Grand Champions of the White House
by Reneé Critcher Lyons
America’s founders believed our country would survive and prosper if “we the people” adopted the values of hard work, determination, independence, and pride in place, all the while embracing the spirit of healthy competition. Take for example a group of citizen farmers who carry these values into the present day, our nation’s Christmas tree growers. Hailing from all 50 states, tree farm families continue to cultivate the evergreen, ever-growing “real” spirit of our country. Their crop is grown in America, bought in America, recycled…in America. (Consider the flipside: “Fake” trees contain non-biodegradable plastics and harmful toxins, such as lead). The tree-farming business benefits local and national economies, creates jobs, and preserves America’s green spaces, as well as the magic and art known far and wide as Christmas tree decorating. In fact, one tree is chosen each year from America’s 15,000 Christmas tree farms and specially decorated for America’s first family, and for all American families who visit the White House during the Christmas season.
Many of these independent farmers participate each year in the National Christmas Tree Association’s “Grand Champion” competition for the honor of presenting the annual (and official) White House Christmas tree to the first lady, who accepts on behalf of the people of the United States. To receive this top honor, described by one farmer as “the same as winning the Superbowl,” tree growers across the country first compete at the regional or state level. If chosen at the state level, the local honoree travels to the annual National Christmas Tree Association convention to enter the competition. At the convention, farmers are asked to demonstrate their growing, grooming, shearing (chop, chop), and presentation abilities. The distinguished winner is recognized at an awards banquet. In the history of the “Grand Champion” competition (sponsored by the Association since 1966), only six growers have repeated a win, and the tree ultimately chosen each year has literally “beat out” more than 30 million other evergreens. Maybe this award is even better than winning the Superbowl!
The species gracing the White House more than any other (seventeen times) as a result of this competition is none other than a beauty known as the fraser fir. Nicknamed “she-balsam,” this fir sports a gorgeous blue-green color, an upside-down “V” (Λ, or conical) form and shape, an intoxicating natural scent (perfect for Christmas), sturdy limbs, and hard-to-fall-off needles. It grows “in the wild” at high elevations in the Southern Appalachians (4,500 feet and above), also standing tall from the highest point east of the Mississippi River: Mt. Mitchell, North Carolina (6,684 feet). The fraser can grow to heights of 80 feet (about 4 telephone poles), but the tree chosen for the White House is usually 18-18 1/2 feet (imagine one telephone pole).
That one special tree is chosen each year directly off the lot of the award-winning farm by White House staff members (the chief usher and grounds foreman). Right after Thanksgiving, farm owners deliver the tree to Washington, where it is carried by horse and wagon to the front lawn. A formal presentation is made to the first lady, the tree is set-up in the Blue Room, and the staff of the White House floral department busily begins the decorating process. Based upon a theme chosen each year by the first lady, decorations reflect a wide range of interests. In 2008, the award-winning tree displayed ornaments with a patriotic theme: A Red, White, and Blue Christmas. These ornaments were designed by artists from across the country, personally selected by members of Congress from their constituencies. Other recent themes have included: Holiday in the National Parks (2007) and All Things Bright and Beautiful (2005), the year the White House Blue Room basked in the glow of white lilies, crystal spheres, and light-catching garland.
A tree has not always graced the White House at Christmastime. In fact, Franklin Pierce (1856), our 14th president, became the first to embrace the 500-year old tradition of bringing a tree into the home to celebrate the hope of Christmas morn. And, the practice did not become a yearly event until the 1880’s. Only one president since has frowned upon the use of an official White House Christmas tree, Teddy Roosevelt. Our 26th president (1901-1909), at a time before Christmas tree farms were prevalent, believed the harvesting of Christmas trees might deplete our national forests, and thus banned the practice from the White House.
This fear turned moot, as our nation’s farmers now cultivate nearly 309,365 acres of evergreens, offering tree farmers “a way to work outside in nature while building a thriving business.” To be sure, one of our nation’s best known original tree growers was also a president. Friend of the common man, our 32nd president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1933-1945), or FDR as he came to be known, helped to popularize the concept of growing trees on farms by planting them on his estate in Hyde Park, New York, throughout the 1930’s.
Today, tree farms across the nation stay busy during the holiday season hosting choose-n-cut occasions. Visitors are welcome to roam the green hills, independently, in search of their own perfect Christmas tree. On more level ground, bundled children enjoy hot cocoa, wagon rides (just the same as the White House tree), and Christmas shops filled with ornaments. Shutter bugs search for the perfect shot for farm-sponsored photo contests. After all the fun outdoors, families return home to unbundle and decorate their own specially chosen tree, fresh from the “real” spirit of America. Nothing artificial about that!
- Read how the American hostage crisis in 1979 affected the lighting of the national Christmas tree during President Carter’s term in office in “From Christmas in Plains: Memories” by Jimmy Carter, found in Our White House: Looking In, Looking Out. Also, be sure to look at Don Powers’ coordinating illustration.
- Read “Our National Christmas Tree” by Cheli Mennella, the story of the nation’s outdoor Christmas tree, placed each year between the White House and the Washington Monument.
- Read about Theodore Roosevelt and his family living “happily and vigorously, noisily and lovingly, in the White House” in “Storming Down the Stairs” by Albert Marrin, found in Our White House: Looking In, Looking Out. Don’t miss Chris Van Dusen’s accompanying illustration.
- Read Michael Cooper’s “A Rainmaker in the White House” in Our White House: Looking In, Looking Out to learn about Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s blessing to weary farmers of the Great Plains during the depression. View Barry Moser’s awe-inspiring portrait of FDR as well.
Activities for Young People at Home and in the Classroom
Writing: Ask young people to consider decorating themes from the past. Refer to this link for inspiration. Then, ask them to choose their own particular theme (which cannot be the same as the themes of the first ladies) and write a one-page description presenting the theme, its personal meaning, and the decorations which will be “commissioned.”
Materials: paper for note taking and writing.
Assessment: Personal reflection.
Art: Ask young participants to demonstrate their own “shearing” skills by cutting their own Christmas trees out of construction paper or other art materials and decorating them with twine, yarn, glitter, stickers, pom-poms, drawings, seeds, etc.
Materials: glue, scissors, construction paper, yarn, glitter, stickers, etc.
Assessment: completed art project.
Social Studies: Divide young people into three groups. Ask one group to research the question: Why was Teddy Roosevelt so interested in the national forests? (Answer: conservationist) Ask the other group to research: Why was Franklin Roosevelt so interested in tree farming? (Answer: jobs/Great Depression). The third group will secretly research both questions and consult with the teacher. The teacher will then hold a “Grand Champion” competition. Group One and Group Two will present their answers, in as much detail as possible, to Group Three. Group Three will judge the presentations and decide whether Group One or Group Two is the “Grand Champion” of research.
“About the White House Christmas Tree.” National Christmas Tree Association, 2016.
“The Environmental Choice.” North Carolina Christmas Tree Association, 2010.
“The First Trees.” North Carolina Christmas Tree Association, 2012.
“Franklin D. Roosevelt.” The White House, 31 July 2010.
“Fraser Fir Trees.” North Carolina Christmas Tree Association, 2012.
“A North Carolina Fraser Fir Displayed in the White House for the 12th Time.” North Carolina Christmas Tree Association, 2012. ncchristmastrees.com/news-media/white-house-trees
“Quick Tree Facts.” National Christmas Tree Association, 2016.
“Theodore Roosevelt.” The White House, 2010.
©2016 Reneé Critcher Lyons: The National Children’s Book and Literacy Alliance