The National Christmas Tree at the White House

Updated on November 23, 2016

The National Christmas Tree Is a Decades-Long Tradition

Each December, the President of the United States officiates the lighting of the National Christmas Tree, signaling the start of the "official" holiday season.

I love all tree-lighting ceremonies, especially large scale events like this one and the tree at the Rockefeller Center. After I enjoyed the tree lighting, I decided to find out more about the National Christmas Tree here in the U.S.A. The tradition dates back to 1923!

In 2011, a new, living Colorado blue spruce Christmas tree was planted on the Ellipse, between the White House and the National Mall. The previous tree that stood in its place had remained over 35 years, before it was irreparably damaged by high winds in February. The National Tree currently measures 26.5 feet and will continue to grow over the years!

The National Christmas Tree in 2009
The National Christmas Tree in 2009 | Source

History of the National Christmas Tree

The National Christmas Tree has been a tradition since 1923 (that's over 90 years!). Since 1923, the pomp and circumstance associated with putting up a tree for the entire country has varied, as has the location of the tree itself.

Originally, the tree was named the "National Community Christmas Tree," and was located in Sherman Park, southeast of the White House grounds. The U.S. Marine Band accompanied simple singing and presentation, as the tree was lit on Christmas Eve. President Calvin Coolidge was the first U.S. president to preside over the national tree lighting ceremony. The idea of a National Christmas Tree actually originated as part of an effort to convince Americans to use more electricity and electric Christmas lights.

Starting in 1933, the National Park Service took over the responsibilities associated with the tree ceremony. The National Christmas Tree moved in 1934 to Lafayette Park, at the north side of the White House campus. Then, in 1939, the tree was located near the center of the Ellipse. Finally, the National Christmas Tree found its permanent "home" in 1954, where it has remained ever since. The tree lighting ceremony itself has been called the "Christmas Pageant of Peace," and now takes place in early December, rather than on Christmas Eve, as it originated.

Since 1954, the National Display has remained largely the same, although decorations have varied. The tree itself is lit in early December, followed by an illumination of the "Pathway of Peace," consisting of a number of smaller trees, representing the 50 states and 5 territories of the U.S.A, as well as Washington, D.C.

The display delights visitors to the White House each day until January 1.

Lighting the 2011 National Christmas Tree

The National Christmas Tree in 2007
The National Christmas Tree in 2007 | Source
Visitor flock to the National Christmas Tree in 2008
Visitor flock to the National Christmas Tree in 2008 | Source

Lights and Decorations on the National Christmas Tree and Pathway of Peace

Originally, the National Christmas Tree was only adorned with lights, until 1929, when other decorations were added for the first time. Each year, the decorations and lights are changed on the tree. General Electric (GE) donates the lights each year for the National Tree.

The height of the Christmas Tree has varied over the years, but it has generally been around 25-35 feet tall. Decorating living trees has been largely preferred for the National Community Christmas Tree, and has been the tradition from 1973 to the present, and also from 1924-1953. The source and species of tree have varied, as well. As a sign of the times, the lights on the National Christmas Tree are now energy-efficient LED holiday lights.

The official lighting of the National Christmas Tree and the Pageant of Peace is a highly anticipated ceremony, with millions watching the televised event each year, and hundreds of thousands of people visiting the Pathway of Peace and Ellipse at the White House to see the seasonal holiday display, and visit Santa Claus. The President and First Lady "flip the switch" to light the tree, and a member of the President's or Vice-President's family observes the tradition of topping off the tree before it is illuminated.

Since 1923, there has always been a National Community Christmas Tree, despite the country having been through the Great Depression, several wars, terrorist attacks, hostage situations, and assassinations and attempts on the President's life. For security reasons and during periods of mourning, the National tree remained unlit from 1942-1945. During other years, the President remotely lit the tree, or had the Vice-President officiate at the ceremony, instead.

The trees along the Pathway of Peace around the National Christmas Tree are decorated with ornaments created by artists and volunteers from each state, territory and the District of Columbia to showcase the individual area's cultural or historical symbols, and are illuminated with Christmas lights. Unlike the National Community Christmas Tree, they are cut evergreens.

The Pageant of Peace display also includes a Christian nativity scene, a Yule log pit and barn for reindeer, sheep and donkeys. A temporary amphitheater and stage is sited near the National Christmas Tree to allow for choir performances.

Washington's National Christmas Tree in 2009
Washington's National Christmas Tree in 2009 | Source
A 2006 photo of the National Christmas Tree
A 2006 photo of the National Christmas Tree | Source

Is It Legal for the U.S. Government to Display a Christmas Tree?

The trees that are decorated on public grounds in Washington, D.C. (also including the White House trees and Capitol Tree) have always been referred to as Christmas Trees. The National Community Christmas Tree has served the same secular purpose since 1923: bringing local and national communities together to "celebrate the season and to share the message of peace."

Perhaps not surprisingly, there have been lawsuits regarding the National Christmas Tree and the Pageant of Peace. The Christian nativity scene display was challenged in 1968 as violating the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (aka separation of Church and State). In response, the government alleged that the nativity scene was not religious, but symbolic and secular. It argued that its purpose was also secular - to increase tourism. Nonetheless, it turned over the duties associating with erecting, maintaining and storing the display to a non-profit organization. Although the federal court found that the nativity scene violated the Constitution, it did not prohibit the display, choosing instead to define the circumstances under which a nativity scene could be maintained on public grounds.

There have been rumors, disclaimed on Snopes.com, that the Obama Administration is banning the phrase "Christmas trees," with respect to the National Christmas Tree, the Capitol Christmas Tree, and the White House Christmas Trees, in favor of "holiday trees." While several theories have been espoused for the origination of the rumors, they appear to be meritless at this time.

So, yes - it is legal for the U.S. Government to display a National Christmas Tree, and other Christmas Trees on public property.

The National Christmas Tree in 2005
The National Christmas Tree in 2005 | Source

Have You Seen the National Christmas Tree?

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Questions & Answers

    © 2011 Stephanie Hicks

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      • stephhicks68 profile imageAUTHOR

        Stephanie Hicks 

        6 years ago from Bend, Oregon

        Thank you oceansnsunsets - I think the National Christmas Tree is such a wonderful tradition. I hope that many Americans and others get the opportunity to see it in person someday. Merry Christmas to you! Steph

      • oceansnsunsets profile image

        Paula 

        6 years ago from The Midwest, USA

        Hi Steph, I would so love to see that Colorado Spruce planted there this year. I found that interesting, and its great they put a new one up that can continue to grow in the future years. The pathway of peace trees sound so neat also. I wasn't aware of that either, and hopefully one day can see it in person.

        Thanks for sharing such a neat Christmas hub about the National Christmas Tree. No wonder visitors flock to see it. Voted up and more.

      • stephhicks68 profile imageAUTHOR

        Stephanie Hicks 

        6 years ago from Bend, Oregon

        Hi Simone, *jealous* We were in Washington, D.C. last April, just when it started getting humid again. We did see the former National Christmas Tree (undecorated, of course) then. I'd also like to see the Rockefeller Center tree, but for some reason, I am more drawn to this one. Best, Steph

      • WillStarr profile image

        WillStarr 

        6 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona

        Since Christmas has been a national holiday for 141 years, it seems rather silly to question the Constitutionality of Christmas.

        For the same reason, I think the ongoing war on Christmas is equally silly. It's Christmas! Get over it!

      • Simone Smith profile image

        Simone Haruko Smith 

        6 years ago from San Francisco

        I love the National Christmas Tree! I attended two lighting ceremonies when I lived in DC. Such fun! I was really sad when it snapped, so I'm pleased to read that a replacement has been brought in. What a relief! The tradition lives on!

      • stephhicks68 profile imageAUTHOR

        Stephanie Hicks 

        6 years ago from Bend, Oregon

        Thank you Prasetio, I agree that the National Christmas Tree is simply beautiful. I'd love to see it in person one day.

        Thanks BlissfulWriter, I hope you enjoyed reading about this holiday tradition. Best, Steph

      • BlissfulWriter profile image

        BlissfulWriter 

        6 years ago

        I'm just learning about the National Christmas tree for the first time here. Thanks for pointing out the subject.

      • prasetio30 profile image

        prasetio30 

        6 years ago from malang-indonesia

        This was beautiful Christmas tree I've ever seen in my life. Thank you so much for writing and share with us. Vote up!

        Prasetio

      • profile image

        Derdriu 

        6 years ago

        Steph: You already were clear. It is spelled out in the text. I was interrupted while reading this article. When I got back, I must have gone on to the sentence about the pathway being comprised of cut evergreens without realizing that I hadn't finished the previous sentence.

        Thank you for such a clear, informative and timely article.

        Respectfully,

        Derdriu

      • stephhicks68 profile imageAUTHOR

        Stephanie Hicks 

        6 years ago from Bend, Oregon

        Hi Derdriu,

        I should have been more clear that the Pathway of Peace has a total of 57 trees, which includes those for the states, all of the U.S. territories and Washington, D.C. In the past, they have included additional trees for special honor, such as for POWs/MIAs.

        Thanks for the comment, and best this holiday season, Steph

      • profile image

        Derdriu 

        6 years ago

        Steph: What an informative and interesting summary of the White House Christmas Tree, now and over time! It particularly is interesting where you explain the differences between the decoration and permanence of the main tree as opposed to the 50 uniquely decorated cut evergreens of the Pathway of Peace. Is there no representation anywhere there for such vital U.S. possessions as Guam, Puerto Rico, and V.I.?

        Thank you for sharing, etc.,

        Derdriu

      • stephhicks68 profile imageAUTHOR

        Stephanie Hicks 

        6 years ago from Bend, Oregon

        Thanks Sinela, Peggy and Robie! The photographs of the National Christmas Tree definitely get me in the mood for the holiday season! Glad you enjoyed - Cheers and Merry Christmas! Steph

      • robie2 profile image

        Roberta Kyle 

        6 years ago from Central New Jersey

        Delightful hub-- rally gets me in the mood for Christmas. Love the pictures of the tree in various years and I really enjoyed reading the historical information. Wonderful way to start the Yuletide season. Thanks

      • Peggy W profile image

        Peggy Woods 

        6 years ago from Houston, Texas

        Hi Steph,

        I really enjoyed reading this history of the National Christmas Tree and learning a bit more about it as well as the smaller trees representing each State of the Union via this hub. You have done a great job here. The tree lighting ceremony that is televised is always beautiful. Must be something to see it in person! Up votes and Merry Christmas!

      • profile image

        Sinela 

        6 years ago

        Hi Steph,

        Very inspirational! Nice, touching and impressive moments.

        I like it!

        Happy Holidays & Merry Christmas to Everybody!

      • stephhicks68 profile imageAUTHOR

        Stephanie Hicks 

        6 years ago from Bend, Oregon

        Hi Deborah,

        What a treat that must have been. I can only imagine how moving the tree lighting ceremony must have been after 9/11. Wow! Cheers, Steph

      • stephhicks68 profile imageAUTHOR

        Stephanie Hicks 

        6 years ago from Bend, Oregon

        Hi happyboomernurse,

        As a lawyer, I have to chuckle a bit at the semantics and word-smithing that took place to allow the display to continue. One thing is for sure, however, the annual lighting of the National Christmas Tree does in fact bring communities together. That we continue the tradition in the name of peace is quite special.

        Best to you, Steph

      • DeborahNeyens profile image

        Deborah Neyens 

        6 years ago from Iowa

        I had a conference in Washington in December 2001 and just happened to be there for the lighting of the National Christmas Tree. My hotel was nearby so I was able to walk over to see it. It was very moving, especially since it wasn't too long after 9/11.

      • Happyboomernurse profile image

        Gail Sobotkin 

        6 years ago from South Carolina

        Great article and videos about the National Christmas Tree. I was glad to learn that for the past few decades a live tree has been used. It was interesting to read about the legal battles that have been waged and the rationale behind them. Seemed like a whole lot of semantics going on in order to give it a "tourist promoting" label, instead of representing any religious meanings.

        I've never seen it in person but think it is a lovely tradition.

      • stephhicks68 profile imageAUTHOR

        Stephanie Hicks 

        6 years ago from Bend, Oregon

        Thanks ktrapp, I would love to go in person to see the entire display in Washington, D.C. I just love the photographs of the National Christmas Tree with the Washington Monument in the background, too. I appreciate the comment! Cheers, Steph

      • stephhicks68 profile imageAUTHOR

        Stephanie Hicks 

        6 years ago from Bend, Oregon

        Thanks Lynn - the National Christmas Tree is a planted, permanent one (the last one had stood in the same spot for years, but blew down last winter). However, the smaller trees along the Pathway of Peace are cut. It would be great to see them use potted live trees, instead don't you think? Best, Steph

      • ktrapp profile image

        Kristin Trapp 

        6 years ago from Illinois

        Stephanie - This was a very interesting article. I was actually unfamiliar with the Pathway of Peace. The smaller trees illuminated at night next to the larger tree must be absolutely beautiful to see in person.

        ~voted up and beautiful~

      • profile image

        Lynn Hasselberger 

        6 years ago

        Great, informational post! But... wish they would just plant a permanent spruce?! Why cut down a mature tree every year. I don't like that.

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