The Capitol Christmas Tree

Since 2005 Christmas Light Source has been proud to the be the LED Christmas Light Provider for the Capitol Tree in Washington, DC. In 2005, only about 10% of the lights were LED but by 2006, 100% of the incandescent light sets were replaced with commercial LED Christmas lights.

History of the Capitol Christmas Tree

The Capitol Christmas Tree has a history that spans nearly 44 years. This stunning tree is located on the west lawn of the Capitol and is lit each year with lights and decorated with handmade ornaments from children and adults alike. Have you ever wondered how the tree comes to be on the lawn of the Capitol each year? Here is some interesting history on the tree itself and how the annual tree lighting ceremony has become a time-honored tradition.

In the year 1964, a gentleman named John W. McCormack, who also happened to be the Speaker of the House of Representatives at the time, began the Capitol Christmas tree tradition. The very first tree to grace the lawn of the Capitol building was a live Douglas-fir tree of about 24-feet tall. The first official tree lighting took place on December 18, 1964. This hardy tree lasted through Christmas of 1967, but due to wind and root damage sustained over the years, the tree had to be removed.

For the next two years, two separate eastern white pine trees were used together to create one Christmas tree. This proved to be very difficult and time consuming, so the Capitol Architect approached the USDA Forest Service in the year 1970 about providing a Christmas tree for the Capitol. Since then, one of the National Forests has been asked each year to provide the Capitol Christmas tree. It is considered an honor to be asked and the hosting state gets involved in every way possible.

Did You Know?

Here are some interesting facts surrounding the Capitol Christmas Tree.

  • 4,000 to 5,000 handmade ornaments are solicited and collected each year to decorate the tree. The ornaments depict the hosting states' historical figures, historical events, natural resources and the state's heritage. After Christmas, the ornaments are donated to local non-profit organizations.
  • Once the tree is chosen, it is cut and loaded onto a large flatbed truck to make the trek across the country, visiting communities along the way. Security personnel guard the truck and tree day and night throughout the journey.
  • The 2006 Capitol Christmas Tree spent the night on the F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming on it's way to the Capitol, much to the delight of the military personnel who had the privilege of guarding it through the night.
  • There is a five-foot deep hole already dug for the tree prior to its arrival on the Capitol lawn.

Christmas Tree vs Holiday Tree

The Capitol Christmas tree wasn't always called by that name. Late in the 1990's, the tree was named the "Holiday Tree" in an effort to recognize the holidays of Hanukkah and Kwanzaa in addition to Christmas. In November of 2005, House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert informed federal officials that the tree should be re-named the Capitol "Christmas Tree". Upon the confirmation of the name change from the Capitol senior landscape architect, the Washington Times trumpeted the news that the "Holiday Tree" was once again a Christmas tree, just in time for the 2005 Christmas celebration.

What Kinds of Trees are Used?

The types of trees used have been several different species. Some of the tree species that have graced the Capitol lawn are White spruce, Fraser fir, Red spruce, Norway spruce, Englemann spruce, Balsam fir, Shasta red fir, Black spruce, and the Black Hills spruce. The tree must meet strict criteria and be nearly perfect to even be considered. The Forest Service choose between 6 to 8 candidate trees based on the shape and fullness of the tree, the height of the tree, the color of the foliage, and the quality of needle retention. The Capitol Architect is the one who makes the final decision.

The Capitol Tree and LED Christmas Lights

The 2005 Christmas season was significant also since it was the first year that LED lights were used to decorate the Capitol tree, in keeping with a strong commitment by the Capitol's Architect to conserve energy. LED (light emitting diodes) lights burn much cooler, longer and are more energy efficient than the light bulbs used in previous years. Nearly 10,000 sparkling LED lights adorn the tree in all! It takes somewhere between 7 to 10 days to ready the tree for the lighting ceremony. Tasks include any cosmetic changes, stringing the lights, and adding the handmade decorations. The ornaments must be made from materials that will withstand cold and wintry weather and be large enough to be seen from roughly 70 feet away.

The Lighting of the Tree

The Capitol Christmas tree is lit every year at 5:00 p.m. on December 9th and it stays lit through New Year's Day. The Speaker of the House not only makes the final decisions regarding the decorating of the Capitol Christmas tree, he also has the privilege of "flipping the switch" to light up the tree each year during the annual lighting ceremony. Thousands of people watch the tree lighting ceremony broadcasted on television, whereas hundreds of people witness the lighting of the Capitol Christmas tree first hand on site in Washington D.C.

The 2008 Capitol Christmas Tree

Montana is the hosting state for the 2008 Capitol Christmas tree. The Bitterroot National Forest will provide not only the tree for the Capitol lawn, but all of the trees for the congressional offices and agency and organizations headquarters all over Washington D.C., totaling nearly 75 smaller trees. Throughout the state of Montana, ceremonies, parades and community events will celebrate the honor of being chosen this year to provide the Capitol Christmas tree. The theme this year is "Sharing Montana's Treasures" as their gift to the nation.

Christmas trees solicit feelings of warmth, goodwill and joy during the holidays for millions of Americans across the nation. They're seen everywhere - in homes, businesses, churches, and town squares. The Capitol Christmas tree is a symbol for all Americans that the Christian heritage on which our country was forged is still alive and well.