Monday, December 24, 2007

December 24: The National Christmas Tree

From the 1920s to the early 1950s, the president lit the National Christmas Tree on Christmas Eve. Since then, the Christmas Pageant of Peace in December, started under President Eisenhower, has included the lighting of the tree.

According to "As far back as 1913, President Woodrow Wilson had asked for a community Christmas tree to be placed at the Capitol so that a tree lighting ceremony could be recognized as a national event. On Christmas Eve of that year, a crowd of 20,000 was entertained by the U.S. Marine Band, 1,000 singers, and a costumed group of people re-enacting the Nativity.

"The history of Christmas tree lighting ceremonies at the White House is steeped in symbolism. The 1941 tree lighting, following the attack on Pearl Harbor, included a surprise appearance by Sir Winston Churchill at President Franklin Roosevelt's side on the south portico. Wartime blackouts kept the tree unlit from 1942 until 1944. Following World War II and the Korean War, 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. On December 17, 1954, President Dwight Eisenhower lit the first National Christmas Tree for the Pageant of Peace. It was the first time the program had not been held on Christmas Eve.

"In 1923, First Lady Grace Coolidge gave permission for the District of Columbia Public Schools to erect a Christmas tree in President's Park (now known as the Ellipse), south of the White House. The organizers named the tree the "National Christmas Tree." Two years later, Calvin Coolidge began the tradition of delivering the President's Christmas message. Christmas tree locations were moved from the Ellipse in 1923, to Sherman Plaza (near the east entrance to the White House) from 1924-1933, to Lafayette Park from 1934-1938, and then back to the Ellipse again in 1939-1940.

"Today, the lighting of the National Christmas Tree is just one part of what has become a major event at the White House -- the Christmas Pageant of Peace first established in 1954. Activities include featured guest performers, strolling costumed entertainers, and more than 50 volunteer choirs, gospel groups, bell ringers, and cloggers providing live musical performances.

"What once was a single Christmas tree, now includes a main tree with 56 smaller trees -- one for each state, territory, and the District of Columbia -- lining the Pathway of Peace. In 2007, the filament-burning bulbs that adorned the National Christmas Tree were replaced by energy-efficient light-emitting diodes, or LEDs."

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