Our National Christmas Tree
by Cheli Mennella
The magnificent blue spruce towers above the Ellipse, the ground between the White House and the Washington Monument. Throughout the year it is a silent reminder of yuletide pleasures and joy. Then in December the tree takes on new significance. Dressed in strands of colorful lights and trimmed with ornaments, the tree, our National Christmas Tree, becomes a beacon of beauty and brilliance.
The seed of this story does not begin with the first green sprouts of the spruce, nor the catalog from which the tree was ordered, but rather to a simple idea written in a letter and sent to the Secretary of the President in 1923.
Lucretia Walker Hardy, Director of the District of Columbia Community Center Department, sought permission to set up a community Christmas tree on the South Lawn of the White House. President Calvin Coolidge and First Lady Grace Coolidge approved, and within a few short weeks a site was secured and arrangements for an evergreen tree were made.
A forty-eight-foot balsam fir cut from the Green Mountains of Vermont, President Coolidge’s native state, was given to him as a gift from Middlebury College. The tree was loaded onto a special car and driven to the capital city where it was erected on the Ellipse, and strung with 3,000 white, red, and green electric lights.
At 5 p.m. on Christmas Eve in 1923, several thousand people circled round as President Coolidge walked from the White House and lit the first National Christmas Tree. The remainder of the night was filled with music, carols, and community togetherness, which set the tone of peace and good will for future ceremonies.
In later years living Christmas trees were planted in Sherman Plaza and Lafayette Park, both locations near the White House. The lighting ceremony passed to President Herbert Hoover and then to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt who, in 1941, requested a new National Christmas Tree be planted on the South Lawn of the White House to create a more intimate holiday gathering.
The tree lighting ceremony that year was especially memorable. Though the nation was in the grips of World War II, the South Lawn remained open to the public, and a surprise visit from British Prime Minister Winston Churchill lifted people’s spirits.
WWII raged on in 1942 and the city was cinched by wartime restrictions. Organizers of the National Christmas Tree event decided for the first time not to hold the tree lighting ceremony, but First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt opposed their decision. As a compromise, the Christmas Eve ceremony was held, but to conserve electricity, chimes were hung on the tree instead of lights. And in a show of community support, area school children collected old and new ornaments to help decorate the tree.
The holiday celebration continued in 1943 and 1944, but the National Christmas Tree remained dark as a wartime precaution. With the end of WWII, the National Christmas Tree was once again strung with lights and lit on Christmas Eve, 1945, by President Harry S Truman.
The annual lighting celebration continued on the South Lawn of the White House until 1954, when it returned to the Ellipse and became the “Christmas Pageant of Peace,” a three-week long winter festival, a tradition that continues today. President Dwight Eisenhower lit the National Christmas Tree as well as smaller Christmas trees along the newly designed “Pathway of Peace.” The path, which would eventually be lined with fifty-six trees (one for each state, the District of Columbia, and the five U.S. territories), led to nightly exhibits and entertainment, with the National Christmas Tree being the central attraction.
In 1973, President Richard Nixon received letters from concerned citizens and environmental groups pleading for him to end the cutting of large, beautiful trees, which had become the custom for nearly twenty years.
That year, a forty-two-foot living Colorado Spruce from northern Pennsylvania became the permanent National Christmas Tree. Unfortunately the tree withered under the Washington heat and within a few years had to be replaced.
In 1977, the National Park Service (NPS) searched 7,000 miles of American countryside over a period of nine months before they chose a thirty-four-foot Colorado spruce growing in Maryland not more than fifteen minutes away from the White House. Unfortunately, this new tree blew down in heavy winds the following January, 1978.
The NPS began another search and found the perfect tree in the front yard of Mr. and Mrs. Myers of York, Pennsylvania. It took a team of tree experts equipped with rope, chain, hog wire, a special burlap tarp, a crane, a backhoe, and ninety quarts of homemade soup three days to unearth the Colorado blue spruce and load it onto the tractor-trailer.
The living tree was transplanted to the Ellipse on October 20, 1978. Fortunately, the tree took root and thirty years later, stands steadfast in full view of the White House. Growing to a height of forty-two feet, the tree has weathered heat and storms, ice and wind, five presidents and decades of social and political change.
The tree has remained dark only twice since it was transplanted: in 1979, in a symbol of allegiance to the fifty American hostages in Iran, and in 1980 when the tree was lit for only 417 seconds, one second for every day the hostages were held.
The National Christmas Tree returned to a full spectrum of light in 1981, but due to security concerns, President Ronald Reagan lit the tree by a remote switch inside the White House, an act that would continue throughout his presidential term.
It wasn’t until 1989, a month after the Berlin Wall came down and renewed feelings of hope, democracy and world peace flooded the country that President George H.W. Bush and First Lady Barbara Bush reclaimed the tradition started by President Coolidge of lighting the National Christmas Tree among the people on the Ellipse.
Succeeding Presidents William Clinton and George W. Bush upheld this custom.
Today our National Christmas Tree stands with quiet dignity, between the White House and the Washington Monument, a testament to an eighty-five-year tradition and a national symbol of peace and good will.
Did You Know?
- In 1932 audio equipment was set up under the tree’s branches and played holiday music for people strolling at night. The guard who kept watch at the tree was also responsible for changing the music.
- The tradition of the President’s Christmas message at the tree lighting ceremony dates back to President Herbert Hoover. His short message evolved into longer presidential speeches. One of the most memorable Christmas addresses was in 1941, when both President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill spoke at the National Christmas Tree. Their speeches, broadcast by radio, urged Americans to pray for peace and for children to know the joys of the season.
- In 1969, protesters voiced their discontent about the Vietnam War as President Richard Nixon lit the tree. Ignoring their shouts, he raised his voice over the din and dedicated the tree to hope and peace.
- In 1971, there were at least three National Christmas Trees. Organizers were so concerned about the welfare of the official tree that at least two other trees were on hand in case of a tree emergency.
- To herald the coming bicentennial year, the 1975 National Christmas Tree was topped with a four-foot green and gold replica of the Liberty Bell.
- The tradition of a member of the President’s or Vice-President’s family topping the tree started in 1978 when Amy Carter topped the living Colorado blue spruce which had been transplanted from York, Pennsylvania, in October of that year.
- The tree was officially lit twice in 1981: once in January for the return home of the American hostages in Iran, and again that December.
- In 1995, the National Christmas Tree was lit by solar energy for the first time.
- For the Christmas following September 11, 2001, the traditional color scheme of red, gold, and green was traded for patriotic colors. That year decorators used red garland with white and blue lights.
- Christmas lights on the tree have changed over the years from early strands of steady lights to blinking lights to fiber optics and computerized faders. And in 2007, energy efficient LED lights were used. The number of Christmas lights hung on the tree has multiplied from a few thousand in early years to 100,000 in recent years.
How Can You Participate?
The National Christmas Tree program takes place each year starting in December and runs through January 1. The pageant begins with the lighting of the National Christmas Tree and the smaller trees along the “Pathway of Peace.” Trees are lit at dusk each evening and stay lit until 11 p.m.
Past festivities included live music, seasonal displays, a Yule log, a large-scale model train, and warming bonfires. Because of its popularity the tree lighting ceremony is for ticketed visitors only. Several thousand free tickets are distributed on a selected date; however, the “Pathway of Peace” and other festival events are free and open to the public.
For information on the tree lighting and pageant events, contact the White House Visitor Center in the fall, at 202-208-1631, or check the National Park Service website at nps.gov/whho.
©2016 Cheli Mennella; The National Children’s Book and Literacy Alliance