The history of Christmas in Washington, D.C.
Well, the Christmas season is here, and as we celebrate another year of family tradition by finding that perfect tree to fill with decorations and gifts, a similar tradition is also carried on at our nation’s capitol and at our most famous residence, The White House. To be exact, three trees in Washington, D.C., are annually decorated in the holiday spirit; one is the National Christmas Tree located on the Ellipse of the White House; another is placed within the White House; and the final tree is placed on the West front lawn of the U.S. Capitol.
The first National Christmas Tree was placed on the Ellipse, located South of the White House, during the administration of Calvin Coolidge. On Christmas Eve 1923, President Coolidge walked from the White House to the site and lit the 48-foot balsam fir before 3,000 of his fellow citizens, sparking a tradition that has endured almost 80 years and 14 presidents. From 1924 to 1953, trees have been placed in various locations around the White House and lit on Christmas Eve. That changed in 1954 when the ceremony permanently returned to the Ellipse, utilizing cut trees until the middle of the Carter administration. Today’s tree, a 40-foot Colorado blue spruce from York, Pa., was transplanted to the Ellipse in 1978 and serves permanently as the National Christmas Tree.
The tradition of placing a tree in the White House began in 1889 during the presidency of Benjamin Harrison. Lit with candles, the first presidential Christmas tree was placed in the second floor Oval Room where his grandchildren celebrated their first White House Christmas. From that year forward, the White House has celebrated Christmas with a stylish display of trees and decorations. In 1961, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy began the tradition of Christmas tree themes when she decorated their Christmas tree in honor of the Nutcracker Suite ballet. Today, the first lady selects a theme and utilizes the skills of national artists to implement her ideas for the season.
As for the U.S. Capitol, the tradition of lighting a holiday tree began in 1964 when Speaker of the House John W. McCormack first suggested the idea. Senate President Pro Tempore Carl Hayden lit the first tree, a 24-foot douglas fir, on the west lawn of the Capitol on Dec. 14, 1964. The tree was used for several years until damage to the root system was cause to find a suitable replacement. The US Forest Service decidedly solved the problem in 1969 by donating a tree, and every year thereafter, from one of our national forests. Our own Pike National Forest enjoyed the honor of supplying the Capitol tree in 2000, relinquishing the honor to Michigan in 2001 and to Oregon this year.
So as you celebrate this season by decorating your own Christmas tree with family and loved ones, remember that same tradition is carried on each year at your nation’s capitol. Each tree, like yours, represents good tidings and spirits to your family and this nation.
I hope the spirit of peace on earth and good will towards all of mankind will carry over to you in the New Year. Happy Holidays!
Member of Congress
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Grace Wesseling is an animal lover, a cheerleader of seven years and another soon-to-be graduate of Bridges High School, class of 2021.