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The National Christmas Tree

The History of the National Christmas Tree

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The National Christmas Tree

The National Christmas Tree

© tldagny via Flickr

There are roughly 25-30 million real Christmas trees sold in the United States every year. But only one tree gets the glory of standing as our country's national Christmas tree. Each year, a tree stands proudly outside the White House in Washington, D.C. and when the President flips that switch, it is illuminated with lights. It has been a long-standing tradition, dating back to 1923 when Calvin Coolidge presided over the first public celebration of the Christmas holidays with the lighting of a National Christmas Tree.

Now don't get this confused with the White House Christmas Tree. That tree, also known as the Blue Room Christmas tree, is the official indoor Christmas tree at the White House. However, the National Christmas Tree stays outdoors and its lighting has turned into quite a celebration. Each year, people from all over the country visit Washington to see the tree light up, and the celebration is now a part of the Christmas Pageant of Peace which also includes featured guest performers, costumed entertainers, volunteer gospel choirs, and even an appearance by the first family.

So how did this celebration come about? Take a trip back in time to see the major events that helped form this national celebration.

It Started at the Capitol

In 1913, the country got its first taste of national Christmas spirit. President Woodrow Wilson requested that a community Christmas tree be placed at the Capitol so that a lighting ceremony could be recognized as a national event. On Christmas Eve, a crowd of 20,000 gathered to celebrate "A Civic Christmas." Visitors enjoyed the U.S. Marine Band, 1,000 singers, and a costumed reenaction of the Nativity. Today, a Capitol Christmas Tree is still displayed on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol, but not to be confused with the National Christmas Tree. Instead the National Christmas Tree has transformed into a major event at the White House.

The first official National Christmas tree came about in 1923. This "community Christmas tree" was lit by President Calvin Coolidge on Christmas Eve in President's Park, south of the White house, also referred to as the Ellipse. Decorated with 2,500 donated lights in red, white, and green, the tree was a gift from Vermont's Middlebury College. Visitors enjoyed the lighting of the tree as well as Christmas carols performed by the Epiphany Church choir and the U.S. Marine Band quartet.

The location of the tree moved over the next few years. It moved from the Ellipse in 1923, to Sherman Plaza - located near the east entrance of the White House - from 1924-1933, to Lafayette Park from 1934-1938, and then back to the Ellipse where it has remained.

Light It Up

The tree lighting ceremony itself has always symbolized the country's current events. For example, following the attack on Pearl Harbor, the ceremony in 1941 included a surprise appearance by Sir Winston Churchill. And the following year, wartime blackouts kept the tree from being lit -1942 until 1944.

In 1954, the tree was lit for its usual celebration but something was very different. President Dwight Eisenhower lit the first National Christmas Tree for the Pageant of Peace on December 17 rather than Christmas Eve. This paved the way for the lighting ceremonies today. Not having it on December 25 allows for more tourists to see the lighting and still be home for their own family traditions. Also evolved was the Pathway to Peace, leading to the National Community Christmas Tree. It was now bordered by smaller Christmas trees decorated by embassies, states and U.S. territories. What once was a single Christmas tree, now includes a main tree with 56 smaller trees - one for each state, territory, and the District of Columbia.

Although the tree remains lit for hours during the holiday season, in 1980 the tree was only fully lit for 417 seconds. Each second symbolized each day hostages had been in captivity in Iran.

Five years later - Christmas Eve of 1985 - President George H. W. Bush instructed that the tree's lights be turned down momentarily in support of American hostages in Lebanon and their families at home. In 2001, children of victims of the September 11th terrorist attack on the Pentagon assisted in lighting the tree.

Keeping up with today's national concerns, the standard filament-burning bulbs that adorned the National Christmas Tree were replaced by energy-efficient light-emitting diodes, also known as LEDs. They serve as a national reminder of how everyone can save energy to decrease their carbon footprint.

The Right Tree

Prior to 1973, cut trees were donated for the Pageant of Peace celebration. That year, a 42-foot blue spruce from northern Pennsylvania was donated by the National Arborist Association, and was intended to serve as a permanent National Christmas Tree. Unfortunately, the tree began to die in 1976. In 1978, a 40-foot-tall living Colorado blue spruce was donated by an anonymous family in Maryland, was transplanted to the Ellipse where it continues to serve as the National Christmas Tree ever since.

Today

The Lighting of the National Christmas Tree and Pageant of Peace is celebrated every year at the White House. But if you are wondering why this has to do with national parks, you may be surprised to learn that the White House is in fact a unit of the National Park System. It was transferred to the National Park Service (U.S. Department of the Interior) on August 10, 1933.

You can read about this year's specific events, on the Pageant of Peace page. And for even more information, you can read the history of the National Christmas Tree on the Washington, D.C. Travel site.

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