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White House Christmas tree: best if it’s not from Washington

The 2010 National Christmas Tree, surrounded by smaller trees representing the various states. Credit: Tim1965/Wikimedia Commons

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.”

Despite the near immolation of the tree, the rail journey from this Washington to the other Washington was uneventful. Naturally, hopes were high for the national spotlight to fall on the tree (and its home state) when the youthful President Kennedy was set to flip the switch to light it on Dec. 20.

But then the president’s 73-year old father, Joseph P. Kennedy (who, as ambassador to Britain, had opposed FDR’s efforts to aid Churchill and the UK before the United States entered World War II), suffered a stroke in Florida and was gravely ill. JFK left D.C. for the Sunshine State and delegated tree-lighting duties to his vice president, Lyndon Johnson. First a teenager had tried to burn it, and now the president snubbed it (even if he did have a valid reason, not unlike when Kennedy snubbed the Seattle World’s Fair less than a year later).

But the streak of bad luck didn’t end with Kennedy’s absence. LBJ pinch hit for the president and lit the tree; or at least he tried to, anyway.

In what could now be considered a spooky foreshadowing of the war that would rage in Vietnam, LBJ told the crowd of 2,000 gathered for the tree lighting that America “is dedicated to Christ’s quest for peace, not the false peace of evasion and retreat but the divine peace which comes as the fulfillment of striving and the climax of commitment.”

“We will never falter in that dedication,” the vice president said.

According to The New York Times, when LBJ lit the tree, it “flickered briefly and then went out for 10 minutes.” Bad wiring was to blame, and, the Times continued, “the connection was repaired, but not before the crowd began leaving the park.” Fortunately, this episode was the last of the Washington tree’s troubles.

The following year, President Kennedy finally got a chance to light the National Christmas Tree himself, but it would be the only such ceremony that he would preside over in his truncated term. The tree was a Blue spruce from Colorado, and this time around, the president’s father had recovered, and the nation was in a festive if somewhat sober mood, just a few months after the peaceful resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

According to a New York Times account, Kennedy welcomed the approaching end of 1962 with “more than usual joy” and talked “just a little more confidently of peace” in the year ahead.

“This has been a year of peril when peace was threatened, but a year when that threat has been faced,” Kennedy said. He then wished everyone a “blessed and happy Christmas and a peaceful and prosperous New Year.”

But, as everybody knows, 1963 didn’t turn out so well for the young president. By December of that year, a Red spruce from West Virginia had been brought to D.C. and decorated with thousands of lights. And once again, Lyndon Johnson would flip the switch. But this time, Johnson was himself president, and the lighting ceremony helped mark the end of the official mourning period in the wake of JFK’s assassination.

Since 1973, the National Christmas Tree has been a succession of just a handful of living Blue spruces, and individual states have not been invited to provide trees. Washington’s 1961 Douglas fir selection is, so far, the first and last time that the Evergreen State’s Christmas trees have been honored in this unique fashion. Thank goodness.

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