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History of the National Christmas Tree

A Brief History of the National Christmas Tree
 
1923 National Christmas Tree with Washington Monument in background. Image from Library of Congress.

Detail of photograph showing the first "National Christmas Tree" on the Ellipse with the Washington Monument in the background.

Library of Congress (National Photo Company Collection, Prints & Photographs), LC-F81-28049.

In November 1923, First Lady Grace Coolidge gave permission for the District of Columbia Public Schools to erect a Christmas tree on the Ellipse south of the White House. The organizers named the tree the "National Christmas Tree."

That Christmas Eve, at 5 pm, President Calvin Coolidge walked from the White House to the Ellipse and "pushed the button" to light the cut 48-foot Balsam fir, as 3,000 enthusiastic spectators looked on. The tree, donated by Middlebury College, was from the President's native state of Vermont.

From 1924 to 1953 live trees, in various locations around and on the White House grounds, were lit on Christmas Eve. In 1954 the ceremony returned to the Ellipse and expanded its focus. Local civic and business groups created the Christmas Pageant of Peace. Smaller live trees representing the 50 states, five territories, and the District of Columbia, formed a Pathway of Peace.

On December 17, 1954, President Dwight D. Eisenhower lit the cut tree donated by the people of Michigan. Cut trees continued to be used until 1973.

Central to the season's celebration is the living National Christmas Tree, a Colorado blue spruce from a tree farm in New Jersey. Planted on the Ellipse on March 19, 2011, this tree replaces another Colorado blue spruce from York, Pennsylvania that was put on the Ellipse in October 1978 but felled by a wind storm in February 2011.

Today, the National Christmas Tree stands as a daily reminder of the holiday spirit and of the tradition each succeeding President has participated in since 1923.

Explore the history of both past National Christmas Trees and the festivities that have taken place around the trees by following the links to the right on this page.

-by C.L. Arbelbide

(ST, ed. 1/12)

Did You Know?

Andrew Johnson, 17th President: 1865-1869

Andrew Johnson never attended school. His future wife, Eliza McCardle, taught him reading, writing and math at the age of 17. Johnson was a tailor by trade so he only wore suits that he custom-tailored himself.