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Historical Highlights

The Origins of the Capitol Christmas Tree

December 24, 1913
The Origins of the Capitol Christmas Tree Image courtesy of Library of Congress A 40-foot Norway spruce Christmas tree was the center of the celebration of Washington's "community Christmas" in 1913.
On this date, thousands of people flocked to the U.S. Capitol to celebrate Washington’s first “community Christmas.” The centerpiece of the festivities, a 40-foot Norway spruce Christmas tree located on the East Front plaza of the U.S. Capitol, was adorned with red, white, and blue electric bulbs. The celebration boasted a lighted placard with the inscription, “Peace on earth, good will to men,” nativity scenes, and a large chorus which sang Christmas hymns. During the Christmas Eve celebration, the Marine Band played the national anthem, and in keeping with the spirit of community cooperation, Boy Scout troops assisted the Capitol Police with crowd control. The popular holiday tradition resumed in 1914, but abruptly ended the following year due to a lack of funds. “Shock Awaits Santa Claus: No Community Christmas Tree Will Be at the Capitol for Him,” a Washington Post headline declared. Nearly 50 years later in 1962, Speaker John McCormack of Massachusetts oversaw the placement of a Christmas tree in Statuary Hall. It is “most appropriate that a Christmas tree be placed in the Capitol, which is the heart of legislative activity of our country,” McCormack declared. A year later the Speaker spearheaded the revival of an official Capitol Christmas Tree when he suggested that the Architect of the Capitol plant a tree on the West Front lawn. That tradition continued, and the next year, on December 18, 1964, President pro tem of the Senate, Carl Hayden of Arizona, lit the 25-foot Douglas-fir “congressional” tree decorated with white lights and topped with a star. Since 1970—after two unsuccessful attempts to plant trees on the West Front lawn—the U.S. Forest Service and the Architect’s office have selected the Capitol Christmas Tree cut from various national forests in the United States. As time passed, an annual ceremony has emerged in which the Speaker of the House lights the Capitol Tree.

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