1954-Present National Christmas Trees


The Ellipse

Written by Laura Schiavo



In 1954 a group of Washington businessmen and interested citizens organized to oversee the production of the Christmas Pageant of Peace, a celebration conceived by the Washington Board of Trade [Washington Post, December 25, 1954] and the Washington Citizen's Committee. [NPS-WESF, RG-79, Box 10, File 1115-30-10, "Executive Mansion Grounds," White House Press Conference, November 4, 1954.] The Pageant was conceived as an event devoted to the "desire to maintain peace around the world through the spirit and meaning of Christmas" and to foster friendship and understanding among all peoples. The Pageant was meant as a "voluntary expression of American citizens of every creed and color to dramatize the Christmas message of 'Peace on earth, good will toward men.'" To that end, in its early decades the Pageant included participation by foreign embassies. The creation of the Pageant necessitated the expansion of the Christmas celebration and its removal from the White House grounds. Waning interest in the National Community Christmas Tree lighting due to the repeated absence of the President likely fueled the desire to reinvigorate the program. (See 1951.)

A non-profit, non-partisan, non-sectarian organization, the Christmas Pageant of Peace, Inc., was created in 1955 to oversee the annual administration of the program. Its president was Edward Carr, its chair Edward Kelly, Superintendent, National Capital Parks, and its program director, Edward M. Kirby of the Greater Washington Board of Trade.

The Pageant centered around the lighting of the National Community Christmas Tree, which for the first time in 1954 did not occur on Christmas Eve. Every year from 1954 through 1972 (when a living tree was planted on the Ellipse), a new cut tree was brought to Washington from a different state and placed on the Ellipse for the duration of the Pageant (through January 1). Cut trees were used because the Ellipse was a site of recreational and multipurpose use throughout the year. [NPS-WESF, RG-79, Box 10, File 1115-30-10, "Executive Mansion Grounds," memo, January 25, 1957.] This was the same justification used in 1924 when the tree was relocated from the Ellipse to Sherman Plaza, site of the first living National Community Christmas Tree.

The ceremony of the tree lighting was then followed by roughly three weeks of daily and nightly Christmas presentations on the Pageant stage on the Ellipse. Some of the elements in the Christmas Pageant of Peace 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. However, by the 1960s the Pathway of Peace was representing only U.S. states and territories.

In the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s the emphasis on the local nature of the event was de-emphasized. In 1972 the Christmas Pageant of Peace began a concerted effort to focus on the national nature of the event. It was around this time that the name of the tree changed from the National Community Christmas Tree to the National Christmas Tree. (See 1972 for further information.)

The beautiful Colorado blue spruce that serves as the current National Christmas Tree was planted on the Ellipse in the fall of 2012. The tree was brought to Washington, DC by the National Park Service from a private residence in northwest Virginia.


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