Publication / decodeDC/ Scripps
December 24, 2014
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Christmas is filled with red ribbons and red tape in the nation’s capital

For some agencies, holidays are part of the job

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The D.C. holiday season is typically filled with members of Congress scurrying to pass legislation in a last-ditch effort before the New Year. But the season is also rife with another type of behind-the-scenes hustling: prepping for Christmas.

Even the Christmas trees in Washington are bureaucratic. Two government agencies — The National Park Service and the U.S. Forest Service — as well as the White House and the National Christmas Tree Association are all involved in finding and distributing the 84-plus Christmas trees sprinkled in and around federal government buildings throughout the District. And they all work separately. Their task?

Finding, transporting and decorating the big crowd pleasers: the National, Capitol and White House Christmas trees as well as numerous the smaller trees. In some instances planning for the holiday is year-round process, which we’ve learned through our reporting is not an easy feat.

The National Christmas Tree

What started in 1913 as a community celebration and held at different locations around D.C. eventually turned into a national event a decade later. But it wasn’t until 1954 that the event that is today’s National Christmas Tree lighting came to be. That year the National Christmas Tree exhibit expanded to include the Pathway to Peace — a row of 56 additional Christmas trees that represent all of the U.S. states, territories and D.C. that leads up to the big tree on the White House Ellipse. For the past 20 years, the Hudler Carolina Tree farm in North Carolina has donated the trees for the pathway, according to Jenny Anzelmo-Salres, spokesperson for the National Park Service — the agency that maintains the trees.

What makes the National Christmas Tree unique is it is a live tree permanently planted on the south side of the White House. The National Park Service is responsible for picking a replacement tree when needed, and the criteria for choosing a tree includes height, fullness, root structure and ability to adapt to D.C.’s humid, hot weather.

The National tree hasn’t had a great history of surviving beyond a few years, though. Thirty-two trees have played the role of the national tree. The current tree is a 29-foot-tall Colorado blue spruce from Virginia, and has been there since 2012. It replaced a similar tree that was planted the year earlier but died from “transplant shock.” That tree had replaced another Colorado blue spruce that was blown over in a windstorm.  This year’s tree already has lost part of its top to a storm. In fact the National Christmas tree doesn’t have a great track record at all.

The White House Christmas Tree

First Lady Lou Henry Hoover began the tradition of decorating an official tree in the White House Blue Room in 1929. Since then, the responsibility of trimming the Christmas tree has belonged to the first lady.

Today the White House Christmas tree comes from the winning farm in the National Christmas Tree Association’s Grand Championship. Winners of the competition have presented the White House with its tree since 1966. The competition represents the pinnacle of a Christmas tree farmer’s career. To win, farmers must first win a state/ regional competition and then the national competition, which focuses on uniformity, size and shape.

White House and NPS staff picked out the Blue Room’s tree in late September this year. The tree is a Concolor Fir from Pennsylvania and is 18 feet tall. The White House grounds keeper, under the NPS, chooses the additional trees displayed throughout the White House from a local farm, according to Joanna Rosholm, Michelle Obama’s Press Secretary at the White House. There are 26 additional trees on public display this year. Neither the White House nor the NPS would comment on whether the additional trees were purchased or donated.

The Capitol Christmas Tree

Choosing the Capitol Christmas tree falls completely under the U.S. Forest Service’s jurisdiction. Hailing from a different national forest each year, the Capitol Christmas tree located on the west lawn of the Capitol building is by far the biggest tree on view in D.C.

This year’s tree comes in at 88 feet and is a white spruce donated from Minnesota’s Chippewa National Forest. The tradition of the Capitol Christmas tree, formally known as the People’s Tree, began in 1964 when Speaker of the Houses John McCormack, D-Mass., planted a live Christmas tree on the Capitol lawn. Unfortunately, the tree was ill fated and only lasted three years before dying of wind and root damage. But a tradition was born.

The process of finding a tree begins in August when a national forest is identified to provide the tree and shortly after the actual tree is identified. In late October the tree is cut and then starts its journey to D.C. It is finally put in place and decorated in early December.

In recent years, the transportation for the Capitol Tree is paid for with donations from individuals and groups. This year’s benefactors included the Mayo Clinic and the Henry Ford Museum, according to the Denver Post. The Capitol Tree itself is a donation form the national forest it comes from.