The National Christmas Tree: Now and Then

Monday, December 7, 2015
Since 1923, the National Christmas Tree Lighting has been a highly-anticipated holiday event and a celebrated American tradition. Like many traditions, the lighting ceremony has changed a lot over the years.

Following the 93rd annual National Christmas Tree Lighting that took place on Dec. 3, tag along with the Ghost of Christmas Past and revisit these iconic moments in National Christmas Tree history.

  • 1913: While the lighting of the National Christmas Tree would not become an official annual event for another 10 years, the first community Christmas celebration in Washington, D.C., took place on Dec. 24, 1913. The festivities were held in the East Plaza of the U.S. Capitol, and included Christmas carols performed by the U.S. Marine Band and a chorus of 1,000 local singers. President Woodrow Wilson deemed the celebration a great success, and similar events followed in 1914, 1916, 1917, and 1918.
  • 1923: The Christmas celebration on Dec. 24, 1923, was the first to involve an official tree lighting ceremony (thought at the time it featured a "Community Christmas Tree," not a National Christmas Tree). President Calvin Coolidge stood at the Ellipse in President’s Park outside the White House and pressed a button to illuminate a 48-foot balsam fir tree adorned with more than 2,500 electric bulbs.
  • 1934: President Franklin D. Roosevelt's address at the National Christmas Tree Lighting in 1934 was heard by radio listeners all over America for the very first time. This year, the ceremony was also moved north of the White House to Lafayette Park, where two Frasier fir trees were planted. Each was intended to be used as the National Christmas Tree on alternating years.
  • 1945: With World War II finally over, President Harry S. Truman presided over the first tree lighting in three years. It was here that he delivered a stirring Christmas speech that included the words, “This is the Christmas that a war-weary world has prayed for through long and awful years. With peace comes joy and gladness. The gloom of the war years fades as once more we light the National Community Christmas Tree.”
  • 1954: The lighting of the National Christmas Tree on Dec. 17, 1954, took place as part of a much larger celebration: the first three-week “Christmas Pageant of Peace.” This new tradition, which continues to this day, began with President Dwight D. Eisenhower flipping the switch to light a noble 67-foot Engelmann spruce from New Mexico.
  • 1963: Following the tragic death of President John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963, the lighting ceremony was postponed until Dec. 22, which marked the end of a 30-day period of national mourning.
  • 1973: Cut trees had been used as the National Christmas Tree since 1954, but in 1973 a live 42-foot Colorado blue spruce was lit by President Richard Nixon on Dec. 14.
  • 1978: After the deaths of the previous two live trees used for the lighting ceremony, the National Park Service undertook a long period of study to find a tree suitable for the soil conditions of the capital. A 30-foot Colorado blue spruce from York, Pennsylvania, was selected, and continued to be used until it was damaged by a wind storm in February 2011.
  • 2011: A new Colorado blue spruce, this time from New Jersey, was planted at the Ellipse on March 19, 2011, and lit by President Barack Obama on Nov. 15 as the newest National Christmas Tree.
ACE volunteer restoring trail at Wupatki Citadel Ruin
Photo credit: Dawn Kish
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