Ah, the lighting of the National Christmas Tree — a cherished American pastime centered around pomp, pageantry and peace on Earth that has also occasionally included fiery protests, live animals and Willard Scott dressed as Old St. Nick.
As this year’s National Christmas Tree is about to be illuminated in the nation’s capitol for the 90th time with the assistance of retired teenage medical practitioner Neil Patrick Harris, we thought it would be appropriate to examine the rich history behind what is perhaps the world’s most famous seasonally embellished evergreen — aside from that showboating spruce that's been going up in Midtown Manhattan every year since 1933, and another famous D.C. tree, the White House Christmas Tree.
Given that the National Christmas Tree has been around in some shape or form — numerous species, a couple of different names, a few different locations — since the administration of Calvin Coolidge, there’s a lot you may not know about it.
For starters: did you know that an electrical industry trade group is often cited as being responsible for orchestrating the first tree lighting in 1923 as a method of encouraging more folks to buy Christmas lights and use more electricity?
Or did you know that former first lady Barbara Bush topped the tree a grand total of 12 times, eight times as the wife of the vice president and four times as first lady?
Read on for more facts that perhaps you didn’t know about the National Christmas Tree. And even more historical background can be found over at the National Park Service website.
Wanted dead or (usually) alive
Over the past few decades, that other big-deal Tannenbaum, the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree, has been recycled after its tourist-snaring tenure comes to an end in the first week of January. Since 2007, the illuminated evergreen — typically a Norway spruce in the 65-feet-and-over category hailing from the tri-state area — has been milled into lumber and incorporated into Habitat for Humanity affordable housing projects, usually in the tree’s state of origin. Prior to that, the tree had been mulched and donated to the Boy Scouts of America.
While recent Rockefeller Center Christmas trees have been of the cut-and-then-recycled variety, the National Christmas Tree has predominately been a living tree with the exception of its inaugural year and from 1954 to 1972 when cut trees were used. Since 1973, the National Christmas Tree has exclusively been a living evergreen (a serious letter-writing campaign and pressure from environmentalists are to thank for this), although there have been a few arboreal swap-outs over the years.
The 1973 tree, a 42-foot-tall blue spruce from Pennsylvania, only lasted through 1976. Apparently, the tree was doomed from the start as it fell off a flatbed truck en route to being planted. In addition to not agreeing with Washington, D.C.’s sultry climate, the tree suffered injuries in the incident that ultimately affected its life span.
In 1977, another blue spruce was transplanted to replace 1973’s ailing tree. Sadly, it was uprooted and suffered severe root damage during a powerful windstorm that swept through the nation’s capitol on Jan. 26, 1978. And with that, the search for yet another National Christmas Tree commenced. In 1978, a carefully vetted evergreen, yet another blue spruce, was transplanted in the Ellipse later that year along with a backup blue spruce from New Jersey. That tree, 30 feet tall at the time of its planting, persevered through numerous malfunctions, modifications and major world events. However, it was no match for a windstorm that hit the D.C. area in February 2011. During the storm, the trunk of the long-standing National Christmas Tree snapped and the evergreen was felled.
In March 2011, a Colorado blue spruce from New Jersey was planted as a successor to the beloved tree that had survived numerous presidential administrations. That tree didn’t last long, however, as it was pronounced dead from transplant shock in May 2012. On Oct. 27, just before the arrival of Superstorm Sandy, another blue spruce, this one 28 feet tall and hailing from Virginia, was planted in the Ellipse. It survived that catastrophic storm and will, one would hope, survive many more bouts of severe weather to come.
Location, location, location
The cut evergreens that grace Rockefeller Center each holiday season tend to originate from the Tri-State area (one notable exception is when it was brought in from Ottawa). Yet during the National Christmas Tree’s “non-living period” from the mid-1950s to the early '70s, the specimens were shipped in from all over the place: Michigan (1954’s balsam fir), New Mexico (1956’s Engelmann spruce), Maine (1959’s white spruce), Washington (1961’s Douglas fir), California (1966’s red fir), and on. As for the very first National Christmas Tree, it was a cut balsam fir hailing from Coolidge’s native state of Vermont. (That's the president with the first tree in the photo at right.) Various living trees that followed from 1924 to 1953 all came from New York, Virginia or the D.C. area with the exception of 1934 to 1938 when two Fraser firs from North Carolina were planted in Lafayette Park.
And on the topic of locale, the National Christmas Tree, living or cut, has almost always been lit in the Ellipse, a 52-acre section of President’s Park just south of the White House. In fact, smack dab in the middle of the Ellipse was the location of the first National Christmas Tree. From 1924 to 1953, the ceremony shuffled around before returning to its original home in the Ellipse in 1954 where the National Christmas Tree has been planted/installed ever since.
For its second year, the National Christmas Tree was moved to Sherman Plaza, where it remained until 1933. As mentioned, from 1934 to 1938 the tree was planted north of the White House in Lafayette Park, also a part of the National Park Service-governed President’s Park. For the 1939 and 1940 seasons, the tree returned to its original location, the Ellipse. However, it was relocated yet again the following year to the South Lawn of the White House. President Roosevelt believed this to be a more intimate location for the 1941 ceremony, one attended by Winston Churchill. The tree remained there for the next 12 years until the tree-lighting ceremony was moved back to the north side of Ellipse and the “cut tree era” commenced along with the annual and sometimes controversial Pageant of Peace celebration, a monthlong event that includes or has included life-sized nativity scenes, a petting zoo, model trains, religious ceremonies, musical events, a Yule log pit, a reindeer pen and 56 smaller evergreens representing each state, the District of Columbia and the five territories.
And the button-pushing honor goes to…
One might assume that the lights on the National Christmas Tree are physically turned on with a push of a button by the commander in chief. One also might assume that the president is physically on hand to give a grand public speech about peace, love, unity and all that jazz before wishing the nation happy holidays. However, who has been bestowed with button-pushing/flip-switching responsibilities and where exactly they do the honors has changed over the years.
In 1923, Coolidge personally lit the first National Christmas Tree. However, he did not give a speech nor did he the following year, although he and his family were on hand for a spirited, open-to-the-public caroling marathon. In 1931, Vice President Charles Curtis assumed tree-lighting responsibilities for a vacationing President Herbert Hoover. Other vice presidents have filled in over the years including Lyndon B. Johnson (1961) and Spiro Agnew (1971 and 1972). Presidential family members such as Amy Carter (1979) and Nancy Reagan (1984) have also either jointly or fully lit the National Christmas Tree alongside or in lieu of the president.
There also have been several instances of presidents illuminating the National Christmas Tree from a remote location. A vacationing President Harry Truman lit the tree by remote control from his home in Missouri from 1948 through 1951 (under pressure from event organizers, he personally lit the tree in 1952). President Ike Eisenhower also remotely lit the tree from his farm in Gettysburg, Pa., in 1955 while recovering from a heart attack. President Ronald Reagan lit the tree from inside or just outside of the White House instead of on the Ellipse throughout his presidency due to security concerns. During the Reagan administration, young children were often invited to the White House to assist with button-pushing duties.
And about those lights …
Starting in 2007, energy-saving LEDs replaced all of the thousands of incandescents traditionally giving the National Christmas Tree its famous sparkle. (LEDs first made a rather minimal appearance five years earlier in 2002.) The issue of energy conservation and the National Christmas Tree, however, goes back several decades. Starting in the mid-1970s, low-wattage incandescents became the standard in response to the ongoing energy crisis. During this period, the tree was only lit for several hours during the evening instead of 24/7 and, in 1973, the branches of the tree itself remained light-free — floodlights placed around the base of the tree indirectly illuminated its decorations.
Although not for energy-conservation reasons, the National Christmas Tree was only partially lit in 1979 and 1980 in response to the Iran hostage crisis. (In 1979, only the giant star atop the tree was lit and, in 1980, the tree was fully lit for only 444 seconds — the number of days Americans were held hostage in Iran.) Although decorated, the tree was also not lit from 1942 through 1945 due to wartime restrictions. In 1963, the National Christmas Tree was indeed lit but delayed several days due to a 30-day period of morning following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
Over the years, the lights on the National Christmas Tree have been known to experience occasional technical difficulties. In 1934, President Teddy Roosevelt experienced an awkward moment when he pressed the magic button and the tree did not light until about five seconds later. Whoops. In 1970, the lights on the lower half of the tree began exploding only a few days after the tree was lit. The reason? A liquid fireproofing spray applied to the sockets caused the strings of lights to short. (1970 was a tough year in general for the National Christmas Tree.)
And on the topic of fires: Following 1929’s tree-lighting festivities, a fire broke out in the basement of the West Wing of the White House that damaged the Oval Office and other rooms. Hoover and his dinner guests were unharmed by the blaze, and important documents, furniture and other items were saved. Much of the West Wing, however, had to be gutted and rebuilt.
In 1995, the lights on the National Christmas Tree were powered by solar energy for the first time. And by the way, the lights have been donated and designed since GE since 1963.
Click for photo credits
Coolidge with first tree: Library of Congres