National Christmas Tree

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National Christmas Tree

The National Christmas Tree stands on the lawn of the President's Park South - or Ellipse, as it is more commonly called - in Washington, D.C. Its ceremonial illumination each year in early December kicks off a festival called the Pageant of Peace. The pageant was established in order to "foster friendship and understanding among all peoples" and "to reflect the unity of purpose that emanates from the diversity of traditions and backgrounds of mankind." The festival lasts till January 6, Epiphany. Over the years, radio and then television coverage has made the National Christmas Tree an increasingly important symbol of Christmas celebrations in the United States.

The Early Years

Community trees illuminated with electric lights date back to the first years of the twentieth century. From California the idea spread to New York City, resulting in a tree-lighting ceremony in Madison Park (now known as Madison Square Gardens). In 1913 the first community tree in Washington, D.C., was erected on the East Plaza of the Capitol Building. Lighting ceremonies took place in 1913 and 1914, but folded due to lack of funds. The event resumed at the end of World War I.

In 1923 the Capitol tree was eclipsed by another community tree, however, this one standing on the Ellipse south of the White House and lit by the president himself. That year President Calvin Coolidge agreed to flip the switch that illuminated the 60-foot fir tree's electric lights. He did so at sundown on Christmas Eve, but showed little interest in the proceedings. The evening's activities also included a free concert at the tree by the Marine Band quartet, a 9:00 p.m. carol sing on the North Lawn, and a midnight reenactment of the journey of the Magi at the Washington Monument.

Several years later President Coolidge designated the General Grant tree, located in California's King's Canyon National Park, the Nation's Christmas Tree. Although this 267-foot-tall tree is never decorated with lights and ornaments, Christmas ceremonies have taken place at the foot of the tree since 1925.

Washington's first National Christmas Tree had come from Coolidge's home state of Vermont, a donation from Middlebury College. Between the years 1924 and 1933 the ceremony took place in Sherman Plaza using a living Christmas tree. During these years the event became increasingly popular. Radio announcers broadcast the ceremony in 1925. In 1926, a flare was sent up at the moment of the illumination. This signal alerted buglers dispersed throughout the city to proclaim the lighting of the tree in song. By 1929 the hot lights and heavy ornaments had so damaged the tree that it had to be replaced.

Between the years 1934 and 1938, the renovation of Sherman Plaza forced the lighting ceremony to move to Lafayette Park. Two living Christmas trees were used in alternate years, in order to avoid permanently harming either one.

World War II

In 1939 the tree-lighting ceremony returned to the Ellipse, but in 1941 President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered it moved to the South Lawn of the White House, a decision he felt would make the proceedings "more homey." The United States entered World War II in December of that year. On Christmas Eve the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who was in Washington to confer with Roosevelt about the war, appeared alongside President Roosevelt at the treelighting ceremony. Both gave brief speeches about the war and Christmas. In 1942 wartime blackout requirements led to the cancellation of the tree's illumination. Nevertheless, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt insisted on an alternate ceremony. Schoolchildren collected ornaments for the tree and a ceremony featuring the ringing of chimes was substituted for the usual illumination. The blackouts continued in 1943 and 1944. In these years, tags bearing the names of men serving in the military were attached to each ornament.

Post-War Years

By Christmas of 1945 World War II was over and Washingtonians rejoiced anew as President Harry S. Truman pushed the button that illuminated the National Christmas Tree for the first time since 1942. Truman preferred to spend Christmas at home in Missouri and so missed a number of illumination ceremonies. Without an appearance by the President, the event's glamour and popularity sagged.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower and his wife Mamie breathed new life into the illumination ceremony, however. In 1954 they moved it back to the Ellipse, which permitted larger crowds to gather. In that same year the date of the ceremony was moved back to December 17 and a series of related activities lasting from December 17 to January 6 was added. This program of activities, named the "Christmas Pageant of Peace," was concocted by local businessmen to attract more tourists to the area at Christmas time (see also Commercialism). Twenty-seven foreign embassies participated in the pageant that year, sending performers to demonstrate the Christmas songs, dances, and traditions of their countries. A full-scale Nativity scene, featuring live animals, was also erected as part of the pageant. In addition, during the Eisenhower years the tree-lighting ceremony was televised to ever-expanding TV audiences, which helped make the tree a national icon of the holiday season.

Between the years 1954 and 1972, festival organizers scouted out beautiful, tall trees from various parts of the country, bought them, cut them down, and imported them to Washington to serve as the National Christmas Tree. In that era festival organizers thought that planting a living Christmas tree on the Ellipse would interrupt the area's usage during the rest of the year. As the festival became a more important part of the nation's Christmas celebrations, various states began to send smaller Christmas trees to stand alongside the "pathway of peace" that leads to the National Christmas Tree. Eventually all fifty states were represented.

Problems and Protests

The illumination ceremony was postponed until December 22 in 1963. President John F. Kennedy had been shot and killed on November 22, and the nation observed a thirty-day mourning period for him in which it was deemed inappropriate to light the tree.

The illumination ceremony became the site of political protests during Richard M. Nixon's presidency. Citizens who opposed American involvement in Vietnam used the occasion to voice their objections to the war, heckling the President during his speech. One year the police arrested nine people, charging them with disorderly conduct.

Another kind of objection was raised by the American Civil Liberties Union. On behalf of several plaintiffs, they charged that the Nativity scene that had become part of the display violated the constitutional guarantee against the government establishing or promoting a particular religion. The courts decided in their favor in 1973, and the Nativity scene was eliminated.

At the same time, the White House received numerous letters that criticized the continuing practice of cutting down a magnificent tree each year for the ceremony. In response to these concerns President Nixon requested that a living tree be planted on the Ellipse. In 1973 the National Arborist Association contributed a 42-foot Colorado Blue Spruce from Pennsylvania, which was uprooted and transplanted to Washington, D.C., to serve as the National Christmas Tree. The tree lasted only four years. In 1977 it was replaced with another Colorado Blue Spruce. This tree was knocked over by strong winds in January 1978. The following year it was replaced by yet another Colorado Blue Spruce, 39½-feet high, which was uprooted from the home of the Myers family of York, Pennsylvania, in exchange for $1,500.

In December of 1978, a new ritual was added to the illumination ceremony. Jimmy Carter's daughter Amy was lifted to the top of the Christmas tree by a cherry picker to place the last, topmost ornament on the tree. In the years that followed, this honor was generally reserved for a member of the president's or vice-president's family. In 1980 Penne Langdon, the wife of one of the American hostages being held in Iran, performed this task.

As a means of expressing America's solidarity with the hostages, President Carter ordered that the National Christmas Tree remain unlit in 1979 and 1980. The hostages were released on January 20, 1980, President Ronald Reagan's Inauguration Day. Even though Christmas had passed, Reagan had the tree decorated and illuminated in celebration of both events.

The Eighties and Beyond

The Reagans often invited children to assist them in the tree-lighting ceremony. One year a boy scout and a girl scout attended the ceremonies. Another year a child selected by the Make-a-Wish Foundation helped the President and his wife light the tree.

During the Reagan years, the President lit the Christmas tree by remote control from inside the White House. An assassination attempt on Reagan's life in 1981 in combination with other death threats led security advisors to insist on this change. His successor, President George H. W. Bush, once again strolled out to the Ellipse to light the tree. During Bush's presidency his wife Barbara Bush placed the topmost ornament on the Christmas tree four years in a row. As the wife of Reagan's vice-president, she had also performed this task, and so holds the national record for most cherry picker rides (twelve) to the top of the National Christmas Tree.

Over the years the Pageant of Peace expanded, thereby pushing the date of the illumination ceremony back into the early part of December. During the Clinton presidency it took place on various dates between December 5 and December 11. The crowds continued to grow as well. In 1993, approximately 9,000 people attended the event. In recent years over 75,000 electric lights have twinkled from the National Christmas Tree. The decorations on the tree vary from year to year.

Further Reading

Menendez, Albert J. Christmas in the White House. Philadelphia, Pa.: Westminster Press, 1983. Seeley, Mary Evans. Season's Greetings from the White House. Tampa, Fla.: A Presidential Christmas, 1998.

Web Site

The National Park Service, which maintains the President's Park South (the Ellipse), sponsors a page on the National Christmas Tree and the Pageant of Peace at:
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