How Lovely Are Thy Middle-Aged Branches

Kaitlyn Maher, 4, of Ashburn sings at the National Christmas Tree lighting ceremony in front of President Bush at the White House. Maher made it into the top 10 performers of last season's "America's Got Talent." Video by AP
By David Betancourt
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 5, 2008

The National Christmas Tree standing four stories high on the Ellipse behind the White House is almost 40 years old, middle-aged for a tree of its kind.

A crowd of 7,000 gathered around it yesterday, oohing and aahing as two daughters of military service members, accompanied by first lady Laura Bush, pushed a button at 6 p.m., lighting up the Colorado blue spruce and ushering in the holiday season.

Although faces were aglow from the 34,000 LED lights on its branches, few people could have guessed that this year's decorations weigh less and are cooler than in the past. In a bow to the tree's age, lighter decorations are being used because they are less likely to damage its limbs.

Charles Benoit, 26, a Georgetown University law student from Ottawa, said the experience was "great," from the tree lighting to the singers belting out Christmas carols.

"This was my first one, and it was definitely the highlight of my year," he said. "Especially seeing the little girl perform. I tried to be stoic, but my eyes watered up."

This is the 85th year that a president has overseen the lighting of the national tree.

"In times of calm and times of challenge, Americans have always gathered for this ceremony," said President Bush in his eighth, and last, opportunity to perform the ceremonial duty.

President Calvin Coolidge started the tradition. He walked from the White House to the Ellipse and pushed the button lighting a cut balsam fir in 1923.

In the years after, live trees around the White House grounds were used. Then the tradition reverted to cut trees set up on the Ellipse.

This year's tree, which stands almost 42 feet tall, was planted 30 years ago after getting its start on a farm in York, Pa. It has grown almost 12 feet in its time in the District.

"Many people don't realize it's a live tree," said Kathy Presciano, a lighting specialist for General Electric, which provided the lights. "We have really tried to preserve the tree's health over the years. We put about 100 less strings on it than we did last year."

In all, the tree was bedecked with 140 three-dimensional star ornaments and 680 sets of 50-light strings.

The star ornaments weigh a little under two pounds each, a few ounces less than in previous years. They are designed to glisten in the sunlight and to look as appealing during the day as they do at night, when the tree is lit. Each star is swathed in a gold-colored film and illuminated by a clear light inside.

The ornaments have been made in Cleveland for the past 10 years, Presciano said. Their production is high-tech but has a human touch. The design is initially done on a computer. Once fabricated on a machine, the ornaments are finished by hand.

Up to 15 people from the National Park Service decorate the tree. It took two days to complete. And at the end of the holidays, they will take it all down for another year.

Bill Line, a spokesman for the Park Service, said that with proper care, there's no reason why this particular blue spruce shouldn't hold up as the top Christmas tree in town for years to come.

"We have every intention of it being the National Christmas Tree for the next 40 years," he said.

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