For more than 90 years, the National Christmas Tree has been illuminated near the White House during the holiday season. It was 1923 when President Calvin Coolidge lit a 48-foot fir tree decorated with 2,500 electric bulbs in red, white, and green for the first time.
The Epiphany Church choir and the U.S. Marine Band performed at the tree-lighting ceremony. The organizers named the tree the “National Christmas Tree.” Since then, the National Christmas Tree Lighting has been a highly-anticipated holiday event and a celebrated American tradition.
The National Christmas Tree was relocated to Lafayette Park north of the White House in 1934. While in office President Franklin D. Roosevelt always used the tree-lighting ceremony to deliver a Christmas Eve message heard by radio listeners from coast to coast. The location was changed again in 1939, this time back to its original place on the Ellipse.
In 1942, when World War II was in full swing, the National Christmas Tree went dark due to the need to conserve power and observe security restrictions on outdoor lighting. The National Christmas Tree was not re-lit until the end of the war in 1945. That year the lighting ceremony was hosted by President Harry Truman.
Standing on the bandstand on the South Lawn, 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.”
It was 1946 when the lighting ceremony was first televised. During the 1950s, the tree-lighting ceremony was moved to earlier in December. The tree is now officially illuminated at the beginning of the month.
The ceremony changed very little between 1954 and 1972. After the death of President Kennedy on November 22, 1963, the lighting ceremony was postponed until the thirty-day period of national mourning had passed. The tree of 1963 was not lit until December 22, when President Lyndon Johnson, accompanied by First Lady “Lady Bird” Johnson and daughter Luci, opened the lighting ceremony saying, “Today we come to the end of a season of great national sorrow, and to the beginning of the season of great, eternal joy.” He shared his hope that the nation would “not lose the closeness and the sense of sharing and the spirit of mercy and compassion, which these last few days have brought to us all.”
In 1979, when President Jimmy Carter sent his daughter Amy to light the tree on December 13, the switch lit only the star atop the National Christmas Tree. He told the crowd that the tree would remain dark until the American hostages in Iran were set free.
In 1981, President Reagan lit the tree remotely from within the safety of the White House due to security concerns about assassination attempts.
In 1989, President George H. W. Bush resumed the tradition of lighting the National Christmas Tree, although he and his wife were directed to watch the festivities from a sealed glass room near the stage.
In 1994, the Pageant of Peace was elaborated by a small model railroad that wove around the base of the tree.
In 2001, President George W. Bush lit the tree along with the children of victims of September 11.
The National Christmas Tree is now a permanent fixture in Washington, D.C, surrounded by dozens of smaller trees symbolizing the states and territories.