordinator of Christmas at the Capitol.

Every year the decorations change, so there is always something new to enjoy.

“I encourage everyone who’s ever been here before to come back again because it will be brand new,” said Svendsen.

“I think that the spirit of Christmas is universal and I think that it’s a great way for people to come and once they are inside the building they just get immersed in the festiveness and the spirit of Christmas and I think it’s just a great way to forget about everything else that’s going on in the outside world,” said Hill.

Carrying on the 40 year tradition is an honor for the event organizers.

“There is no place else on earth like this, not during the holidays. There is no other state Capitol that does this. Our building is beautiful year-round, I think it’s a remarkable place to come and to visit anytime of the year but during Christmas at the Capitol, it’s very very special and I just think it’s important to keep this going,” said Hill.

If you would like to go experience the Christmas at the Capitol display, it is open now until December 26th from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m.

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