While perhaps not as famous as the evergreen that draws millions to Rockefeller Center in New York City every year, the National Christmas Tree in Washington, DC, has been an American tradition since 1923. Calvin Coolidge was the first U.S. president to illuminate a tree on the Ellipse behind the White House. Thus the National Christmas tree was born. The only time in its 90 year history that it wasn’t lit was from 1942-1944 during World War Two. President Obama lit the 2013 tree on December 6th and the holiday season in DC officially began.
This year’s tree is a 31-foot-tall Colorado Blue Spruce covered with several hundred strings of energy-saving LED lights and ornaments. It is crowned with a gold star and an elaborate train set encircles the base. On a nearby stage, local groups daily perform Christmas carols, enhancing the already festive atmosphere.
The National Christmas Tree is surrounded by 56 smaller evergreens that represent all 50 U.S. states, the District of Columbia and the five U.S. territories, including Puerto Rico and Guam. These trees make up what is known as the “Pathway to Peace” and are a popular attraction as visitors from all across America come to enjoy the holiday season in their nation’s capital.
Many of the globe ornaments adorning the trees this year were made by school children from the respective states and territories. New York’s, for example, features hand-painted depictions of the Eastern Bluebird, the state bird, while those from Arizona were filled with brightly colored desert flowers.
I recommend visiting the National Christmas Tree at sunset, when the iconic buildings nearby are stunning to behold. The White House, at 1700 Pennsylvania Avenue, glows a brilliant white against the darkening winter sky. Just around the corner, the elaborate layers and graceful curves of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building have earned it the nickname “the wedding cake building.” The red-brick facade of the former home of the National Savings and Trust Company is accented with copper and terra cotta. The building, located on the corner of 15th Street and New York Avenue, dates to 1888 and is now occupied by SunTrust Bank.
If you need a place to stay while you’re in town, check out the Willard InterContinental Hotel at 1400 Pennsylvania Avenue. Built in 1816, the historic property has hosted foreign diplomats, heads of state, and just about every U.S. president since the 1850s. Literary greats, including Mark Twain, Walt Whitman and Charles Dickens, have stayed at the Willard, and more recently, Steven Spielberg filmed the final scenes of the Minority Report inside the lobby and kitchen.
Getting There: The nearest metro station to the National Christmas Tree is Farragut West on the Blue and Orange lines. There are two entrances on E Street NW, at 15th and 17th Streets, on either side of the Ellipse. The Tree is just outside the South Lawn of the White House.
Entrance Fee: None, though tickets are required for the official lighting ceremony held once a year.
Have you ever visited the National Christmas Tree?