Lighting the National Christmas Tree

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The first official"National Christmas Tree" was lighted by President Calvin Coolidge in1923, the culmination of an idea begun a decade earlier.

Officially called asymbol of good will and peace, the tree has, at times, also been a politicalmessenger. Those given the honor of "flipping the switch" to light thetree have included presidents, first ladies, children representing humanitarianorganizations, and "first dogs."

Erecting the first National Christmas Tree, 1923

Before the "National Christmas Tree"... In 1913, President Woodrow Wilson insisted that a tree lighting be at the U.S. Capitol so it would be recognized as a national event.

Then in November 1923, First Lady Grace Coolidge gave permission for the District of Columbia Public Schools to erect a Christmas tree on the Ellipse south of the White House. The organizers named the tree the "National Christmas Tree."

That Christmas Eve, at 5 p.m., President Calvin Coolidge walked from the White House to the Ellipse and "pushed the button" to light the cut 48-foot Balsam fir, as 3,000 enthusiastic spectators looked on.

The tree, donated by Middlebury College, was from the President's native state of Vermont. From 1924 to 1953 live trees, in various locations around and on the White House grounds, were lighted on Christmas Eve.


1924-1933 Sherman Plaza
The first living Christmas tree, a Norway spruce, was planted in 1924 in Sherman Plaza, near the east entrance to the White House. This tree was presented by the American Forestry Association to President Coolidge and the nation.

In 1925, the first Christmas message and the official program was first broadcast coast to coast on radio. This tree served as the "National Community Tree" until 1934.


1934-1938 Lafayette Park
Two Fraser fir trees were planted, one on each side of the Jackson statue in Lafayette Park. They were supposed to be used alternately each year, although the same one was actually used each year.


1939-1940 The Ellipse
The program was again moved to the Ellipse and cut trees were used.


1941-1953 On the Executive Mansion grounds
Two living Oriental spruce trees were used on alternate years for the purpose.


1972, the last year a cut tree was used.
1954-1972 The Ellipse
In 1954 the Christmas Pageant of Peace Inc. was organized and the scope of the National Community Christmas Tree Celebration was broadened to emphasize the desire for peace through the spirit and meaning of Christmas.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower lighted the first National Christmas Tree for the Pageant of Peace.

In 1963, the tree was not lighted until Dec. 22 by Lyndon Johnson, following a national thirty-day period of mourning for the assassinated President John F. Kennedy.

Cut trees were used each year through 1972.

1973, the first living National Christmas Tree and the first year a nativity was omitted from display, following a decision court decision on religious freedom.

1973 The Ellipse
A 42-foot, living Colorado blue spruce from northern Pennsylvania was planted to serve as a permanent National Christmas Tree. The National Arborist Association donated the tree.


1974 The Ellipse
The first living tree was commemorated with a bronze plaque by John W. Dixon, President of the Christmas Pageant of Peace Committee, Inc.


1975 The Ellipse
The 45-foot Colorado blue spruce was lighted by President Gerald Ford.

1976, the last year for this diseased Colorado Blue Spruce

1976 The Ellipse
The 45-foot Colorado blue spruce, which had been the National Christmas Tree since 1973, was dying and this would be its last year. President Ford did the honors of lighting.

A temporary, new living Christmas tree, 1977.

1977 The Ellipse
A 30-foot Colorado blue spruce was transplanted on the Ellipse to replace the previous tree.

The 1978 tree, and our present-day National Christmas Tree.

1978 The Ellipse
The tree in use today, a Colorado blue spruce from York, Pennsylvania, was planted on the Ellipse. President Jimmy Carter and his daughter Amy, pushed the button to light the tree.

The tree carried a political message in 1979: Only the top was lighted, to remind the nation of Americans being held hostage in Iran.

The 1980 tree was lighted just 417 seconds, one second for each day the Americans were in captivity in Iran.

1979-1980 The Ellipse
The nation's Christmas tree was not lighted during the 1979 season, except for the top ornament. This gesture was made by President Carter in honor of Americans being held hostage in Iran.

In 1980, for the second year in a row, the tree remained unlighted. However, in a special tribute sponsored by the National Broadcasters Association, the tree was fully lighted for 417 seconds--one second for each day the hostages had been in captivity.

When the hostages finally were released on President Ronald Reagan's Inaugural Day Jan. 20, 1981, the tree was hastily decorated and lighted just as the aircraft carrying the former hostages home cleared Iranian airspace.


1981 The Ellipse
President Reagan illuminated the red, white and blue lights of the National Christmas Tree on December 17 by pushing a remote button in the East Room of the White House.


1982 The Ellipse
The National Christmas Tree was lighted by President Reagan on December 16 from the White House.

In 1983, the tree lighting becomes a little girl's lifetime wish.

1983 The Ellipse
The National Christmas Tree was lighted from the White House by President Reagan and seven-year-old Amy Benham, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. John Benham, of Westport, Washington.

Amy wrote to the "Make A Wish" program and asked to participate in the tree lighting ceremony. The program helps make dreams come true for children with disabilities or life-threatening illnesses.

Christmas 1984, marked by the return of the nativity scene, after a U.S. Supreme Court decision on the legality and historical appropriateness of the display.

1984 The Ellipse
The National Christmas Tree was lighted by the President's wife Nancy Reagan on December 13 from the South Portico of the White House. With temperatures above 70 degrees, it was one of the warmest tree lightings in history.

The nativity scene was reinstated as being historically and legally appropriate for display during the Pageant of Peace in light of a U.S. Supreme Court decision. The tradition of displaying the nativity scene had been discontinued in 1973, following a decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit which decided an argument based upon U.S. Constitutional rights of religious freedom.

1985: A message about hostages in Lebanon is sent, when the tree lights are dimmed on Christmas Eve.

Other firsts:

  • The first year since 1959 that reindeer are not part of the Pageant.
  • First Lady Nancy Reagan's dog, "Rex," helps throw the switch to light the tree.
1985 The Ellipse
Vice President Bush's wife Mrs. Barbara Bush topped the National Christmas Tree November 25.

President Reagan, accompanied by The First Lady holding her dog "Rex," turned on the Christmas tree lights from a remote on the South Portico of the White House on Dec. 12.

In his broadcast Christmas address, The President mourned the deaths of a planeload of U.S. 101st Airborne Division servicemen whose homeward-bound plane had crashed in Newfoundland.

On Christmas Eve at 6:15 p.m., the President directed that the lights on the tree be turned down momentarily in support of American hostages in Lebanon and their families at home.

1986: With pouring rain on tree lighting day, President Ronald Reagan's Christmas address is delivered by video remote. The reindeer return for display.

1986 The Ellipse
Nov. 24, Vice President George Bush's wife Mrs. Barbara Bush started decorating for the Pageant of Peace by topping the National Tree, with a 4-foot-tall starburst ornament.

For the opening of the Pageant, Dec. 11, President Ronald Reagan delivered his Christmas message by video remote and then, along with The First Lady, was joined by 8-year-old Byron Whyte and "Big Brother" Francis Hinton of the National Capital Area Big Brothers and Big Sisters who helped the President throw the remote switch to light the National Christmas Tree.

A crowd of 6,500 braved rain to attend opening ceremonies.

Reindeer, a nativity scene, and burning Yule log were included as a part of the traditional displays.

1987: The tree is lighted early so President Reagan can attend a Soviet summit meeting.

1987 The Ellipse
The National Christmas Tree lighting program was held Monday, Dec. 7, earlier than usual because of the President's impending four-day summit meeting with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

President Ronald Reagan and a 5-year-old cystic fibrosis patient from New Jersey lighted the tree by remote control from the White House. On stage on the Ellipse, the program headlined The California Raisins and Ted E. Bear & Patti Bear from "The Bear Who Slept Through Christmas."

1988, President Reagan's eighth and final year lighting the National Christmas Tree.

1988 The Ellipse
Mrs. Barbara Bush, wife of then Vice President Bush, and puppets "Rex and Rita Readasaurus," stars of a nationwide Reading is Fundamental program topped the National Christmas Tree on December 1.

President Ronald Reagan said, "thanks for a free America," as he threw the switch at the White House to light the National Christmas Tree for the eighth and last time as president.

1989: The tree is used to symbolize President George Bush's "thousand points of light" election campaign speech.

1989 The Ellipse
President and Mrs. Bush and their granddaughter Marshall pulled the switch which illuminated the National Christmas Tree with thousands of red, white and blue lights symbolic of the President's "thousand points of light" speech during his election campaign. The First Family was watched the opening ceremonies from a box near the stage.

1990: 57 trees representing the states, District of Columbia and U.S. territories are added around the National Christmas Tree.

1990 The Ellipse
For the first time, trees grown on reclaimed surface coal mine land were used to form the Pathway of Peace comprised of 57 small scotch pine trees representing the 50 states, the District of Columbia and the U.S. territories.

For the second year, President and Mrs. Bush watched the opening of the Pageant of Peace from a box near the stage and turned on the lights on the National Christmas Tree.

Terry Anderson, the last hostage released from Lebanon joined President Bush in lighting the tree in 1991.

1991 The Ellipse
Barbara Bush kicked off the Pageant of Peace preparations Nov. 25 by placing the top ornament on the National Christmas Tree. She and pageant head Joseph Riley, along with her grandchildren Lauren and Pierce Bush, rode to the tree top in a hydraulic lift.

President George Bush was joined for the tree lighting, Dec. 12, by Terry Anderson, the last hostage to be released from Lebanon, and four other former hostages Alann Steen, Thomas Sutherland, Joseph Cicippio and Jesse Turner. A estimated crowd of 12,000 attended the opening ceremony.

The live National Christmas Tree was decorated with red, white and blue lights and garland symbolizing the theme charity.

1992: The twelfth and final year First Lady Barbara Bush kicked off the Pageant of Peach by placing the top ornament on the National Christmas Tree.

1992 The Ellipse
For twelve years the Vice President's wife and then First Lady Barbara Bush had been the one to kick off the Pageant of Peace by placing the top ornament on the National Christmas tree. After making her last ride to the top of the tree, National Park Service Director James Ridenour presented Mrs. Bush with a plaque for her years of enthusiastic support of the Pageant.

President Bush pressed the switch to turn on the Christmas tree lights during a rain-drenched stage program that still attracted an audience of estimated 7,000.

1993: The first of the years President Bill Clinton would light the tree.

1993 The Ellipse
First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton participated in the topping ceremony Nov. 29, riding to the top of the tree in a lift with Pageant of Peace president Joseph Riley to crown the 38-foot Colorado blue spruce with a fiber-optic starburst ornament.

Ornaments for this year's Pageant of Peace followed the theme Unity. President Bill Clinton gave his Christmas message to the nation and then threw the switch to light the National Christmas Tree.


1994 The Ellipse
Hilary Rodham Clinton officiated Nov. 28 at the traditional Topping -of-the-Tree ceremony. Some 6,500 persons attended the Dec. 7 lighting of the National Christmas Tree. President and Mrs. Clinton and daughter Chelsea lighted the tree.

A garden-sized model railroad display around the tree was added for the first time to the customary exhibits of creche, reindeer and Yule log.

1995: Solar powered display

1995 The Ellipse
For the first time, the National Christmas Tree was lit by solar energy -- all 6,000 white, red, green and blue lights. And for the first time in many years, the popular "reindeer" were not on display. Citing a "rising level of concern in the society at large over the gratuitous use of animals for display purposes," the Pageant of Peace discontinued the display of Luray deer.

Althought the theme for this pageant was "unity," the federal government shutdown and the ensuing lapse of appropriations for all non-essential federally sponsored events, caused the cancellation of Pageant of Peace activities beginning on December 16. However, the National Park Service provided funds to light the tree and keep it lit as scheduled, through midnight on January 1, 1996.


1996 The Ellipse
The lights were turned off at 10:00 p.m. instead of 11:00 p.m.

The Office of Surface Mining rescinded a standing offer to locate, donate, and arrange for the donation of trees grown on reclaimed mining lands, due to the difficulty of finding trees that met these conditions. The Christmas Pageant of Peace thus began to purchase the state trees planted on the Ellipse.


1997 The Ellipse
The tree was decorated with 110,000 red, white and blue lights and was topped with a jewel-like star. The National Christmas Tree Growers Association offered to donate cut Christmas trees for use as state trees. This offer would cause a switch from live trees to cut trees.

1998 -- The 75th Anniversary of the National Christmas Tree

1998 The Ellipse
This lighting ceremony was celebrated as the 75th Anniversary of the lighting of the National Christmas Tree.

Al Roker, weatherman and feature reporter, on NBC- TV's Today Show served as Santa Claus (first African American Santa for the Pageant) and Master of Ceremonies.

1999 -- The End of the Millennium

1999 The Ellipse
For the 37th year, GE Lighting donated the lights. The tree was decorated with more than 75,000 lights in customary holiday colors of red, green and clear along with red garland, and large bow and poinsettia flower ornaments.

On New Years Eve, at 10 pm, the multicolored lights on the tree turned to all white in honor of the Millennium.


2000 The Ellipse
On December 11, President Bill Clinton delivered his Christmas message and pushed the switch to light the 125,000 lights on the 40-foot Colorado blue spruce.

This was the last of eight years for the Clintons lighting the National Christmas Tree.

2001 -- Post-September 11, a patriotic tree

2001 The Ellipse
Originally planned as a traditional seasonal color scheme of red, green and gold; the decorating scheme was changed to a patriotic red garland with 100,000white and blue lights and 100 white star ornaments. The tree topper was a star.

President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura Bush shared the lighting honors with five-year-old Leon Patterson and six-year-old Faith Elseth, children of victims of the September 11th terrorist attack on the Pentagon.


2002 The Ellipse
A return to a more traditional lighting scheme.

Photos andhistory from the National ParkService, and the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division (1923, 1924,1927, 1934, 1937, 1948 and 1963; Aldon Nielson, NPS 1965-95.

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