It was 50 years ago this December that a 75-foot Douglas fir from right here in the Evergreen State went on display near the White House to serve as the National Christmas Tree. The towering fir had been cut down on Weyerhaeuser property near Aberdeen a few weeks earlier, and carried by rail to the nation’s capital.
The plan was for President John F. Kennedy, celebrating his first “Camelot Christmas” as commander-in-chief, to light the tree in a nationally televised ceremony on Dec. 20. But pretty much nothing would turn out quite right for the proud Yuletide evergreen from Washington state.
The idea of a national Christmas tree dates to 1923, when President Calvin Coolidge lit a fir tree from Vermont on the steps of the Capitol and millions listened in by radio. One year later, a Norway spruce from New York was planted south of the Treasury, not far from the White House. By the mid 1930s, festivities moved to a live Norway spruce in Lafayette Park across the street from the White House, and then to two oriental spruces on the south lawn of the executive mansion.
In perhaps the most memorable tree lighting during the early years of the annual ceremony, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill joined each other outside the White House on Christmas Eve 1941, just after the United States had entered World War II.
In a rousing, defiant, yet festive wartime Yuletide greeting, Churchill told the small crowd gathered and the audience of millions tuned to the radio, “Let the children have their night of fun and laughter. Let the gifts of Father Christmas delight their play. Let us grown-ups share to the full in their unstinted pleasures before we turn again to the stern task and the formidable years that lie before us, resolved that, by our sacrifice and daring, these same children shall not be robbed of their inheritance or denied their right to live in a free and decent world.”
By 1954, the tradition had morphed into something called a “Christmas Pageant of Peace,” launching with a Balsam fir cut in Michigan. For subsequent pageants, organizers selected a tree from a different state each year as an honor for the residents and for the Christmas tree growers. Longtime Pacific Northwest rival Oregon beat neighboring Washington when the Beaver State was tapped to provide a Douglas fir in 1960 for President Dwight Eisenhower’s last Christmas in office.
But the tree people of Washington weren’t too disappointed that Christmas of 1960; they already knew that they were next in line. Word had come in January 1959, when Senator Warren Magnuson announced that Edward Carr, chairman of the Christmas Pageant of Peace, had selected Washington, and, in particular, the Aberdeen Lions Club, to provide the nation’s Christmas tree in 1961.
Best of all, back in 1959, neither Magnuson, Carr, nor the folks in Aberdeen could have predicted that Washington would provide the first National Christmas Tree for the era of Kennedy and Camelot — let Oregon have their night of Eisenhower! But then again, nobody could have predicted the series of strange events that would plague the Evergreen State tree, either.
On Tuesday, Nov. 21, 1961, the 75-foot Douglas fir destined for the capital was cut down at the Clemons Tree Farm near Aberdeen. A few days later, the massive tree was awaiting shipment by rail from Aberdeen to Washington, D.C. The tree had been placed on a flatcar, and a large plywood box had been built around the tree to protect it during its 3,000-mile train trip.
But then something bizarre happened. According to The Seattle Times, “A police patrol routed a tall, teen-ager from alongside the railway flatcar . . . A circle had been nearly cut through the box. A jar full of kerosene was on the ground. The youth escaped. Extra guards were assigned to watch the car until a rainy, windswept going-away ceremony . . . in which Governor Rosellini took part.”
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