1954 - Present Tree Lighting Ceremonies

NPS Photo by Abbie Rowe
A 67-foot Engelmann spruce from New Mexico is planted on the Ellipse in preparation for the second annual Christmas Pageant of Peace in December 1956.

NPS/Abbie Rowe

The Ellipse: 1954-1960

In 1954 the event returned to the Ellipse. Cut trees, donated from various states were erected from 1954 to 1972. A "Pathway of Peace" was constructed out to the tree and lined with smaller trees - eventually representing one for each state, the District of Columbia, and each of the United States' territories.

Donations came in other forms. In 1958 the Territory Governor of Alaska sent 14 reindeer and a caribou to the Pageant as a gift to the nation. Eight of the reindeer were pregnant. At the end of the event the animals took up residence in the National Zoo. That following January 3, 1959, Alaska formally became the 49th state.

Because of the multipurpose uses of the Ellipse, a cut tree - rather than live tree - was erected in the center of the Ellipse. Visitors would be able to stroll down the "Pageant of Peace" walkway which passed by the lighted tree and led to a variety of surrounding exhibits (which included a stage for nightly entertainment, a life-size nativity scene complete with live animals, a special children's corner; and exhibition booths). Just before the first Pageant lighting, scheduled for 5 p.m. on December 17, two sheep made their escape from the Nativity into the nearby rush-hour traffic. Police on motorcycles with sidecars rounded up the stray livestock returning them safely before the Presidential party arrived which included President and Mrs. Eisenhower, Vice President Richard Nixon, his wife Pat and their daughters Tricia and Julie.

The event was broadcast by radio to an audience which included the armed forces stationed throughout the world. Over the next three weeks, 27 embassies participated in the Christmas Pageant of Peace program with songs, dances, and tableaux interpreting Christmas traditions and customs of their native lands. One of the most popular events was the next-day arrival of "Santa Claus," Donald Fyninlson of North Pole, New York, who drove down the Pathway of Peace on his reindeer-drawn sled.

NPS Photo by Abbie Rowe
The assassination of President Kennedy postponed the 1963 lighting ceremony and tree, pictured here. On December 22 President Lyndon Johnson, accompanied by First Lady Lady Bird Johnson and daughter Lucy Bird, lit the tree.

NPS/Abbie Rowe

The Ellipse: 1961-1972

President John F. Kennedy, having missed his first tree lighting in 1961 due to his father's illness, was present in 1962 to perform the presidential tradition. In 1963, the U.S. Postal Service issued the country's second Christmas stamp which showcased Lily Spandorf's painting of the 1962 lighting ceremony.

The tragic turn of events on November 22, 1963, resulting in the death of President Kennedy postponed the lighting ceremony to after the thirty-day period of national mourning had passed. On December 22 President Lyndon Johnson, accompanied by First Lady Lady Bird Johnson and daughter Lucy Bird, lit the tree. President Johnson continued the tradition through 1968.

President Richard M. Nixon presided in 1969 through 1973. During one tree-lighting ceremony, protesters used the occasion to voice opposition to the United States' involvement in Vietnam.


The Ellipse: 1973-1980

President Nixon responded to the hundreds of letters received from individual and environmental groups around the country asking for the end to using cut trees for the ceremony. In 1973 a living 42-foot Colorado blue spruce from northern Pennsylvania was donated to serve as a permanent "National Christmas Tree." Having used cut trees from around the country since 1954, the Christmas Pageant of Peace and the National Park Service reintroduced a living tree into the ceremony. Mr. and Mrs. Charles Atherton of Hunlock Creek Pennsylvania, donated the tree. The National Arborist Association transplanted the tree onto the Ellipse and President Nixon was on hand to "flip the switch."

The following year, in 1974 a bronze plaque commemorating the tree was placed at the site by John W. Dixon, President of the Christmas Pageant of Peace Committee, Inc. Designed by Giannetti's Studio, the plaque weighed 214 lbs.

Both President Gerald R. Ford and First Lady Betty Ford lit the tree from 1974 through 1976.

In 1975, the "Miniature White House," constructed by The John Zweifel family of Florida, was displayed near the tree. Under design and construction since 1962, the "Miniature White House" would be exhibited throughout the United States, drawing the enthusiastic support of the current and former Presidents and First Ladies as well as the general public.

The living tree was unable to survive the Washington heat prompting National Park Service officials to revive their search. In 1977, after covering 7,000 miles, officials settled on a 34-foot Colorado blue spruce growing in nearby Maryland. Transplanted to the Ellipse in November, the tree stood ready as President Jimmy Carter, First Lady Rosalynn Carter and daughter Amy lit their first "National" tree on December 15, 1977. Sadly the new tree was blown down in heavy winds the following January, 1978, forcing the National Park Service (NPS) into a third search-a search which ended in the front yard of William E. and Helen Myers of York, Pennsylvania.

NPS Photo
In 1973 a living Colorado blue spruce was planted on the Ellipse.  In response to its condition, a replacement spruce was planted in October 1977, only to be toppled by high tree in January 1978.


The new tree was welcomed with a special tree-topping ceremony.

Ten-year-old Amy Carter, along with Pageant representative John Dixon, were lifted in two individual cherry pickers on December 5, 1978 above the 30-foot tree where they positioned the top ornament on the 'new' tree. Amy's participation initiated the custom of a member of the President or Vice President's family performing this ceremony.

In 1980 the honor went to Penne Langdon, wife of the highest-ranking hostage being held in Iran. The record of 12 trips to the top is held by Barbara Bush - four toppings as wife of Vice President George Bush and eight ceremonies as First Lady.

NPS Photo
When Amy Carter pushed the button on December 13, 1979, only the top of the tree and the surrounding state trees were illuminated.


When Amy Carter pushed the button on December 13, 1979, only the top of the tree and the surrounding state trees were illuminated. "Amy has lit fifty trees," President Jimmy Carter told the stunned crowd, "one for each American hostage." "We will turn on the rest of the lights when the hostages come home." Following the approving applause, the President requested a moment of silent prayer.

On December 18, 1980, and for the second year in a row, the tree remained unlighted. However, in a special tribute sponsored by the National Broadcasters Association, the tree was fully lighted for 417 seconds--one second for each day the hostages had been in captivity. On President Ronald Reagan's Inaugural Day January 20, 1981, the hostages were released. The tree was hastily decorated and lit in time for their return.

White House Photo
In 1988 President Reagan said, "thanks for a free America," as he threw the switch at the White House to light the National Christmas Tree for the eighth and last time.

White House Photo

The Ellipse: 1981-1988

Security concerns following a 1981 assassination attempt in Washington, D.C. led to the decision to have President Ronald Reagan light the National Christmas Tree from the White House. In 1981 the red, white and blue lights of the National Christmas Tree were illuminated on December 17 by pushing a remote button in the East Room. The disappointed Boy Scout and Girl Scout who were scheduled to deliver greetings to the President and First Lady on the Ellipse were invited to the 1982 ceremony inside the White House.

Throughout the Reagan years the tree lighting ceremonies often involved children. In 1983 seven-year-old Amy Benham, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. John Benham, of Westport, Washington was invited to join President Reagan and First Lady Nancy Reagan in lighting the tree. Amy had written to the "Make A Wish" program asking to participate in the tree lighting ceremony. The program was to help make dreams come true for children with disabilities or life-threatening illnesses.


Nancy Reagan lit the tree on December 13, 1984 from the South Portico of the White House. With temperatures above 70 degrees, it was one of the warmest tree lighting in history. In 1985 President Reagan, accompanied by The First Lady, who while holding her dog "Rex," turned on the Christmas tree lights from a remote on the South Portico of the White House on December 12. In 1986 for the opening of the Pageant, December 11, President Reagan delivered his Christmas message by video remote and then, along with he First Lady, was joined by 8-year-old Byron Whyte and "Big Brother" Francis Hinton of the National Capital Area Big Brothers and Big Sisters.

In 1987 the National Christmas Tree lighting program was held Monday, December 7, earlier than usual because of the President's impending four-day summit meeting with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. President Reagan and a 5-year-old cystic fibrosis patient from New Jersey lit the tree by remote control from the White House. In 1988 President Reagan said, "thanks for a free America," as he threw the switch at the White House to light the National Christmas Tree for the eighth and last time.

NPS Photo by Bill Clark
Mrs. Barbara Bush,  wife of Vice President George Bush, accompanied by Joseph H. Riley, President of the Christmas Pageant of Peace, tops the 1984 National Christmas Tree.  The traditional tree-topping ceremony always initiates the decoration and lighting of the tree.

NPS/Bill Clark

The Ellipse: 1989-1992

As wife of Vice President George Bush, Barbara Bush topped the National Christmas Tree on four occasions. As First Lady, Mrs. Bush became the first individual to participate in both the tree topping and tree lighting ceremonies. On December 14, 1989 the ceremony returned to the Ellipse after the eight-year absence where President George Bush and Mrs. Bush and their granddaughter Marshall as a trio pulled the switch which illuminated the tree with thousands of red, white and blue lights symbolic of the President's "thousand points of light" speech during his election campaign.

President and Mrs. Bush returned to the Ellipse on December 13, 1990 to watch the opening of the Pageant of Peace from a box near the stage. On December 12, 1991, President Bush was joined for the tree lighting by Terry Anderson, the last hostage to be released from Lebanon, and four other former hostages Alann Steen, Thomas Sutherland, Joseph Cicippio and Jesse Turner. A short delay between the President's signal and the electrician's response caused organizers to hold their breath and made the darkened tree appear to be a repeat of the blacked out trees of 1979 and 1980. Within a few seconds electricity was restored and the tree burst into color to the deep sign of relief by all involved. Despite the December 10, 1992 weather conditions of snow, rain and 35 degree temperature, President Bush pushed the button to the delight of the 7,000 individuals who braved the elements.

NPS Photo by Terry Adams
President and Mrs. Clinton light the National Christmas Tree with John Betchkal, President of the Christmas Pageant of Peace, and some young helpers on December 5, 1996.

NPS/Terry Adams

The Ellipse: 1993-2000

With First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and daughter Chelsea in attendance, President Bill Clinton gave his first Christmas message to the nation on December 9, 1993, then threw the switch to light the National Christmas Tree. The estimated crowd of 9,000 enjoyed not only the ceremony but the clear balmy weather. On December 7, 1994 some 6,500 persons watched as 14-year-old Chelsea Clinton lit the tree. In 1995 following the return of his trip to Northern Ireland, President Clinton shared the lighting honors with nine-year-old Catherine Hamill of Belfast. A Government furlough threatened a Christmas tree blackout. Private funds kept the tree lit. Disappointment continued when the National Park Service announced, that in response to animal protesters, the reindeer would no longer be in residence.

On December 5, 1996, December 4, 1997, December 9, 1998 and December 8, 1999 President Clinton continued his participation in the tree lighting ceremony. On December 11, 2000, President Clinton along with First Lady/Senator-elect Hillary Rodham Clinton and daughter Chelsea attended their final tree lighting ceremony. In his remarks the President thanked the country for the opportunity to serve these past eight years.


History of National Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremonies

1923 | 1924-1933 | 1934-1938 | 1939-1940 | 1941-1953 | 1954-present

Last updated: December 24, 2015

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