Bush on Hand at Christmas Tree Lighting

The Associated Press
Thursday, December 6, 2007; 9:18 PM

WASHINGTON -- President Bush, keeping up a White House tradition that spans decades, ushered in the holidays Thursday as the National Christmas Tree came aglow in bright lights of gold, red and blue. The president thanked people across the country for upholding the spirit of the season.

"During this Christmas season millions of Americans will answer this call by reaching out a compassionate hand to help brothers and sisters in need," Bush told a crowd of thousands on the Ellipse, just south of the White House. "We are thankful for these good souls who show the good heart of our nation."

Every president has presided over the tree lighting since Calvin Coolidge in 1923. Bush told Santa Claus _ who just happened to be standing nearby _ that he was the only person at the 2007 event who remembers the first tree lighting from back in Coolidge's day. That line pleased the crowd, as did his next one.

"We're thrilled you're here and we really appreciate you bringing Mrs. Claus," the president said to the man in the big red suit. "Both you and I married well."

On a more serious note, the president thanked U.S. troops and their families, many of whom are spending the holidays in dangerous places.

"They are never far from our thoughts, and they're always in our prayers," he said. "America honors their sacrifice and that of their families who also serve our nation. We are grateful for all they do to ensure that we live in the freedom our creator intended for every man, woman and child on the face of this earth."

Bush led a short countdown until the lights on the famous blue spruce came on for the first time this year.

During the hour-long program, he smiled and nodded along with the music as a series of entertainers performed traditional Christmas tunes. On a night of 20-plus degree temperatures, the president sat on stage in a top coat and scarf; first lady Laura Bush sat bundled up next to him, wearing ear muffs.

The tree-lighting ceremony starts three weeks of activities, all meant to allow the public to soak in the holiday scene around the White House. Visitors can listen to nightly musical performances and also see the decorations on smaller trees representing the states, territories and the District of Columbia.

© 2007 The Associated Press