It's a holiday tree strung with messages that empower young readers, support the disenfranchised and advocate for equality. It just happens to center a humanoid goat instead of a manger.

The Satanic Temple of Wisconsin is one of 66 organizations participating in the Festival of Trees event at the National Railroad Museum, 2285 S. Broadway, said CEO Jacqueline Frank. The group's tree, festooned with red lights and adorned with pentacle baubles and upside-down crosses, was one of 60 with no explicit Christian overtones.

"We have six Christian-related groups that have trees up this year, but it's mostly businesses and nonprofit organizations," Frank said. "We have everything from a tree with hardware on it, a tea tree, we have a Lego tree. It's a lot of different organizations promoting their business."

While the sight of a red, glowering tree with ornaments like "Hail Santa" might seem controversial to some, The Festival of Trees opened on Nov. 15 to about 250 people and no comments. Only Tuesday morning could Frank count on one hand the number of calls she's received from people in the community who were upset about the tree's presence, the result of a social media post's call to action.

The National Railroad Museum is a privately funded 501(c)(3) educational organization and is among the largest railroad museums in the nation, according to its website. It receives no tax dollars beyond the occasional grants, including a recent grant from Democratic Gov. Tony Evers in the form of American Rescue Plan Act dollars to help fund the museum's expansion.

The museum has hosted The Festival of Trees since 2007 and is one of the venue's main fundraisers.

The Satanic Temple tree part of museum's diverse range of organizations

satanic christmas tree
When the National Railroad Museum received The Satanic Temple of Wisconsin's application this year, Frank checked its site to make sure it wasn't promoting violence or adult content. Despite the shock its name may evoke, the organization's mission is "to encourage benevolence and empathy, reject tyrannical authority, advocate practical common sense, oppose injustice, and undertake noble pursuits."

Nor does the organization share heritage with the Church of Satan, founded by Anton LaVey in the 1960s, whose more authoritarian values run counter to those of The Satanic Temple, which was founded in 2013. Neither organization actually believes in Satan.

But more important to Frank, she and her team will not reject an organization simply because it goes against certain values or ways of life, traditional or not.

"There was no hesitation. We're not a religious organization. We focus on trains," Frank said. "And honestly, the Christmas tree is used by so many different secular and religious organizations. All we're doing is putting up decoration in that room."

satanic christmas tree
Had Frank rejected The Satanic Temple, she would have set a dangerous precedent for other groups. Jewish and Muslim organizations are more than welcome to apply to be part of the Festival of Trees, she said, even though these religions don't celebrate Christmas.

"If we want to be an inclusive organization, we want to make sure that everybody feels comfortable. Who am I to suddenly say ... this thing that is your belief system and outside the mainstream is bad?" Frank said. "I think there's a lot to be said of being able to include everybody, to respect everyone and to provide dignity for everybody."

Trees represented are vetted ahead of opening
satanic christmas tree
Beyond the handful of religious organizations present, there were also trees dedicated to music stores, the trucking industry, pet crematories, health insurance companies, gender diversity, radio stations and behavioral pediatrics.

Each organization that participates sponsors a tree that costs anywhere from $75 to $150 and they can decorate it however they see fit, so long as the museum isn't promoting violence, sexual content, and alcohol and drugs, Frank said.

Only one tree had an element flagged by the museum because it had the appearance of drug paraphernalia when, in reality, it was road salt. That organization shifted gears to make sure it was promoting road safety and not a highly addictive stimulant.

One tree, decorated by the Bay Area Council of Gender Diversity in pastel pinks and blues, the colors associated with the trans flag, offered powerful words of affirmation to visitors.

White, blue and pink ornaments read, "I'm still learning to love the bits of me that I was told were ugly," "Don't become a prisoner to things you cannot change" and "I love my trans daughter."

Complaints over this tree came only in tandem with the complaints over The Satanic Temple's tree, which began Tuesday morning.
satanic christmas tree
On the other hand, The National Railroad Museum has also received positive messages about the round of trees in this year's exhibition. Frank got a call earlier on Tuesday to express appreciation for the diversity of trees present this year.

Others have responded by becoming members of the National Railroad Museum.

As for parents and caregivers who might not want their children exposed to The Satanic Temple, Frank sympathizes. But it's up to parents and caregivers, she said, to talk about whatever personal values they'd like to impart on their children.

Frank is proud to include The Satanic Temple's tree in this year's Festival of Trees and, asked whether she would have the organization back next year, she said, "Absolutely."

"We're not discriminating against anyone. And as long as they're not promoting violence or anything along those lines, we absolutely support having them, as well as any religion or secular organization that wants to decorate a tree," Frank said.

Note: The Festival of Trees exhibit runs through Dec. 31.

Natalie Eilbert covers mental health issues for USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin. She welcomes story tips and feedback. You can reach her at or view her Twitter profile at @natalie_eilbert. If you or someone you know is dealing with suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 or text "Hopeline" to the National Crisis Text Line at 741-741.