On Christmas Eve 1923 President Calvin Coolidge walked from the White House to the Ellipse and threw the switch on the first National Christmas Tree, a 48 foot Balsam fir from his home state of Vermont decorated with 2,500 red, white and green bulbs. A local choir and quartet from the U.S. Marine Band provided music for the occasion. I couldn’t find any records on how many people may have attended that first ceremony.
Now, 90 years later, the official lighting ceremony is so popular that attendance is by ticket only. This year the 17,000 free tickets to the ceremony were distributed through an on-line lottery which ran from October 25 to October 29. The ceremony marks the beginning of the Pageant of Peace, a three week Christmas tradition which draws thousands of visitors and is free. In addition to the national tree, a “Pathway of Peace” winds past 56 smaller trees representing the 50 states, five territories and District of Columbia which are decorated by sponsoring organizations from each state. Other displays include model trains and Santa’s workshop, complete with Santa and his elves, reindeer from the National Zoo, and a wide variety of musical entertainment.
The lighting ceremony itself is one of those events where the best (and certainly warmest) view is from your couch, hot chocolate in hand, watching on tv. That being said, everyone should be there in person at least once, for it is a very special experience.
I’ve only attended once, back in 1972 when I was working as a Park Ranger on an extended training assignment in Washington, DC with the U.S. Park Police. It was an interesting time to be in Washington. Richard Nixon had just been reelected for a second term, America was still embroiled in the Viet Nam war and the Watergate scandal was just beginning to rear its ugly head. The Pageant of Peace that year had the potential to be anything but peaceful.
The 1972 National Christmas Tree was a 70 foot Engelmann Spruce from the Medicine Bow National Forest in Wyoming. It was decorated with 9,000 green bulbs, 1,000 clear twinkling bulbs and 250 five-inch globes. In addition to the 57 smaller (12 foot) trees, other displays included a life-size Nativity scene, lighted at night, a traditional Yule log, kept burning 24 hours a day during the pageant, and Santa’s reindeer, courtesy of the National Zoo.
The reindeer became an unintended source of amusement for many of us working the Pageant. It was apparently near the end of their breeding season according to Zoo folks and being confined in a small enclosure with nothing much else to do all day the reindeer regularly became rather amorous – usually about the same time bus loads of school kids descended on the Pageant. More than once we were accosted by indignant teachers or parents demanding that “those disgusting beasts” be removed. But they had their advantages, too. If any small boys went missing, we learned they could usually be found at the reindeer enclosure hoping to improve their biology education.
The entire display required an enormous amount of power and extra circuits had to be provided by the power company. Huge electrical cables snaked under the public walkways laid down over the grass and made walking outside the public areas an obstacle course challenge. There had been snow on the ground, but as I remember, the day of the Pageant the temperature climbed into the mid 40′s and it rained – and then rained some more. The snow melted, the grass churned up into a muddy morass and the walkways were wet and slick. And it kept raining. Which did not deter the visitors who poured into the President’s Park for the lighting ceremony, umbrellas, tarps and other coverings at the ready.
Mainenance and electrical personnel scurried around trying to get last minute items taken care of and keep electrical equipment dry. An electrician came by and ripped a tarp off the top of what looked like the tomb snake scene in “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.” Electrical cables twisted and wound their way in all directions out of a huge box which sat in a low spot that was beginning to attract a puddle. He plunged into the middle of the mess muttering “I hope this works, I hope this works,” made some adjustments, ripped the tarp back over the mess and disappeared into the rain, still muttering.
As darkness approached, visitors, police, security personnel, and other behind-the-scenes workers, along with politicians, dignitaries and performers, gathered around and in the covered stage, trying to stay reasonably dry. You could tell those of us who had been there for awhile – we squished and squelched. I was glad for my Smokey Bear hat which at least kept rain from running down the back of my neck.
Despite the weather, the crowd was cheery. Looking back, security was far different from that of today. The Park Police, DC Metropolitan Police and other agencies responsible for security and crowd contol were (and are) old hands at large gatherings and demonstrations. While we kept a watchful eye on people, there was no sudden rush to pounce if we spotted someone with strange bulges under their raincoats. If we couldn’t figure out what musical instrument they were trying to keep dry, we asked.
While the Marine Band was tuning up, the electrician appeared and dove into the cable snake pile again. “I hope this is gonna work,” he muttered. “I dunno which is gonna light up when the Vice President throws the switch, him or the damn tree.” My partner and I moved a bit further back from the stage.
The program went off more or less as scheduled, although where politicians and dignitaries are concerned, time is a relative matter. The only hiccup occured when Secretary of the Interior Rogers Morton and Vice President Agnew engaged in a short but intense whispered exchange just back from the microphones. These two big men – Morton stood 6’6, Agnew 6’2 – dominated the stage. We couldn’t hear what they were saying but my partner said “Maybe they’re arguing over who has to throw the switch for the tree.” This did not amuse the electrician who was still hovering nearby.
Finally, the moment came. The Vice President finished his speech, all the lights were turned out around the Ellipse and Agnew threw the switch. There was a moment of silence, the electrician took in a deep breath and held it, and then the National Tree began to light. The electrician’s small whoop of joy was lost in the oohs and ahhs that rose from the crowd rose as the lights blazed to life from bottom to top, ending with the huge star on top .
The tree lights shimmered in the rain, with the Washington Monument glowing softly in the background on one side and behind us in the distance,President and Mrs. Nixon could be seen standing at the second floor windows of the White House, looking out.
There was almost complete silence in the crowd for a few moments and then, softly, a voice began singing “Silent Night.” Slowly at first, other voices joined, until before long the Park was full of the sounds of the familiar hymn. For a few minutes, weather and differences forgotten, we were one, reminded of the reason we celebrate this special season.