Correction to This Article
A Dec. 1 article incorrectly described David Curfman as the historian of the National Christmas Tree. He is the historian for the Pageant of Peace, which includes festivities connected with the tree, which stands behind the White House on the Ellipse.

Three Trees, but Only One Star?

The National Christmas Tree on the Ellipse will be lighted by the president and first lady tonight. But New York's Rockefeller Plaza beat them to the punch.
The National Christmas Tree on the Ellipse will be lighted by the president and first lady tonight. But New York's Rockefeller Plaza beat them to the punch. (By Sarah L. Voisin -- The Washington Post)
By Petula Dvorak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 1, 2005

There is skulduggery afoot. There are unspoken rules, there is upstaging and there is backbiting. Some who talk about such things insist on anonymity. Others refuse comment.

The issue is Christmas trees.

According to the calendar of official Washington, the holiday season kicks off tonight, when the president and first lady flip the switch to light thousands of bulbs on the Colorado blue spruce on the Ellipse, the one the White House declares the nation's official Christmas tree.

Except New York flipped the switch last night for the tree at Rockefeller Plaza. It was, said some steeped in the tree wars, a careful, calculated decision to preempt the president.

National Christmas Tree organizers bristle at the call they say comes each year from New York asking when the president will light the White House tree. And then the tree at Rockefeller Plaza sometimes is lighted before that.

The spokeswoman for Rockefeller Center issued a statement declining to comment.

"I don't think they should do that. New York tries to kind of outshine us, and it is a little bit irritating," said David Curfman, the official historian for the White House tree and an executive board member for the Pageant of Peace, which includes the festivities connected with the tree on the Ellipse.

The Washington-New York rivalry is legendary. But inside the Beltway, there is another tree duel: the White House vs. the Congress.

The National Christmas Tree is elaborately decorated and lighted by General Electric Co. There are snowflakes, a giant model train and singers, dancers, movie stars and TV personalities.

The event has evolved since the first tree was decorated in 1913. The lighting became a presidential ceremony in 1923, when White House aides told a somewhat reclusive Calvin Coolidge they couldn't afford an extension cord that would reach from the tree to his office.

Politics has always played a part in the pageantry. Trees were planted live when the sensibilities of the time frowned upon cut trees, they were dimmed when wartime dictated it and they were beautified for television when the nation tuned in.

"This is the National Christmas Tree, and this is the 82nd year in a row it has been the nation's tree," said Bill Line, a spokesman for the National Park Service.

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A Growing Tradition
Capitol Christmas tree height, in feet.
A Growing Tradition
SOURCE: U.S. Forest Service | GRAPHIC: The Washington Post - December 01, 2005
© 2005 The Washington Post Company