Not surprisingly, the history of the Lighting of the National Christmas Tree is intertwined with the history of America for the last 94 years. Through peace and war, Americans have celebrated the season in this holiday event.
Grace Coolidge and the First National Christmas Tree
In November, 1923, First Lady Grace Coolidge permitted the District of Columbia Public Schools to erect a Christmas tree on the Ellipse south of the White House. The organizers named the tree The “National Christmas Tree.” On Christmas Eve, President Calvin Coolidge walked from the White House to the Ellipse and “pushed the button” to light the 48-foot Balsam fir. Enthusiastic spectators looked on as the tree lit up with 2,500 electric bulbs in red, white and green. A local choir and a “quartet” from the U.S. Marine Band performed too.
Roosevelt and the National Christmas Tree
Rather than celebrate the National Christmas Tree on the Ellipse,Roosevelt had two Frasier firs planted in Lafayette Park. The two firs stood on either side of the statue of Andrew Jackson. The expectation was that one of the trees would serve as the National Christmas Tree each year.
The year before United States entered World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt condemned war, invoked the beatitudes of Christ, and called on “belligerent nations to read the Sermon on the Mount.” At the ceremony, he also prefaced his prepared remarks with an announcement that he and Mrs. Roosevelt would like the celebration moved to the South Lawn of the White House grounds next year. He remarked that such a shift in locale would make for a “more homey” celebration. Nonetheless, the tree was not lit for the war years.
Harry Truman and the National Christmas Tree
President Truman lit the tree, which had not been lit since 1941, and delivered a Christmas message. Standing on the bandstand on the South Lawn, he said, “This is the Christmas that a war-weary world has prayed for through long and awful years. With peace come joy and gladness. The gloom of the war years fades as once more we light the National Community Christmas Tree.” Adding to the festivities, members of the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts spoke at the lighting ceremony.
Eisenhower and the National Christmas Tree
In 1954 the Washington Board of Trade and the Washington Citizen’s Committee conceived of a wider celebration called the “Christmas Pageant of Peace.” The tree lighting event expanded to three festive weeks. The celebration included a “Pathway of Peace” composed of smaller trees representing all the states, territories and DC. President Dwight D. Eisenhower lit the tree on December 17 that year. The longer event, with local nightly entertainment, proved very popular and continues to the present.
Johnson and the National Christmas Tree
In 1963 the lighting ceremony was postponed following the death of John Kennedy on November 22. On December 22, President Lyndon Johnson, accompanied by his wife and younger daughter, opened the lighting ceremony. President Johnson said, “Today we come to the end of a season of great national sorrow, and to the beginning of the season of great, eternal joy.” He hoped that the nation would “not lose the closeness and the sense of sharing and the spirit of mercy and compassion, which these last few days have brought to us all.”
Carter and the National Christmas Tree
After the death of two previous live trees planted on the Ellipse, National Park Service horticulturalists searched for a new National Christmas Tree. They wanted a tree that would be healthy and strong enough to survive a move to the Ellipse. The Colorado blue spruce in York, Pennsylvania at the home of Mr. and Mrs. William E. Myers was perfect. When the tree was six years old it had been planted in the Myers’ front yard as a Mother’s Day gift. The tree was 15 years old and 30 feet tall when it arrived in Washington in 1978. President Jimmy Carter and his daughter Amy were the first to light this special tree.
Reagan and the National Christmas Tree
Through the 1970s and 1980s, kids often helped the President light the National Christmas Tree. In 1983 seven-year-old Amy Bentham joined President Reagan and First Lady Nancy Reagan in lighting the tree. Amy had written to the “Make a Wish” program saying “The Christmas tree that lights up for our country must be seen all the way to heaven. I would wish so much to help the President turn on those Christmas lights.”
Bush and the National Christmas Tree
President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura Bush, lit the tree in 2002 with the assistance of two seven year old area Washington, DC schoolchildren. Samara Banks and Benjamin Schneiller had participated in the President’s “Call to Service” program. These two seven year olds had prepared and distributed food for homeless men and women in the Washington, DC area.
GE, which had been decorating the National Christmas Tree since 1963, used LED Christmas lights on the tree in 2007. GE thus made the National Christmas Tree more energy-efficient than ever before. In 2008, National Christmas Tree display was powered almost entirely by LEDs. The tree was 50 percent more energy efficient than the 2007 display. This is also the first time Santa’s Workshop was found along the Christmas Pathway of Peace, sharing holiday cheer and safety tips with all families this December.
Obama and the National Christmas Tree
Helping kick off the National Park Service Centennial in 2016, the theme of the 2015 National Christmas Tree paid ode to this momentous occasion, trimmed with sparkling gold ribbon and silvery white stars and lights, colors and trappings that are traditionally used for milestone celebrations. The Lighting Ceremony itself interwove the Centennial theme. Everyone that took to the stage that evening – from President Obama to musical talent – had the opportunity to shine a spotlight on their personal connection to national parks.