Obama lights National Christmas Tree near White House

The sights and sounds swirling around Thursday’s annual lighting of the National Christmas Tree rang of the yuletide traditions of yore: a security sweep in the afternoon, the jazzy stylings of a military band, attendees milling about with their hands wrapped around steaming cups of hot chocolate.

But the event’s center had completely changed: A different tree this year was lit anew.

“We all know that this tradition is larger than any single tree,’’ President Obama remarked. “We gather here not simply to light decorations but to honor a story that lights the world.”

He later said: “It’s a little smaller than the old tree.”

For the first time in 33 years, the Colorado blue spruce illuminating President’s Park has been replaced, according to National Park Service spokesman Bill Line. The old evergreen was toppled by 60-mph winds in February, Line said. Planted in the Jimmy Carter administration, it had grown to 42 feet.

The new tree has roots from a nursery in northwest New Jersey. It was planted in the Ellipse in March and measures 26.5 feet. It’s joined by 56 smaller trees, each representing a state, a U.S. territory or the District.

As the sun dipped into Thursday’s sky, hundreds of guests entered the park for the lighting celebration, fusing traditions old and new.

The event marked the 89th National Christmas Tree lighting, a presidential rite of passage that started with Calvin Coolidge.

The act took on a more emotional resonance in 1941, when it took place a few days after Pearl Harbor. At Thursday’s event, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar told the audience that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt used the tradition to help the country feel good during some of its darkest days, “as a reminder that we set our faith in human love and God’s care for us.”

The event has become a televised holiday spectacle. Guests try to get tickets through a lottery process on the Web. This year, Carson Daly hosted. Pop acts, such as OneRepublic and Big Time Rush, performed. First lady Michelle Obama made witty banter with a felt-covered amphibian.

“Call me Michelle,” the first lady said after Kermit the Frog called her “First Lady.”

“That’s very nice of you,” Kermit responded. “I have to call Miss Piggy ‘Your Majesty.’ ”

Santa Claus stopped by, but he said he was too busy to do media interviews.

Lisa Walker, 51 , grew up in the District. This year was only the second time she had tried to obtain tickets for the Christmas tree lighting, and she was thrilled that she was successful.

“I came for the chance to get to see the president,” Walker said, “and just to be entertained. I’ve always wanted to see the lights up close.”

The tree runs on about 2,000 watts of electricity, thanks to energy-efficient lights. At its peak is a four-pointed star, the same topper that’s been used for the past six years. Cascading to its base are 160 ornaments in the shape of six-pointed star bursts, strung alongside 65 sets of lights that glow through the night.

Said Walker: “It’s beautiful.”

samuelsr@washpost.com

Robert Samuels writes for the Post’s social issues team. In Maryland, he focuses on issues affecting low-income children and families. He also covers life in the District.
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