A Brief History of the United States Capitol Christmas Tree

October 3, 2010

No season generates more enthusiasm, a heightened sense of good will, deeper traditions, and economic benefits than the annual Christmas Season.  And so it is only appropriate that our leaders would develop a way to focus the nation’s attention, ever so briefly, on a single and most beautiful symbol of the season – the Capitol Christmas Tree. Early in December each year, the Speaker of the House hosts a lighting ceremony on the lawn of the United States Capitol Building and with a simple flip of a switch, powers the 10,000 lights that illuminate the tree.  Hundreds of people who are fortunate enough to be in D.C. attend the lighting ceremony and many thousands around the world watch the ceremony on television.  Throughout the weeks that follow, thousands more will find their way to the Capitol to take in the sight of “the People’s Tree”. Although thousands take great comfort and enjoyment from the tree, few give thought to where it comes from.  

Here’s “the rest of the story”. Speaker of the House of Representatives John W. McCormack (D-MA) began the tradition of the Capitol Christmas Tree in 1964.  The first tree was a live Douglas-fir purchased for $700 from Buddies Nursery in Birdsboro, Pennsylvania.  It was lighted by Senate President Pro Tempore Carl Hayden (D-AZ) on December 18, 1964. The original tree survived through the 1967 celebration by which time wind and root damage had taken its toll.  In both 1968 and 1969, cut trees were assembled by combining a pair of eastern white pine trees but this proved cumbersome and ultimately unsatisfactory.  Early in 1970, the Capitol Architect approached the USDA Forest Service for assistance. Since 1970, it has become an honor for one of the National Forests to be asked to provide the Capitol Tree.  The appointed National Forest, in turn, engages help from diverse partners throughout its respective State. The opportunity to provide the Capitol Christmas Tree – “the People’s Tree” – becomes a state-wide celebration and civic event, leaving a lasting impression on all who are fortunate enough to be involved.

A Brief Summary of the Origins of Past and Near-Future Capitol Christmas Trees
1964 Buddies Nurseries, Birdsboro, PA 24 feet Douglas-fir (live)
1965 Buddies Nurseries, Birdsboro, PA 24 feet Douglas-fir (live)
1966 Buddies Nurseries, Birdsboro, PA 24 feet Douglas-fir (live)
1967 Buddies Nurseries, Birdsboro, PA 24 feet Douglas-fir (live)
1968 Finxburg, MD 30 feet White pine (parts) Made from two different trees
1969 Westminister, MD 40 feet White pine (parts)
1970 Monongahela NF in West Virginia (R-9) 40 feet Norway spruce from Monongahela National Forest, West Virginia 
1971 White Mountain NF in New Hampshire (R-9) 45 feet Black spruce from White Mountain National Forest, New Hampshire
1972 Cherokee NF in Tennessee (R-8) 50 feet Balsam fir from Tennessee National Forest, Pennsylvania
1973 Allegheny NF in Pennsylvania (R-9) 51 feet White spruce from Allegheny National Forest, Pennsylvania
1974 Pisgah NF in North Carolina (R-8) 41 feet Fraser fir from Pisgah National Forest, North Carolina
1975 Ottawa NF in Michigan (R-9) 41 feet Balsam fir from Ottawa National Forest, Michigan
1976 Monongahela NF in West Virginia “Bi-Centennial Tree” (R-9) 41 feet Red spruce from Monongahela National Forest, West Virginia
1977 Nemadji State Forest in Minnesota 52 feet White spruce
1978 Savage River State Forest in Maryland 60 feet Norway spruce
1979 Nicolet National Forest in Wisconsin (R-9) 52 feet White spruce
1980 Green Mountain National Forest in Vermont (R-9) 48 feet White spruce
1981 Hiawatha National Forest in Michigan (R-9) 50 feet White spruce
1982 Riley Bostwich Wildlife Management Area, Vermont 50 feet Balsam fir
1983 Chequamegon National Forest in Wisconsin (R-9) 52 feet White Spruce
1984 Superior National Forest in Minnesota (R-9) 58 feet White spruce
1985 Ottawa National Forest in Michigan (R-9) 56 feet White spruce
1986 Klamath National Forest in California (R-5) 54 feet Shasta red fir
1987 Wayne-Hoosier NF in Ohio (R-9) 60 feet Norway spruce from Wayne-Hoosier National Forest, Ohio
1988 Huron-Manistee NF in Michigan   (R-9) 50 feet Balsam fir from Manistee National Forest, Michigan
1989 Kootenai NF in Montana (R-1) 60 feet Engelmann Spruce from Kootenai National Forest, Montana
1990 Routt ( now Medicine Bow-Routt ) NF in Colorado (R-2) 65 feet Engelmann Spruce Routt National Forest, Colorado
1991 Carson NF in New Mexico (“National Forest Centennial Tree”) (R-3) 60 feet Blue spruce (live) from Carson National Forest, New Mexico
1992 Chippewa NF in Minnesota (R-9) 62 feet White spruce from Chippewa National Forest, Minnesota
1993 San Bernardino NF in California (R-5) 65 feet White fir from San Bernardino National Forest, California
1994 Green Mountain NF in Vermont (R-9) 58 feet Balsam fir from Green Mountain National Forest, Vermont
1995 Plumas NF in California (R-5) 60 feet Douglas fir from Plumas National Forest, California
1996 Wasatch-Cache NF in Utah (R-4) 75 feet Engelmann spruce. I have also seen accounts stating this tree was from the Manti-LaSal National Forest, Utah
1997 Black Hills NF in South Dakota (R-2) 63 feet Black Hills spruce 
1998 Pisgah National Forest in North Carolina (R-8) 50 feet Fraser fir
1999 North Central Station/Nicolet National Forest in Wisconsin (R-9) “Millennium Tree”70 feet White spruce (First Capitol Holiday tree)
2000 Pike and San Isabel National Forest in Colorado (R-2) 65 feet Colorado Blue Spruce
2001 Ottawa National Forest in Michigan (R-9) 74 feet White spruce
2002 Umpqua National Forest in Oregon (R-6) 70 feet Douglas fir 
2003 Boise National Forest in Idaho (R-4) 65 feet Englemann spruce
2004 George Washington-Jefferson NF in Virginia (R-8) 70 feet Red spruce2004 Red Spruce 65 feet George Washington and Jefferson NF, Virginia
2005 Santa Fe National Forest in New Mexico (R-3) (Forestry Service Centennial Tree) 60 feet  Englemann spruce (First tree since 1998 with the “Christmas Tree” title)
2006 Olympic National Forest in Washington (R-6) 65 feet Pacific Silver Fir
2007 Green Mountain NF in Vermont (R-9) 55 feet Balsam fir2007 Balsam Fir 55 feet Green Mountain NF, Vermont
2008 Bitterroot NF in Montana (R-1) 70 foot Subalpine Fir 2008 Subalpine Fir 70 feet Bitterroot National Forest, Montana
2009 Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in Arizona (R-3) 85 foot Blue Spruce From the Arizona White Mountains Region.  Approx 10,000 ft above sea level
2010 from the Bridger-Teton National Forest of western Wyoming 67-foot Engelmann spruce 

Here are a few more facts you may not know:

How the tree is selected.  
  • The Forest Service, working with a team of state-based partners, selects 6 – 8 candidate trees for the Capitol Architect’s consideration, but it is the Capitol Architect who makes the final selection.
  • His or she considers -
  • the shape and fullness of the tree, viewed from all sides. -
  • the height of the tree, preferring one that is between 60 and 85 feet tall. -
  • the color of the tree, with foliage that is richly colored and appropriate for the species. -
  • the species’ characteristics of needle retention and pliability of branches.
  • Of course those selecting the candidate trees also need to consider access to the tree for ease of cutting, loading and transporting out of the woods. 

How the lead National Forest is selected.  

Staff members at the Forest Service headquarters in D.C. coordinate with prospective Regions and Forests up to two years in advance.  Forests are invited to express interest in the opportunity to provide the tree each winter, and are selected based on -
  • whether there is a significant historical event or theme affiliated with the Forest or State, such as the celebration of a centennial. -
  • the location of the National Forest, preferring to secure a tree from a different area of the country each year. -
  • the confidence expressed by the Forest in being able to generate contributions to help fund the project. 

So really, what’s involved?  

Each State & National Forest partnership can decide the scale of the project that is appropriate for their specific situation and capacity.  In general, the project involves eight key aspects: -
  1. The Tree… Locating the 60 foot, near-perfect Capitol Christmas Tree -
  2. Companion Trees… Securing donations of 60-70 trees that range in size from 6 feet – 25 feet, for a variety of government offices throughout D.C. -
  3. Lights and Ornaments… Soliciting and collecting 4000 – 5000 handmade ornaments that are made to specific criteria, ensuring they will hold up in wintery weather and be visible for distances up to 70 feet.  School children, 4-H clubs, scout troops and other youth organizations are often excited to be asked to contribute handmade ornaments.  Almost 10,000 low energy (LED) and regular lights, provided by the Capitol Architect, are added to illuminate the tree throughout the holiday season. -
  4. Implementing publicity and marketing strategies that engage a wide variety of partners and sponsors across the state, which in turn, provide the funds and the enthusiasm which are needed to ensure the project’s success. -
  5. Establishing a partnership with an organization that can solicit and accept donations and serve as the fiscal agent for the project.  Past years’ efforts have ranged from $100,000 to nearly $1,000,000 in value with much of the value attributed to in-kind contributions. Strong support from the State and local communities means that there is minimal cost to taxpayers. -
  6. Providing security for the Capitol Tree throughout its journey from the woods to the Capitol lawn. -
  7.  Hosting community celebrations, fund-raisers and cutting ceremonies in-State, and receptions in D.C., in honor of the Tree’s arrival. -
  8. Coordinating transportation of people, ornaments, and trees from the host State to delivery in D.C.

Logistics of transporting and setting up The Tree.

Once the tree is cut, it is loaded onto a flatbed truck equipped with a special platform for protecting the tree during transport.

  • The long journey to the nation’s capitol begins with a cutting ceremony, then the tree is escorted to many cities and communities in the State, and finally driven across the country. 
  • Once the tree arrives in Washington, DC, it is handed over to the Capitol Architect.  
  • The Capitol Landscape crew then places the tree in a ready-made 5-foot deep hole.  
  • It generally takes 7 to 10 days for workers to secure the tree in place, make any cosmetic changes needed with extra branches, string the lights and place the thousands of handmade ornaments on the branches of the tree before the big lighting ceremony. -
  • The Forest Service is responsible for distributing the many companion trees to designated offices throughout the D.C. area, including at least one to the Chief’s Office, and one to the USDA Building.
  • Prior to the tree lighting ceremony in early December, the Chief of the Forest Service hosts an afternoon awards reception at the USDA headquarters next to the National Mall. 
  •  The Speaker of the House holds an elaborate Tree Lighting Ceremony on the west lawn of the Capitol, assisted by the Capitol Architect and the State’s Congressional Members.
  • Partnership members, key sponsors, and community leaders and often the Governor come to Washington to attend the celebration. 
  • These events are followed by an evening reception hosted by the State’s Congressional Officials. 
  •  The tree remains lighted throughout the holiday season and after the tree is removed, it is mulched and used around all of the congressional offices, and ornaments are distributed to local non-profits.

The General Circle of the process:

  • Private, State & Forest Service Partnerships
  • Providing 4000-5000 weather-proof Handmade Ornaments
  • Hosting Celebrations & Receptions in-State and in D.C.
  • Handling complex Shipping Logistics
  • Providing   60- 70, 6′-25′ tall Companion Trees
  • Coordinating thousands of Volunteers’ and Sponsors’ Efforts
  • Providing a near-perfect 60+ foot tall Capitol Christmas Tree

The above information was retreved fromt the capitolchristmastree2007.org. The site has already been removed so we are happy we could preserve this short piece of information from it. CapitolChristmasTree.org

3 Responses to A Brief History of the United States Capitol Christmas Tree

  1. [...] tradition of cutting a Capitol Christmas tree … began in 1970, [...]

  2. ceesiren on December 15, 2010 at 8:56 pm

    Can you tell me when the name of the Capitol Christmas Tree was changed to “Capitol Holiday Tree” and why (or who authorized or requested it)?
    I know it was changed back under Denny Hastert… I have been told it was the Capitol Christmas Tree until some time in the late 90s… then changed to Holiday Tree and then changed back under Hastert, but I can’t find anything that says how or why it was changed in the 90s.

    Thank you for any help you can offer on this.

    • capitolchristmastree on December 16, 2010 at 8:58 am

      Far as I understand the Capitol Christmas Tree was called Capitol Holiday Tree in 1999 through 2005. In 2005 Denny Hastert requested to name it back to Capitol Christmas tree referance here Seems a mystery as to why it became a holiday tree but is likely to try to be politically correct. The thing that has me wondering is the John Dennis Hastert (Denny Hastert) was also the Speaker of the House in 1999 and did not think to change this until 5 years later. It is hard to find info on this and at the official page of the Architect of the Capitol have been white washed to read Capitol Christmas Tree even on earlier years. If you find more on this please post. Thanks

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