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Holiday Tree

History of the California State Capitol Tree Lighting Ceremony

The first use of the California State Capitol occurred during a holiday celebration in December of 1869. Festive music, holiday decorations marked the celebration at our Capitol to dedicate the first use of the building by the Legislature, Governor and State Supreme Court.

In 1931 Governor James Rolph began the holiday tree lighting ceremony. He rearranged his main office located at that time in the west wing of the Capitol to accommodate a large decorated tree. Under the tree were gifts that were exchanged among his staff. This informal tradition continued with the next 6 governors. In 1951, the Governor’s office moved to its present location in the East Annex as did the holiday tree lighting ceremony.

Hand-Crafted Ornaments and Tradition of Tree Lighters

In 1982, after the major restoration of the Capitol was completed, the holiday tree ceremony was again brought back to the historic west wing. In 1983 the Governor together with the Department of General Services and the Department of Developmental Services updated the ceremony with a large tree placed on the west steps and decorated with ornaments hand made by children and adults with developmental disabilities at community and state-operated developmental centers’ art programs. That same year, Governor Deukmejian, lit the tree from the interior of the first floor rotunda.

This holiday tradition continued until 1996 when California State Parks and the State Legislature reintroduced the historic holiday decorations with traditional holiday music being performed by musical groups from throughout the state.

Creating ornaments for the tree is a project that is really enjoyed. Each year, there are new themes, and creativity never ends. The ornaments must be constructed of materials that will withstand the elements of wind and rain. The tree is also decorated with over 10,000 energy efficient LED lights.

2019 marks 37 years since Governor Deukmejian started the tradition of inviting a child with developmental disabilities to hang an ornament and “hit the switch” to help kick off the holiday season. This year, Nayeli Lemus, a 10-year-old girl from Gilroy who has Down syndrome, will help Governor Gavin Newsom and First Partner Jennifer Siebel Newsom light the tree.

For more than 88 years, the Governor’s Capitol Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony has evolved from a small office celebration into California’s statewide commemoration of the holiday season.

Holiday imagery
Holiday imagery
Holiday imagery
Holiday imagery
Last Updated: 11/27/2019