As the countdown began and the National Weather Service showed no signs of cooperating, Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin said the lighting of the 2016 U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree would go on, come rain or come shine.
And so it did.
Shortly after 5 p.m. Tuesday, in the middle of a cold all-day rain, 10-year-old Isabella Gerard helped Ryan flip the switch on an 80-foot Englemann spruce from Idaho’s Payette National Forest.
The lighting on the west lawn of the Capitol capped a 2,500-mile journey for the tree, which was cut on Nov. 2 from Little Ski Hill, just west of McCall.
“In the words of Yogi Berra, at least it’s a dry rain,” Ryan told the spectators, many of whom huddled under umbrellas.
And he used the lighting to offer a Christmas message during a brief 15-minute ceremony.
“Christ’s birth, like this tree, is a reminder that God is always with us,” Ryan said. “We may neglect him. We may reject him. But he never forsakes us.”
Isabella, a fifth-grader at St. Mary’s Catholic School in Boise, won the trip to Washington after writing a poem titled “Pristine Idaho Mountains.”
“I just imagined myself outside in the forest and then I wrote about that,” she said, adding that the best part of her first trip to Washington with her family came when she got a chance to visit the city’s monuments and museums.
Ryan led the crowd in a countdown before Isabella lit the tree.
“Good job,” he told her after she turned on the switch.
Idaho Republican Sen. Mike Crapo, who chose Isabella for the honor, called the tree lighting “an incredible opportunity” to share the state’s beauty with the nation.
“My wish is that this tree will be the beacon of hope to those that may be struggling or are separated from loved ones,” Crapo said.
Republican Sen. Jim Risch of Idaho told the crowd that the tree was was a present to the nation from his state.
“Merry Christmas, America,” he said.
Idaho sent a special guest to the lighting: Brandalyn Crapo, an Idaho state trooper and the granddaughter of Sen. Crapo’s first cousin who was hit while leading the motorcade for the tree from McCall to Boise. A pickup truck crossed the center line and collided with her patrol car.
“Long flight, but excited to be here,” she said. “It’s a pretty proud moment, not an opportunity that you get a lot in a lifetime.”
Officials with the Payette National Forest said it cost an estimated $600,000 to move the tree across the country, with corporate sponsors contributing roughly a half-million dollars toward the project.
Here is Isabella's winning poem:
“Idaho is blessed with beautiful mountains and immense forests.
In the winter the mountains and forests are covered with snow,
making the landscape look like never ending clouds with skyscrapers covered in snow.
Big tall trees.
Beautiful to look at.
Amazing to see.
As I sit in the forest I find peace.
As the wind blows through the tall ponderosa pines I feel a sense of solitude and peacefulness.
To someone that has never been in an Idaho forest, it is hard to understand the size and beauty.
If only you could be here looking at these beautiful Idaho scenes."