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The 2004 Capitol Christmas Tree

–by Kayla Griffis, USCHS intern

Christmas Trees in America

It’s that time of year again. It’s the holidays, and consequently the time for decorating Christmas trees! German immigrants brought the tradition of the Christmas tree to the United State, but holiday trees didn’t become widespread until the mid- to late nineteenth century, when they also became more popular in Great Britain.

Ever wonder where hanging candy canes and stringing popcorn on the Christmas tree came from? There’s a long tradition of hanging food on the tree. Bacon was once a popular food item to hang on a tree, along with ham. If bacon and ham couldn’t be used to decorate a tree then the decorators used pictures of food. Popcorn on the tree also started early, and was supposedly meant to represent snow on the limbs.

Evergreens as Christmas trees were also popularized early on. The number of trees cut down for Christmas was enormous! It was so overwhelming that President Theodore Roosevelt forbade Christmas trees on White House property, deploring the tradition’s wastefulness of trees. Unfortunately for one evergreen tree, President Roosevelt’s son sneaked it into the White House and set it up without the president knowing. Roosevelt was furious, until Chief of the Forest Division Gifford Pinchot assured the President that it was beneficial to forests for trees to be cut down, as it made room for others to grow. And so the Christmas tree returned to the nation’s capital.

An early version of a Christmas tree at the Capitol, sometime between 1910 and 1925 (Library of Congress)

The Capitol Christmas Tree Through the Years

By 1973, the Pennsylvania Christmas Tree Growers Association president Robert Sullivan said that growers across America were preparing for a 35-million-tree demand that year. Naturally, Congress had taken up the tradition as well. In 1964, Congress accepted its first official Christmas tree, a 25-foot Douglas Fir from Pennsylvania. The tree was set up precisely halfway between the Senate and the House. The President Pro-tempore of the Senate, Carl Hayden, a Democrat from Arizona, pressed the ceremonial button to turn on the lights. The tree became known as the Capitol Christmas Tree (not to be confused with the National Christmas Tree, which is in front of the White House).

Since 1970, the Capitol Christmas Tree has been taken from a national forest within the US. The chosen forests propose about ten trees recommended by the US Forest Service, and then the honor of the final selection is given to the superintendent of the Capitol grounds, who often makes visits to ensure that the tree is a prime specimen. The identity of the tree is kept secret until it is cut down.

The 2010 Capitol Christmas Tree lighting (capitolchristmastree2011.blogspot.com)

In the 1970s energy issues became a national concern… including the Capitol Christmas Tree. In 1971, a 51-foot spruce was chosen by the US Forest Service. Environmental conscientiousness played a major role in Congress’s decision on the number of lights to use. In 1972, 4500 lights were used on the Capitol Christmas tree. In 1973, only 2500 lights, to be lit for five hours a night versus seven hours as in 1972, were used due to energy consumption concerns. In 1974, the tree size was reduced by ten feet to a 41 foot North Carolina Fir tree. After the tree was taken down, it was mulched up for use on flower beds around the Capitol (which amounted to about $25 worth of mulch).

In 1985, House Speaker Thomas O’Neill and twelve children flipped synchronized switches to turn on the large white spruce from Michigan that served as the Capitol Christmas Tree that year. He said in his address the tree was “the people’s tree, the emblem of peace for the nation and the world.” In 1986, the Capitol’s landscape architect, Paul Pincus, discovered a 150-year-old Shasta red fir for the Capitol Christmas Tree. The massive 110-foot tree’s top (around 60 feet tall after harvesting) was used. This tree was the first from west of the Mississippi River, which Pincus said made his job easier due to the old growth forests that still existed there.

View of the 2010 tree from the Capitol (MSNBC)

Usually, the Capitol Christmas Tree is paraded to Washington, receiving visits and adulation during its trip, and usually fee waivers on highways. In 1992, the tree received fee waivers in Ohio, Illinois and Indiana, but the state of Pennsylvania refused to waive its $233 turnpike fee. The volunteer truck driver paid the fee. The Christmas tree-loving nation was outraged. Veterans associations were dismayed and pulled together to pay back the volunteer. The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission defended its position, obstinately stating that it was an essential part of an agreement to bond holders not to waive fees even for charitable events. The tree finally made it to the Capitol grounds and served as the people’s tree.

The 2011 tree arrives at the Capitol. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

For this 2011 holiday season, the tree of choice is a 118-year-old white fir from the Stanislaus National Forest in California. At 63 feet and 8300 pounds, the massive tree is sure to inspire awe! The theme of the season is “California Shines,” and with 5,000 handmade ornaments and 10,000 LED lights along with the same single star topper used each year, the tree is sure to make both California and the US Capitol shine. A child from California and Speaker of the House John Boehner will have the honor of lighting the tree on December 6 at 5:00 pm.

Visit http://capitolchristmastree2011.org/index.html to learn more about this year’s tree. The tree arrived safely on Monday, so now it’s time to decorate!

Works Consulted:
“Congress Erects Christmas Tree,” The Victoria Advocate. December 17, 1964. 4.
“Capitol Hill Tree May Get Fewer Lights,” The Portsmouth Times, November 13, 1973. 4.
“North Carolina Fir Picked to Serve as US Christmas Tree,” The Lewiston Daily Sun. November 13, 1974. 4.
“Christmas Tree has Long History,” Harlan Daily Enterprise. December 7, 1973. 4.
“Capitol Christmas Tree Chosen,” The Bryan Times. June 3, 1986. 6.
“Capitol Holiday Tree will come from Idaho,” The Aberdeen Times. July 30, 2003. 3.
“Capitol Christmas Tree Arrives,” Star-News. December 1, 1992. 5.
“Commission was Asleep at the Wheel,” Allegheny Times. December 30, 1992. A6.