In past years, choirs performed in the Oregon Capitol rotunda during the holiday season. This year, construction has shuttered the rotunda and much of the capitol. (Stacy Nalley/Oregon Capitol)
Most years, the Tuesday after Thanksgiving means a grand party at the Oregon Capitol, with Santa Claus, other dignitaries, visiting choirs, free cookies and a 30-foot tree.
But this year, an ongoing construction project did what even COVID couldn’t do: Cancel Holidays at the Capitol.
The tradition, which began in the early 1980s, is on hold until 2025 because of an ongoing $506 million construction project to make the Capitol seismically resilient. The construction also includes upgrading mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems and making the 1938 building and its 1977 addition comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.
The Capitol has largely been closed since the summer, though legislators’ offices have remained open. Starting in December, the public will be able to use the State Street entrance on the south side of the Capitol across from Willamette University to access committee hearing rooms and the House and Senate chambers ahead of the legislative session that begins in January.
Before the pandemic struck in 2020, the Capitol holiday event was a month-long celebration that brought school and community choirs and visitors from all over the state. The Oregon Department of Forestry would bring a 30-foot Christmas tree from the Clatsop State Forest to serve as the rotunda’s main focal point, with many smaller trees throughout the building. A lighted garland and poinsettias surrounded the state seal in the center of the rotunda.
About 1,000 people typically attended the tree-lighting ceremony on the Tuesday after Thanksgiving, said Stacy Nalley, the Capitol’s public outreach coordinator. They’d listen to performances from a local high school choir stationed on the grand staircase outside the House chamber, then hear from a few speakers – maybe the governor, Senate president or House speaker. And the arrival of Santa Claus, coming down the grand staircase instead of a chimney, would signal that it was almost time to light the big tree.
“It’s really magical and special,” Nalley said.
That event would start a month of festivities at the Capitol, with school and community choirs traveling to perform on the House steps Monday through Saturday. Historically, about 10,000 people would visit the Capitol for its holiday programming, including about 5,000 performing schoolchildren, Nalley said.
A choir from Hermiston traveled the farthest of any group, Nalley said. The small Umatilla County city is nearly 230 miles from Salem, a nearly four-hour drive.
“It was also exciting for us to have a school that would come that distance to perform in the rotunda,” Nalley said. “The rotunda truly gives acoustics like no other space, and choir teachers love hosting their groups in that area.”
In December 2020, the Capitol was closed to the public because of COVID. That year, Capitol staff, Senate President Peter Courtney, then-House Speaker Tina Kotek and Santa Claus recorded a virtual tree-lighting video and reruns of the 2019 choir performances ran on public TV.
In 2021, the Capitol was open to the public but COVID cases were on the rise as the omicron variant whipped around the state. There was no lighting ceremony or live choir performances, but the building was decorated and a large TV in the rotunda played video submissions from some choirs.
And this year there will be nothing.
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