Before the 20th century, the White House observance of Christmas was not an official event. Calvin Coolidge was the first President to preside over a public celebration of the Christmas holidays with the lighting of the National Christmas Tree in 1923. The Christmas Pageant of Peace has expanded over the years and has evolved into a major annual event that includes the tree lighting, live musical performances and an appearance by the first family.
Following is a timeline outlining the history of the National Christmas Tree.
1913 - East Plaza, U.S. Capitol
“A Civic Christmas” drew a huge crowd to attend a tree lighting ceremony with performances by the U.S. Marine Band, 1,000 singers and an elaborately costumed nativity pageant. President Woodrow Wilson wanted a community Christmas tree to be placed at the Capitol so the program would be recognized as a national event. (Today, the National Christmas Tree is located on the Ellipse near the White House. A Capitol Christmas Tree has also been displayed on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol since 1963 and many people confuse the two trees.)
1923 – The Ellipse
The first "community Christmas tree" was lit by President Calvin Coolidge on the Ellipse on Christmas Eve. The tree was a gift to the President from Middlebury College in the President's native State of Vermont. 2,500 electric bulbs in red, white and green, donated by the Electric League of Washington, illuminated the tree. The Epiphany Church choir sang Christmas carols, accompanied by an U.S. Marine Band quartette.
1924 - 1933 - Sherman Plaza
The first living Christmas tree, a 35-foot Norway spruce from New York, was planted in 1924 in Sherman Plaza, near the east entrance to the White House. This tree was donated by the American Forestry Association to President Coolidge and the nation. Coolidge became the first president to light the tree by pushing the button on a switch box that still is used today. Coolidge also began the tradition of delivering the President's Christmas message. In 1925, his speech was broadcast across the country on the radio. The tree was lit by President Coolidge each year until 1928, by President Herbert C. Hoover from 1929-1931, by Vice President Charles Curtis in 1932 and President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933.
1934 - 1938 - Lafayette Park
Due to landscaping changes in Sherman Plaza, the lighting ceremony was moved to Lafayette Park where live Fraser fir trees were planted on both sides of the statue of Andrew Jackson in the center of the park. They were supposed to be used alternately each year, although the same one was actually used each year. President Franklin D. Roosevelt lit the tree each year until 1942.
1939 - 1940 - The Ellipse
The celebration at the National Christmas Community Tree was moved again to the Ellipse to accommodate growing crowds. Cut Cedar trees were used and transplanted at the end of the holiday season.
1941 - Executive Mansion Grounds
This was the first time that the lighting of the National Christmas Community Tree occurred within the White House grounds. President Roosevelt did not like the location on the Ellipse and wanted to invite the public onto the White House grounds. A 30-foot Oriental spruce was lit 100 feet from the south fence of the grounds. A local Boy Scout and Girl Scout delivered the greetings of the people of Washington and Christmas carols were led by choruses from several different churches.
1942 - 1944 - A tree was not lit for security reasons during wartime.
1945 – 1953 - The Ellipse
Following World War II and the Korean War, it was decided to use "peace" in the title of the program. The lighting ceremony became the National Christmas Tree and the Pageant of Peace. The ceremony was televised for the first time in 1946. Harry S. Truman lit the tree from 1945-1953.
1954 - 1972 - The Ellipse
In 1954 a group of Washington businessmen and interested citizens organized to oversee the annual celebration and formed a non-profit, non-partisan, non-sectarian organization, the Christmas Pageant of Peace, Inc. President Dwight Eisenhower presided over the expanded program symbolizing America's desire to maintain peace around the world through the spirit and meaning of Christmas. For the first time the program was not held on Christmas Eve. The tree lighting ceremony was followed by three weeks of nightly Christmas entertainment on the Ellipse. The Pageant included a life-sized reproduction of the nativity scene, a large stage, a children's corner, and exhibit booths. The Pathway to Peace, leading to the National Community Christmas Tree, was bordered by smaller Christmas trees decorated by embassies, states and U.S. territories. The tree was lit by President Eisenhower from 1954-1960, Vice President Lyndon Johnson in 1961, and President John F. Kennedy in 1962. In 1963, the tree was not lighted until Dec. 22 by Lyndon Johnson following a national thirty-day period of mourning for the assassinated John F. Kennedy. The tree was lit by Johnson each year until 1968, by President Richard Nixon in 1969, 1970 and 1973 and Vice President Spiro Agnew in 1971 and 1972.
1973 - The Ellipse
A 42-foot, living Colorado Blue Spruce from northern Pennsylvania was planted to serve as a permanent National Christmas Tree. The National Arborist Association donated the tree.
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