Since 1989, the Association of Washington Businesses (AWB) has sponsored the Holiday Kids’ Tree Project, a program that both provides a tree at the State Capitol rotunda and benefits children and families in communities across rural Washington. This joyous project has strong roots in the area. AWB members and individuals support the program through donations.

Community Christmas trees during the holidays have been a local tradition for decades. State government moved into the current State Capitol building in 1928. The ample rotunda has proven to be an ideal place to host events and on December 20, 1945, the Capitol held its first annual Christmas candlelight concert. Dedicated to Washington state veterans of World War II, the Lincoln Elementary School a cappella choir and Washington State Capitol Choral Club performed carols with organ accompaniment. KGY Olympia and KIRO Seattle radio stations recorded the concert and broadcasted it later that day.

By 1951, the candlelight concert evolved into Christmas at the Capitol. Over the decades, the tree lighting ceremony was usually broadcasted on KGY radio and other stations around the state. School choirs, from Thurston County and across the state, performed traditional holiday music, from carols to popular songs. The celebrations included an open house for people to view the colorfully lit tree at night and a party for children to meet Santa Claus and the Governor.

1951 Christmas at the Capitol
People gather for the Christmas tree at the Capitol rotunda celebration in 1951. Photo credit: Washington State Digital Archives, State Governors’ Negative Collection, 1949-1975

The centerpiece of these celebrations was a Christmas tree. In 1953, the tree was 50 feet tall, with 200 large colored lights and 800 large ornaments that were designed and made by State Department of Conservation and Development employees. The following year the tree had 1,000 ornaments. In 1963, the celebration was made even more elaborate with a 33-feet-wide by 17-feet-high castle in the rotunda.

Since 1989, the Association of Washington Businesses has sponsored a Holiday Kids’ Tree Project, which serves children in need across rural Eastern and Western Washington counties. The Association is the state’s oldest and largest statewide business association, with over 7,000 members, most of whom run small businesses. The AWB serves as a state chamber of commerce and manufacturing and technology association.

Don Burnell, former president of the AWB, remembered how the association stepped in to provide a tree for the Capitol after volunteers there complained that they no longer had a tree to display. “There’s really nothing formal about it,” he said, describing the origins of the project. The Association was able to secure a large spruce tree (about 35 feet tall) from someone’s yard to display that year and a logger helped them cut and take in the tree. The project was a success.

2017 Capitol tree set-up
The raising of the 2017 Holiday Kids’ Tree on Nov. 28, 2017 in the state Capitol rotunda. Photo credit: Brian Mittge/AWB

The Association switched to noble fir trees and in a few years began hosting formal lighting ceremonies with the Governor, beginning with Booth Gardner. They also held Santa Saturdays where children could visit Santa Claus. Burnell himself has portrayed Santa in years past.

The first tree was 35 feet tall, which proved too tall for the rotunda. Now trees are about 28 to 30 feet tall. After the 2001 Nisqually Earthquake, the holiday tree was outside the Capitol during repair work. In 2005, the project returned to the rotunda with a 28-foot-tall noble fir replanted by Weyerhaeuser in 1987 within the blast zone of Mount Saint Helens. The year also marked the 25th anniversary of the volcanic eruption.

2017 lighting ceremony
Seven thousand LED lights and plush versions of Northwest native animals decorate the 2017 Holiday Kids’ Tree in the Capitol rotunda. At the end of the month when the tree is taken down, the stuffed animals will be donated to children’s hospital patients. Photo credit: Brian Mittge/AWB

Besides decorating the Capitol, the Tree Project is much bigger and focuses on helping rural children in need. The first year, the project only raised money to provide for the Capitol tree, but donations grew. Since 1989, the AWB has donated thousands of toys and given away over $420,000 in cash donations from individuals and organizations. Each year, the Association gives $1,000 and a large bag of gifts to 18 rural fire districts in Chelan, Grant, Grays Harbor, Lewis, Mason, Okanogan, Spokane, Thurston and Walla Walla counties. These districts use the money to buy food and gifts for families in their areas. The fire districts receive checks and the gifts at the tree lighting in the rotunda each year.

The AWB purchases decorations for the tree each year. In 2018, the tree had 7,000 LED lights and traditional festive decorations. After the tree is taken down, the stuffed animals and dolls will be individually wrapped and given to children in hospitals. In 2018, the theme is “Military Bears,” with teddy bears dressed in the uniforms of all branches of the American military.

In the words of Donald Burnell, the Holiday Kids’ Tree project came from a group of “people coming together to do the right thing and grew.” The project represents some of the best spirit of the season, spreading cheer and generosity to children and families throughout Washington, both those who visit the tree and those who receive gifts.

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