100th anniversary of the National Christmas Tree lighting

In 2023 we mark the 100th anniversary of the first National Christmas Tree lighting. The lighting ceremony will take place on November 30, 2023, in President’s Park in Washington, DC. From December 2 through January 1, the public can visit the National Christmas Tree and be part of the annual holiday tradition in the nation’s capital. Today’s post looks back at some of our favorite National Christmas Tree scenes from the National Archives and our Presidential Libraries.

The tradition of the National Christmas Tree lighting ceremony began on December 24, 1923, when President Calvin Coolidge lit a 48-foot balsam fir from Vermont that was erected in the middle of the Ellipse.

Even though today the National Christmas Tree’s permanent home is on the Ellipse, that wasn’t always the case in the tradition’s early years. In fact, after the first year—and for next next decade—the tree was located on Sherman Plaza, southeast of the White House.

During the 1931 tree-lighting ceremony in Sherman Plaza, when President Herbert Hoover pressed the button to illuminate the tree, a buzzer went off, but it was not actually connected to the electricity; the buzzer just alerted another official to light the tree.

During Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Presidency, the site of the tree moved several times. For his first lighting in 1933, he and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt presided over the last lighting ceremony held in Sherman Plaza. For the years 1934–38, the tree stood and lighting ceremony took place in Lafayette Park, just north of the White House. Then in 1939 and 1940, the tree-lighting ceremony took place on the Ellipse.

During the 1940 ceremony, Roosevelt announced that for 1941’s celebration, he and the First Lady would move the tree to the South Lawn of the White House grounds to make it a “more homey” experience. And even though by Christmas 1941 the U.S. was embroiled in the early stages of World War II, FDR kept his promise and erected the tree on the South Lawn.

Because of U.S. involvement in World War II, the tree-lighting ceremony went on hiatus for the remainder of FDR’s Presidency and didn’t return until 1945. That year, President Harry S. Truman picked up the tradition again, and during the ceremony remarked, “This is the Christmas that a war-weary world has prayed for through long and awful years.”

As President, John F. Kennedy only took part in one National Christmas Tree lighting ceremony, and that was in 1962 (his father was ill the previous year, causing JFK to miss the ceremony).

During his address, Kennedy remarked, “It is the day when all of us dedicate our thoughts to others; when all are reminded that mercy and compassion are the enduring virtues; when all show, by small deeds and large and by acts, that it is more blessed to give than to receive.” You can listen to a sound recording of his address courtesy of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library.

The environmental crisis of the early 1970s resulted in an attempt to transplant a living tree on the Ellipse rather than use cut trees from around the country. In 1973 a living Colorado blue spruce from northern Pennsylvania was donated to serve as a permanent National Christmas Tree. For all three of Gerald R. Ford’s Christmases as President, he and First Lady Betty Ford lit that tree.

President Jimmy Carter, First Lady Rosalynn, and their daughter, Amy, lit their first National Christmas Tree on December 15, 1977. Unfortunately, the tree planted in 1973 had not survived Washington, DC’s climate, and instead they lit a recently transplanted tree from Maryland. (That tree served as National Christmas Tree just once; it died in 1978 from being knocked over in a storm.)

While in office, President Ronald Reagan did not stand on the Ellipse to light the tree but instead lit it remotely. For 1985’s celebration, President Reagan and First Lady Nancy Reagan were joined by their dog Rex as they turned on the National Christmas Tree lights remotely from the South Portico of the White House.

President Bill Clinton, along with First Lady Hillary and their daughter, Chelsea, presided over his first National Christmas Tree lighting ceremony on December 9, 1993. In front of a crowd of 9,000 revelers, he and Chelsea threw the switch together to light the National Christmas Tree.

In 2005, President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura Bush participated in the lighting of a 40-foot Colorado blue spruce from York, Pennsylvania. After the ceremony, representatives from Project Backpack gave children displaced by Hurricane Katrina new backpacks filled with books, toys, and school supplies.

During Barack Obama’s Presidency, he, First Lady Michelle Obama, and their two daughters participated in numerous tree-lightening ceremonies. In 2015, President Obama and the First Family joined performers on stage to sing “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” during the National Christmas Tree lighting on the Ellipse.

Program participants included musicians David Crosby, Stephen Stills, Graham Nash (Crosby, Stills & Nash), Andra Day, Aloe Blacc, the Joyous String Quartet, and the band Fall Out Boy, among others. Actress Reese Witherspoon hosted the event with special guest Miss Piggy.

Here’s to 100 years of the National Christmas Tree Lighting celebrations!

One thought on “100th anniversary of the National Christmas Tree lighting

  1. Our college choir was invited to sing at this ceremony in 1967. LBJ was President. We had to have two versions of the Hallelujah Chorus ready…one 30- second and one 45-second, depending on how long the previous speaker was. Concordia Teachers College in River Forest, Illinois was very proud of us.

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