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Visit the National Christmas Tree and Lighting Ceremony

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There are a lot of Christmas trees in nation's capital - the One City Tree at City Hall, the Capitol Christmas tree, the Smithsonian Castle tree and the many you can see glittering in the windows of DC residents, but there is only one National Christmas Tree.

From our DC Tourism Guide, with budget advice, travel guides, and information about local Washington DC attractions.

In Feb 2011, the Christmas tree was felled but a blustery day. It had been planted in 1978. Not only are our Christmas trees real, they are actual, living, planted trees. The National Christmas tree is a Colorado Spruce planted in 2012 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.

Now, we don't want you to make the mistake of assuming that the tree is all there is - no sir!  The National Christmas tree is an entire event, filled with a Yule log, a manger, and a large-scale model train.  There are 56 smaller trees surrounding the big one, dedicated to each state and territory and displaying themed ornaments.  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:

How to get Tickets to the National Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony:

The Tree Lighting Ceremony takes place on the first Thursday in December each year. The park is blocked off and all the roads are closed so hundreds of visitors can attend a star studded event with music, holiday cheer and the First Family flipping the switch the light the National Christmas Tree.

Each year around October, an online lottery opens up to select who can attend the ceremony. The lottery spots sell out in a matter of hours so to make sure you don't forget when it opens, you can sign up to the mailing list through the National Park Service. Only one application per household, any additional will be ignored. Guests are notified in early November if their ticket was selected to attend the event. The lottery and the tickets are all free.

Visit the National Christmas Tree and Lighting Ceremony:

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, it is right on the way to our tours!
Our National Mall Tour starts a block away from the Ellipse, so this is a perfect thing to do before or after joining us on a 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

Canden is a historian and tour guide in Washington DC with 4 published books about the city. She has written for HuffPost Travel and has been featured in the Washington Post, WTOP, and numerous other DC papers. She's also been interviewed by the BBC, NPR, Travel Channel and Discovery Family Channel. Canden is the producer of our podcast, Tour Guide Tell All With a M.A. in History from University College London and a B.A. in History from Elon University, she is an authority on D.C. history, and has led tours in the city for over 10 years. She currently resides in DC, but has also lived in London and South Korea, and has travelled to 28 countries. Her two children (both under the age of 4) have their passports and own frequent flier accounts.
Updated: September 24th, 2021
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