The National Christmas Tree

By Beacon Staff

It is that time of year again, when millions of Americans are on the hunt for the perfect Christmas tree. Some trek into the woods seeking the tree and outdoor experience. Others make their selection from a local Christmas tree farmer and some simply unpack the Christmas tree storage box from the attic or garage.

The history of the Christmas tree dates back to a 7th century English monk, who suggested the cone shape of the fir tree represented the holy trinity. By the 12th century, Christmas trees hung upside down from ceilings in central Europe at Christmas time. It was not until the 16th century that people started to adorn Christmas trees with candles, wax ornaments and gingerbread. References to Christmas trees decorated in America were rare until later in the 19th century.

Today, there are roughly 30 million Christmas trees sold in the United States every year. However, every year for the past 88 years, only one receives the title of standing as our country’s National Christmas Tree. At 5 p.m., on a Christmas Eve in 1923, President Calvin Coolidge walked from the White House to the President’s Park, also known as the Ellipse, to light the first National Christmas Tree, which was lit with 2,500 donated red, white and green lights. The President touched a button at the foot of the tree, lighting a 48-foot tall balsam fir donated by Middlebury College in Vermont.

Even though a “community Christmas tree” had been lit on the U.S. Capitol since 1913, to celebrate “A Civic Christmas,” the idea of decorating an outdoor National Christmas Tree originated in 1921, with a press aide for U.S. Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover who had worked as a technical journalist for General Electric. A trade association named The Society for Electrical Development was looking for a way to encourage the use of more electric Christmas lights and the use of more electricity.

At an American Forestry Association meeting a few months after the lighting of the first National Christmas Tree, President Coolidge criticized cutting down trees for use as Christmas decorations. Believing this to be the end of the Christmas tree lighting ceremony, it was suggested that a live tree be used instead. On December 18, 1924, a 35-foot tall Norway spruce was planted on the west side of the Sherman Plaza by the American Forestry Association, and President Coolidge threw a switch at 8 p.m. illuminating 1,000 red, white and green lights and white electric candles. It was the only year a switch was used, before or since.

An inspection of the National Christmas Tree in 1929 found severe damage from the decorating process and the heat and weight of the lights. Another 35-foot tall Norway spruce was planted and, for the first time, decorations were placed on the tree. However, the decorating process and natural events have caused the National Christmas Tree to be replaced several times over the decades.

From 1942 to 1945, for the first time in its history, the National Christmas Tree was not lit due to the need to conserve power and observe security restrictions during World War II. The lighting ceremony commenced in 1946 with the first live national broadcast, and for the first time federal officials suggested that the tree be replaced with an artificial tree, which was actively opposed and the idea dropped.

The tree lighting ceremony remained largely unchanged until 1954, when President Dwight Eisenhower approved a month-long series of events known as the “Pageant of Peace.” The pageant required that the National Christmas Tree move from the White House grounds to the Ellipse and for the first time since the White House became a unit of the National Park Service in 1933, the Park Service required cut trees rather than live trees, a practice that lasted until public and environmental objections pressured the reintroduction of live trees in 1973.

The National Christmas Tree and the lighting ceremony have withstood near-disasters, world wars and conflicts, and anti-war and environmental protests; yet 88 years later, the National Christmas Tree remains a wonderful public spectacle and a unifying tradition.

Julia Altemus is the executive vice-president of the Montana Wood Products Association