Washington has celebrated the National Christmas Tree lighting ceremony since 1923, when then First Lady Grace Coolidge granted permission to place a cut Christmas tree on the White House’s Ellipse.
“The National Christmas Tree is actually planted on the Ellipse,” said Jennifer Mummart, spokeswoman for the National Park Service, which is responsible for the tree. “It’s there year-round for people to see, but of course, this is the time of year that it truly shines. The fact that it’s a living tree makes it relatively unusual as Christmas trees go.”
Nearly 40 years later, the first Capitol Christmas Tree lighting ceremony took place when then-House Speaker John McCormack suggested placing a Christmas tree on the Capitol grounds in 1964.
“They [Capitol and National Trees] are both great assets to America,” said this year’s Capitol Christmas Tree coordinator, Jennifer Knutson, of the U.S. Forest Service. “It gives [people] two different options to go see different trees. The Capitol Christmas tree is the people’s tree, so all the ornaments are handmade from the state it comes from. It offers a unique experience.”
On Friday, hundreds crowded on the White House’s Ellipse in the 40-degree rainy weather as President Barack Obama and his family pressed the button to illuminate the 90th National Christmas Tree, a 31-foot Colorado blue spruce.
“Is everybody a little wet but still having fun?” Obama asked the audience. “Well, our main job today is to light the National Christmas Tree. And so we’re going to need a little help from you to count it down. We’re going to start at five. Since it’s a little wet, we shouldn’t start at 10.”
On Tuesday, a smaller crowd gathered on the Capitol’s West Front Lawn to watch as House Speaker John Boehner, along with 6-year-old Giovanni Gaynor from Colville, Wa., lit the 49th Capitol Christmas Tree, an 88-foot Engelmann spruce from Washington State decorated with nearly 5,000 ornaments handcrafted by Washington state residents.
“Every year, I look forward to this event to officially kick off the holiday season here on Capitol Hill,” said Architect of the Capitol Stephen Ayers at the Capitol ceremony. “This beautiful tree has been decorated with thousands of handmade ornaments crafted by the residents and citizens of Washington State, which reflects this year’s theme: ‘sharing Washington’s good nature.’”
Performers including Mariah Carey, Joshua Bell and host Jane Lynch entertained the audience at the National Christmas Tree ceremony. At the Capitol, the U.S. Marine Band and a children’s choir serenaded the audience with songs like “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” and “Joy to the World.”
Although each lighting ceremony has traditionally been around the same time, both trees have unique histories.
In 1923, President Calvin Coolidge lit the first National Christmas Tree, a 48-foot Balsam fir decorated with 2,500 electric red, white and green electric bulbs, near the White House.
The tree’s location has moved from the White House’s Ellipse to Sherman Plaza, then to Lafayette Park, the White House’s South Lawn, and finally, in 1954, back to the Ellipse, where the tree has stood every Christmas season since.
The Capitol Christmas Tree lighting ceremony dates to 1964 when Speaker McCormack lit the 24-foot Douglas fir from Pennsylvania, which was used in the lighting ceremonies from 1964 to 1967. After the tree died in 1968, a new tree has been harvested each year from a variety of states.
This year’s Capitol Christmas Tree toured through 22 cities across the country and traveled about 5,000 miles before arriving in Washington on Nov. 25.
Since 1970, the U.S. Forest Service has chosen each year’s Capitol Christmas Tree by nominating nearly a dozen potential candidates, which are carefully measured, mapped and photographed.
A superintendent from the Architect of the Capitol’s office visits each tree and makes a final selection based on height, density, color and health.
“It [tree] had to be perfect all around,” Knutson of the U.S. Forest Service, said. “You can see all the sides of the tree. You can see it all the way down from the Washington Monument.”
Once at the Capitol, the tree was trimmed down to stand about 65 feet above ground— any taller and decorators would not be able to place the star on the top, Knutson said.
In 1954, National Christmas Tree decorators manually installed sockets on hundreds of feet of wire because a string of lights did not exist at the time. Since 1963, General Electric has designed all the lighting and décor for the National Christmas Tree.
Both trees will remain lit each night through Jan. 1.