The National Christmas Tree in Washington, 1923-1954

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The tradition of the national Christmas tree began in 1923 during the administration of Calvin Coolidge. He chose a fir from Vermont, his native state.

That first national Christmas tree was lit on Christmas Eve. Differing from the official White House Christmas tree, which stands in one of the rooms of the White House, the national Christmas tree stands on the grounds of a public area in Washington near official buildings.

Description of the First Ceremony

In the initial national Christmas tree ceremony, President Coolidge at 5 p. m. pulled the switch to light the tree, which was placed on the Ellipse south of the White House.The 2,500 red, white and green lights had been donated by the Electric League of Washington. The Epiphany Church choir and the U. S. Marine Band sang carols after the tree lighting and the audience was invited to join in.

At 9 p.m. in an event sponsored by Mrs. Grace Coolidge at the North Portico of the White House, the First Congregational Church choir sang carols as those in the audience joined in. It has been reported that at one of these two celebrations, trumpeters and individuals dressed like shepherds walked toward a cross.

Tradition of Using a Live, Replanted Tree Begins

In 1924, the Coolidges started another tradition that would last for 29 years, cease for some years and then resume in 1978: using a planted tree as the national christmas tree. In 1924 the American Forestry Association donated a 40-year-old, 35-foot Norway spruce from Amawalk, New York. It was planted just south of the Treasury building in Sherman Park, which would be the site of the lighting until 1934.

The intention was to use this tree each year, but ladders leaning against it in decorating and the weight of heavy ornaments shortened its life as the national Christmas tree.By 1928 many cities and towns took a cue from the White House and started the tradition of the community Christmas tree. And back in Washington in 1929 two Norway Spruce trees served as the national Christmas tree. They were in service for 10 years in Sherman Plaza.

These trees were lit by three presidents: Coolidge, Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt. In 1932 there was a “singing” Christmas tree made possible by loudspeakers concealed in it, allowing the audience to hear recorded Christmas carols.

Fraser Fir and Red Cedar

Two Fraser firs from North Carolina served as the national Christmas tree in 1934 and 1938. By then–in order to accommodate larger crowds–the venue had moved to Lafayette Park from Sherman Park. One tree was 30 feet tall and the other 23 feet. In 1937 President Roosevelt had a pine tree put up for the squirrels. Nuts and other goodies for hung on it for them.

A red cedar from George Washington’s home Mount Vernon was planted on the Ellipse in 1939 and was also the national tree in 1940. In 1939 during his tree-lighting ceremony address, President Roosevelt urged the World War II warring nations–of which the U.S. was not yet one–to read the Sermon on the Mount by Jesus.

From 1941 through 1953, two Oriental spruces, first selected in 1941, alternated as the national tree. Each was about 35 feet tall. In 1943 President Roosevelt spent Christmas at his home in Hyde Park, New York. He made his address there and it was broadcast to a crowd of about 15,000 on the South Lawn of the White House. Wartime regulations did not permit lights on the trees from 1942 thru 1944.

From 1941 to 1953 the site of the national Christmas tree lighting was the South Lawn of the White House.

Since he spent the Christmases of 1948, 1949 and 1950 with his family in Independence, Missouri, President Harry Truman lit the Oriental spruce in Washington by remote control. President Dwight D.Eisenhower lit the Oriental spruce in 1953.