Looking Back at the National Christmas Tree Tradition

By Eben Lehman on December 1, 2011

Tonight, December 1st, President Barack Obama and his family will officially light the National Christmas Tree on the Ellipse south of the White House. The tree lighting ceremony dates back to 1923, when President Calvin Coolidge personally lit what was then called the National Community Christmas Tree. This first national tree was presented to Coolidge by Middlebury College President Dr. Paul D. Moody. The tree was cut from the Middlebury College forest preserve in the President’s home state of Vermont and sent via a special train car to Washington, D.C. The tree was erected on the Ellipse south of the White House grounds, where a crowd of 3,000 watched President Coolidge preside over the lighting on Christmas Eve, 1923. Since that time a variety of trees, both living and cut, originating from different states have served as the National Christmas Tree. The location of the tree has also changed over the years, moving from the Ellipse to Sherman Plaza, then Lafayette Park, the White House lawn, and back to its current spot on the Ellipse.

1923 National Christmas Tree

The original 1923 National Community Christmas Tree.

The FHS Archives features a collection documenting the first three decades of the lighting ceremony. The National Community Christmas Tree Records includes programs, photographs, correspondence, guest lists, invitations, news clippings, and more related to the planning of the event between 1923 and 1954. In honor of tonight’s tree lighting ceremony, below are a sampling of the historical items found in this great collection.

1923 program

Official program for the first National Christmas Tree lighting ceremony in 1923 (click to view full program).

1927 National Christmas Tree

1927 National Community Christmas Tree at Sherman Plaza.

1934 map

Map of 1934 tree lighting ceremony at Lafayette Park.

1937 National Christmas Tree

1937 National Community Christmas Tree at Lafayette Park.

1938 National Christmas Tree

1938 National Community Christmas Tree in Lafayette Park.

1939 ticket

Ticket to 1939 tree lighting ceremony on the Ellipse.

1941 invitation

Official invitation for 1941 tree lighting ceremony on the White House lawn.

1947 program

Program for 1947 tree lighting ceremony at the White House.

1954 program

Program for 1954 tree lighting ceremony.