The National Christmas Tree at the White House
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!
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
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.
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 nonprofit 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, 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.
Have You Seen the National Christmas Tree?
© 2011 Stephanie Hicks