That’s right, it’s “trees”- plural. We need more than one nationally recognized Christmas tree to share our holiday spirit! The Christmas tree has long been at the heart of holiday festivities. They’re a noticeable and shining symbol for the season. While Christmas trees haven’t always been popular in the United States, over the last 150 years Americans have come to love their brightly decorated pines, spruces, and firs. So, it’s no wonder that multiple presidential administrations have put their stamp on the arboreal traditions of American Christmas celebrations. Designating America’s national Christmas Tree has happened no less than four times over the last one hundred years!
The First Family has often been the trendsetter for holiday celebrations. Whether it was being first to use electric lights on a Christmas tree or theming a tree’s decor, Presidents and their families have used the ostentation of the holiday season to share progressive ideals and highlight national pride. One of the ways this emerged is in the dubbing of a national Christmas Tree. With a wealth of beautiful forests, trees, and public common areas, it’s no wonder that we couldn’t be content with just one official tree. After the first National Christmas Tree, each tree’s honorific name has been altered ever so slightly so that there’s…less… confusion.
Lucky us, we get to fête four beautiful Christmas trees every year! Each tree has a unique tradition of how it came to be, how it’s celebrated, and even how it’s decorated.
1923- The national Christmas Tree
Perhaps because it’s the oldest of all of the American Christmas trees, there’s a bit of confusion around who exactly gets credit for this tree’s creation. Some sources site that this tree is the product of a collaboration between First Lady Grace Coolidge and D.C. Public Schools, while others proffer that the idea originated with Lucretia Walker Hardy of the D.C. Community Center Department. There’s even the belief that Frederick Morris Feiker of General Electric came up with the idea of an official American tree in order to feature General Electric’s holiday lights and encourage Americans to do the same.
That this National Christmas Tree came about due to First Lady Grace Coolidge is the most popular school of thought, and it was definitely she who chose the site for the tree- the lawn south of the White House. This grassy area is now known as the Ellipse. So in 1923 the idea occurred, a location was chosen, and a Balsam Fir tree was donated by Middlebury College in Vermont. Whether because of Mr. Feiker’s influence or not, the tree was decorated with 2,500 electric light bulbs. And voila, the first National Christmas Tree.
That first year over 6,000 people came to watch the first official lighting of The National Christmas Tree on Christmas Eve. The ceremony included President Coolidge pressing a button to light the enormous tree, a rousing bout of Christmas carols from those gathered, and performances by the Epiphany Church Choir and the U.S. Marine Band.
In 1973, after a popular letter writing campaign and pressure from environmentalists, a Colorado Blue Spruce tree from Pennsylvania was planted where cut trees had early been erected. Multiple trees have been planted and and replaced, but since that year, a living tree planted in this location is decorated and ceremoniously lit each December.
Modern Day Celebration:
Today, the National Christmas Tree lighting is as popular as ever. It’s a televised event that includes a speech from the President, a host of musical performances, and of course, the official lighting of the National Christmas Tree. This event is so popular that tickets to it can only be won in a lottery. Each October, Americans can enter their name in a raffle drawing to win a spot to watch the tree lighting from the grounds of the White House. You can try your luck by entering here!
1926- The Nation’s Christmas Tree
Don’t you love the subtle name change here? Only a few years after his wife, First Lady Grace Coolidge, designated the National Christmas Tree, President Calvin Coolidge named the General Grant Tree the Nation’s Christmas Tree. Very clever.
The tree itself is something of a marvel. It was named in 1867 after General (and later President) Ulysses S. Grant. The tree was believed to be the largest in the world, but it is actually jockeying for second or third place in size. It is a Giant Sequoia tree in the Kings Canyon National Park in California, and lives among a grove of other magnificent sequoias.
In 1923 President Coolidge designated it the Nation’s Christmas Tree. However, residents of Sanger, California swear that they have long held holiday celebrations around the large sequoia tree. According to legend, a young girl told Charles Lee (a Sanger resident) that she always imagined it to be a Christmas tree. For years after Lee held holiday celebrations around the tree.
Modern Day Celebration:
Today the Nation’s Christmas Tree is celebrated by park rangers who lay a Christmas wreath at the base of the tree each December. The Sanger Chamber of Commerce also holds an annual “Trek to the Tree” on the second Sunday of December for people to go out and enjoy the beauty of the General Grant Tree.
1961- The White House CHristmas Tree
The complete history of Christmas trees in the White House is more fascinating than you might guess. We’ll leave the bulk of that history for another time. Instead, we’ll focus on the one particular tree that became known as the White House Christmas Tree. The first Christmas tree ever erected in the White House was during the Harrison Administration in 1889. This tree found a home in the Yellow Oval Room. The large and prominent White House Christmas Tree did not become an official tradition until 1961 when First Lady Jackie Kennedy had a large tree set up in the Blue Room. At her discretion this tree was decorated with the theme, The Nutcracker Suite.
There are usually many Christmas trees in the White House each December, but only one is designated the White House Christmas Tree. Since 1961, this tree is most commonly found in the Blue Room of the White House. Each year a theme for the tree is chosen by the First Lady, and you can see the list of themes since 1961 here! The themes often circle around American traditions, history, and artisans.
The tree itself is chosen from one of the trees grown by Christmas tree farmers belonging to the National Christmas Tree Association. Set up of the tree requires the chandelier and the furniture to be removed from the room. Then the tree is trimmed with the themed ornaments by members of the White House Floral Department.
Modern Day Celebration:
The White House Christmas Tree with its ever changing theme and often hand-crafted decorations gets a lot of press each year. For the last few years, HGTV has hosted a holiday special that features the holiday decor at the White House during the Christmas season. The White House Christmas Tree is always a focal point!
1964- The Nation’s Holiday Tree
This is the tree of many names. Now (mostly) called the Nation’s Holiday Tree, it has also gone by the names: Capitol Christmas Tree, The People’s Tree, and Capitol Holiday Tree. In 1964, Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, John W. McCormack (D-MA) placed a live tree on the West Front Lawn of the U.S. Capitol Building. After that first potted tree died due to root damage, it was decided that a tree would be donated each year from one of the many national forests. Each year a different forest is selected. You can see which forests have donated the Christmas tree on the Architect of the Capitol’s site. The Architect of the Capitol is the person responsible for coordinating the logistics of this holiday event.
Once it’s decided which forest will donate the Capitol Christmas tree, the forest services create a special travel route for the tree to reach Washington D.C.. Along the way, the tree makes planned stops so Americans in various states get to see the giant pine, spruce, or fir tree destined for the Capitol Building.
Modern Day Celebration:
In early December, the Nation’s Holiday Tree is officially lit by the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. The public is welcomed to come watch the lighting from several vantage points around the Capital Building.
Each of these official American Christmas Trees are beautifully lit and decorated, so it’s hard to censure anyone for wanting to have more than one National Christmas Tree! In fact, there’s likely to be very little complaining if someone decides to add a few more official trees. And just in case they do, we’ve gathered a short list of possible names. They’re all very similar to the ones which have come before since we’re clearly working with a theme.
- United States of America’s Christmas Tree (How has this one not been taken?)
- The American Christmas Tree
- The American People’s Christmas Tree
- The USA Holiday Tree
- The Stars & Stripes Christmas Tree
Did you already know about these official American trees? If so, or if you’ve been lucky enough to see them lit, we’d love to hear about it in the comment section below!