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Visit the National Christmas Tree and Lighting Ceremony

How to Attend the Lighting Ceremony & Visit the National Christmas Tree

Updated: November 16, 2023

The National Christmas tree is an entire event, filled with a Yule log, a manger, and 56 smaller trees surrounding the big one, dedicated to each state and territory and displaying themed ornaments. 

Seeing the National Christmas Tree is a must-do if you're visiting DC during Christmas. The tree is open to the public and free to visit - though we thinking join us on our Holiday Lights Tour is the best way to see it.

The National Christmas Tree isn't the only holiday tree in town, be sure to check out all the best places to see holiday lights in DC.


What is the National Christmas Tree?

In 2020, the Christmas tree was felled but a blustery day. Not only is the National Christmas tree real - it is an actual, living, planted tree.

The National Christmas tree is a Colorado Spruce planted on the Ellipse, south of the White House.

Over the holiday season, this tree is decorated and a whole holiday extravaganza is set up around it. A new tree was planted in early November 2021.

There is also a Santa's workshop, open at various times during the holiday season, as well as performances from musical groups.  

The official schedule will be released after the tree lighting: www.thenationaltree.org.


When is the 2023 National Christmas Tree Lighting?

The National Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony is on November 30, 2023.

If you would like to attend the National Christmas Tree Lighting IN PERSON for 2023, you will need to enter the lottery: https://www.recreation.gov/ticket/facility/250006

  • Nov. 1: Free ticket lottery opens at 10 a.m. ET.
  • Nov. 8: Free ticket lottery closes at 3 p.m. ET.
  • Nov. 15: Lottery Results Announced.
  • Nov. 30: National Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony.
  • Dec. 2: The National Christmas Tree site opens to the public.
  • Dec. 15: CBS Network will broadcast the National Christmas Tree Lighting special at 8 p.m. ET.

How much at National Christmas Tree Lottery tickets?

They are FREE! But are limited to one entry per household, and up to 5 tickets per entry. All persons, regardless of age, require a ticket. You will need a free recreation.gov account to enter.

To watch the lighting at home, CBS will broadcast the 2023 National Christmas Tree Lighting on December 15th at 8pm ET.

Find out more and watch the ceremony at https://thenationaltree.org/watch-the-lighting/


When can you visit the National Christmas Tree

You can visit the National Christmas Tree from December 2 - January 10am-10pm (11pm on Friday and Saturday).

The tree lights do turn off and the pathways are closed at night so you are not able to visit in the middle of the night

Metro is always your best choice, as parking is very limited in this area of the city. 

Closest stops are McPherson Square or Federal Triangle (both Blue/Orange/Silver lines).  Use this Google map for directions to the tree.

Best of all about the tree, its highlight of our Holiday Lights Tour.


History of the National Christmas Tree

The history of the National Christmas Tree has a little less holiday spirit than expected but that part of the ceremony has grown since it all started in 1923.General Electric wanted more people to use Christmas Lights and thus electricity during the holiday season.

It was all arranged by an employee of GE. School children were gathered to sing carols while accompanied by the Marine Band. President Calvin Coolidge would flip the switch himself, to add prestige to the event.

A 48' tall tree was donated by Middlebury College in Vermont with patriotic lights of red, white and blue and the annual tradition has been held since. Though some things have changed.

The first ceremony was religious. There was a Christian mass and service and a large cross was illuminated on the White House while shepherds walked to the tree. Now, pop stars sing instead.

For some years, it was the tree that sang! Speakers were hidden in the branches and carols were played from 6pm-10pm until NYE.

At first the tree was placed in Sherman Park, then Lafayette Park, Ellipse, South Lawn of the White House, and back to remain to this day at the Ellipse. For those of you not familiar with DC, these are all places that surround the White House.

It alternated homes and types of trees: Balsam Firs, Blue Spruces, trees that had been replanted and some that stood just for one year.

It was 1954 that gave it the permanent location but also the new name: Christmas Pageant of Peace and became a secular event to celebrate the peace of the community in way that many persons, regardless of faith, recognize as a way to celebrate the "holiday season."

During WWII, the tree was lit a few weeks after Pearl Harbor in December 1941 and not again until 1945. A time when the country could have really used a Pageant of Peace, there was none to be found.

It was not lit for economical reasons - save power, resources - but also security - would definitely help the Axiz Powers locate FDR. There were still trees, still decorations (these years made by local school children to honor the fallen) but no lights.

The Hargrove Company has been in charge of decorating the tree since 1954, when Eric Hargrove first began the tradition. This was prior to what we all recognize now as a string of lights, back then, each was manually installed.

And when they broke? Well, Santa (or Hargrove in a Santa suit, whichever you choose to believe) would climb up to fix them!

Today we have our 26 foot fall Colorado Blue Spruce, lit with LED lights designed by GE, at the end of the Pathway of Peace.

A walkway lined with smaller trees to represent the other states and territories with daily performances of music.


About The Author

Canden Arciniega

Follow On Instagram | I'm a historian & tour guide in Washington DC with 4 published books about the city. I have written for HuffPost Travel and have been featured in the Washington Post, WTOP, and numerous other DC papers. I've also been interviewed by the BBC, NPR, Travel Channel and Discovery Family Channel. I am the producer of the podcast, Tour Guide Tell All. I am an authority on D.C. history, and have led tours in the city since 2011. I currently resides in DC, but have also lived in London and South Korea, and have traveled to over 28 countries and every US State but Hawaii. I homeschool my 2 children by exploring the plethora of museums in DC. Read More...
Updated: November 16th, 2023
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