Lighting of the National Christmas Tree

by Melinda

Tomorrow, December 1st at 4:30pm is the start of the ceremony for the 89th lighting of the National Christmas Tree. It takes place on the Ellipse at President’s Park in Washington, D.C.

The National Park Service and the National Park Foundation host the National Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony.

If you have a ticket for the event know that the gates open at 3:00pm. Whether you’re in the “standing room only” section or one of the few to have a ticket that allows you to relax in a chair…you must be in place by 4:30pm on December 1st.

President Calvin Coolidge and First Lady Grace Coolidge started this Christmas tradition in 1923. In November of 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.

1923 National Christmas Tree Lighting

1923 - National Christmas Tree Lighting

The organizers named it the “National Christmas Tree.” On Christmas Eve eight-nine years ago President Coolidge strolled from the White House to the Ellipse. There he pushed a button and lit a 48-foot fir tree decorated with 2,500 electric bulbs in red, white and green.

But it hasn’t always been on the Ellipse. From 1924 to 1933 it was known as the National Community Christmas Tree and was located in Sherman Park. That’s south of the Main Treasury Building and SE of the White House grounds.

For the next five years – through 1938 – it was in Lafayette Park and again known more simply as the National Christmas Tree. This park is located on the north side of the White House. Then it spent two years on a spot just south of the center of the Ellipse.

Although its location and name varied a bit from 1924 – 1940, the program entertainment was fairly constant. And I think the simpler approach without as much “flare” is more fitting … but that’s just my opinion.

Anyway, the lighting ceremonies in those years had caroling, choirs and military bands.

From 1941 – 1953 it was on the South Lawn of the White House.

There was a particularly special ceremony on December 24, 1941. Recognize this was only two and a half weeks after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Nonetheless two great leaders – President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill – joined together and led the lighting ceremony.

During the war years the tree wasn’t lit. After the war in 1945, President Truman lit the tree. In his Christmas message he said, “This is the Christmas that a war-weary world has prayed for through long and awful years. With peace come joy and gladness. The gloom of the war years fades as once more we light the National Community Christmas Tree.

In 1954 the National Tree returned to the Ellipse where it has been located ever since. Two other changes coincided with this re-location: 1) the date of the lighting moved from its traditional day of December 24th to one three weeks earlier; and 2) the event was named the Christmas Pageant of Peace.

Despite the changes over the last 89 years, the purpose of the National Christmas Tree and the lighting ceremony has remained constant: Our local and national communities coming together to celebrate the season and to share the message of peace.

Read more about the tradition of the Christmas tree and how it came to be part of Christmas.

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