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December 5: Capitol Windows Christmas Tree

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The many windows of the North Dakota Capitol make the tower a unique canvas for lighted designs. One of the first was a cross at Easter in 1934. Over the years, one of the most popular designs has been a Christmas tree. The Christmas tree window design dates back to the building’s earliest years, during the Great Depression.

A star on the top of the Capitol appears to be the inspiration for the tradition. In 1934, The Bismarck Tribune reported that the “star of Bethlehem” shined down from the building over windows lit in the shape of a Gothic cathedral. Capitol workers had constructed the star. A local electrical company provided the lights and wiring. Perhaps the display’s placement was strategic; at the time, people were stealing lightbulbs from Christmas trees on the Capitol grounds!

The next year, in 1935, the Tribune reported that a tree made from red and green lights in the Capitol’s front windows, with the star on top was “the most elaborate of several designs created up to the present time.” During the building’s early years, state building superintendent Ed Nelson design won an award in a local Christmas lighting contest.

On this date in 1940, Capitol workers installed a new Christmas star on top of the building. For many years, the tree was formed by placing wooden frames of red and green crepe paper in the windows. But this was a bit of a burden, requiring their placement every night and removal the next morning. In 1956, maintenance staff moved to red and green cellophane curtains. Custodians simply pulled the shades and left lights on in the rooms.

The design has usually involved more than 40 windows. Its height has ranged from seven to 12 stories. In more recent years, the tree has appeared on two sides of the Capitol tower, using 88 windows. The building has usually displayed the tree for much of December. Soon afterward, in another tradition dating to at least the 1950s, the Capitol’s windows show another shape: the four digits of the New Year.

Dakota Datebook by Jack Dura


  • The Bismarck Tribune. 1934, March 29. Page 7: Cross at capitol excites comment
  • The Bismarck Tribune. 1934, December 20. Page 1: ‘Star of Bethlehem’ shines on Bismarck
  • The Bismarck Tribune. 1935, December 23. Page 7: Governor is host at holiday party
  • The Bismarck Tribune. 1936, December 29. Page 1: Mrs. Otto Holta wins first prize in lighting event
  • The Bismarck Tribune. 1937, December 24. Page 2: Silent night, holy night envelopes Bismarck
  • The Hope Pioneer. 1937, December 30. Page 1: Statehouse sideshow
  • The Bismarck Tribune. 1940, December 5. Page 4: Decorate Capitol for yule season
  • The Bismarck Tribune. 1949, December 20. Page 1: 16-foot star tops 11-story display
  • The Bismarck Tribune. 1950, December 18. Page 8: State capitol takes on Christmas look
  • The Bismarck Tribune. 1954, December 11. Page 1: Capitol’s yule tree to be lit next Saturday
  • The Bismarck Tribune. 1955, December 12. Page 10: Capitol ‘tree’ to be lighted here Saturday
  • The Bismarck Tribune. 1958, December 5. Page 1: Capitol’s tree to glow again
  • The Bismarck Tribune. 1960, December 13. Page 1: Capitol’s skyscraper tree to glow anew on Saturday
  • North Dakota Office of Management and Budget. Celebration photos: Window displays. Retrieved from:

Dakota Datebook is made in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, and funded by Humanities North Dakota, a nonprofit, independent state partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in the program do not necessarily reflect those of Humanities North Dakota or the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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