Last evening, Barack Obama took part in a decades-old presidential tradition: lighting the National Christmas Tree. “In times of war and peace, hardship and joy,” Obama said, “Americans from every corner of this nation have gathered here to share in the holiday spirit.”
Almost 10,000 people of all ages (including yours truly) gathered on the Ellipse just south of the White House to watch the celebration live last night.
Hosted by American Idol judge Randy Jackson, the evening’s festivities included musical performances by 2007 American Idol winner Jordin Sparks, singers Sheryl Crow and Ray LaMontagne, Irish group Celtic Woman, jazz saxophonist Joshua Redman, hip-hop artist Common and the fifth-graders of the PS22 Chorus from Staten Island. First Lady Michelle Obama read the classic “‘Twas the Night before Christmas” to a group of children. Even Santa and Mrs. Clause stopped by with one of their elves to spread cheer and report on the “state of the elf union.”
Event organizers and the National Park Service distributed 7,000 more tickets this year than last, and for the first time, the event was streamed live over the Web as well as carried on public broadcasting stations. In another first, the National Tree is decorated only with energy-efficient LED lights this year, which will reduce the tree’s overall energy consumption by approximately two-thirds.
Calvin Coolidge was the first president to light the national tree on December 24, 1923. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was joined by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill for the ceremony in 1941, just weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor. In 1954, the lighting was moved to early December and became the “Christmas Pageant of Peace,” which continues with three weeks of performances by various community organizations from across the country. The National Tree is also flanked by 56 smaller trees forming the “Christmas Pathway of Peace” – one for each state, U.S. territory and the District of Columbia – decorated by local groups in each region.
According to Obama, the Pageant of Peace is “a tradition that has come to represent more than any one holiday or religion, but a season of brotherhood and generosity to our fellow citizens.” As part of the audience, I can attest that this was the case last night. Despite the chilly winter evening, the two-hour wait for the program to start and occasional difficulties with the sound system, the good-feeling of the evening was everywhere, and we all walked out singing carols together. Even, I suspect, President Obama.