There are, of course, basically two sides of Christmas in America.
One is the ancient and profoundly simple tale of beauty and wonder that has inspired faith, devotion and renewal for 2,000 years.
The other is the garish, in-your-face relentlessness of commercial Christmas, with all its inescapable plastic excesses.
Washington enshrines both of these yuletide images on Pennsylvania Avenue. At night, the Capitol Christmas tree sparkles silently against the darkness of the Capitol lawn, its mantle of lights and homemade wooden ornaments beacons of tradition and simplicity. It stands under the symbolic protection of the Capitol's great floodlit white dome--a seasonal icon designed to inspire both reflection and hope.
A mile west, on the Ellipse, the approach is, shall we say, somewhat different. There, what has become known as the National Christmas Tree gets tarted up each year like a Las Vegas hooker. It stands as a Washington monument to excess--a sort of month-long commercial for everyone, from General Electric (which donates its 75,000 lights and 170 salmon-colored, cabbage-size, winking plastic faux poinsettias) to the Kemper Open golf tournament, which helps sponsor the over-the-top tree-lighting extravaganza.
Is there any wonder the star of this year's tree lighting was Wayne Newton? What could be more perfect? The National Christmas Tree is the Wayne Newton of trees!
Raising these sorts of questions, of course, is a perilous undertaking. Yuletide decor is a highly individual matter, freighted with all sorts of emotional time bombs, evoking childhood memories (or the lack of them) and something approaching class warfare. One man's hearty best wishes in lights is another man's aesthetic apocalypse.
What happens on the Ellipse each December is designated Washington's "Christmas Pageant of Peace." This year, in addition to Newton, it included Nintendo's Pokemon, plus Sylvester, Tweety Bird and Daffy Duck from Six Flags America, and public-address speakers that nightly blare a jazz version of Tchaikovsky's "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy." But it seems reasonable to ask one simple question: What does this annual explosion of Christmas kitsch have to do with peace?
Tracing the history of the National Christmas Tree from its humble beginnings to its present Hollywood incarnation is a fascinating journey in Americana: the transformation of a spiritual holiday into a commercial Godzilla.
It apparently had its beginnings in 1912, when the Washington Board of Trade journeyed to New York City and returned with a vision of a community Christmas tree like Manhattan's for the District of Columbia.
The following year such a tree was unveiled on Christmas Eve on the Capitol's East Plaza, to the chorus of a 1,000-voice community choir and the enthusiastic support of President Woodrow Wilson. The Washington Post described the affair as "a civic Christmas."
The event was typical of the Christmases of the time. For one thing, it was recognized, then if not now, that the Christmas season doesn't really begin until Christmas Eve. The Christian season before then is called Advent, when one prepares one's spirit for the coming of the Messiah. But few trees went up before Christmas Eve in those days anyway, because they were mostly lit with candles and couldn't be allowed to stay up long enough to dry out.
Washington's community Christmas tree wasn't lit during World War I, but the event resumed after the war and moved to the Ellipse in 1923. That was the year something called the Electric League of Washington stepped in to wire the tree, in what David Curfman, official historian of the Pageant of Peace, says was "an effort to promote the sale of electric Christmas tree lights." Calvin Coolidge pushed the button, lighting the tree that had come from his home state of Vermont.
The national tree moved around in succeeding years--from the Ellipse to Sherman Plaza, and then to Lafayette Park and even to the South Lawn of the White House to accommodate President Franklin Roosevelt. But it remained a Christmas Eve event until 1954.
That year, with the Cold War at its height, Curfman says, a Col. Edward M. Kirby urged that the ceremony be focused on the worldwide hope for peace.
"He wanted to get the diplomatic corps involved and make it symbolic of international understanding," Curfman says. "And 27 embassies did take part that year, presenting tableaux interpreting Christmas traditions of their countries." But then pageant organizers realized belatedly "that a number of countries, particularly those in the Middle East, don't observe or recognize Christmas. So that part of it sort of died out in the next few years."
But the Pageant of Peace retained its name. It also acquired an earlier lighting date--some 10 days before Christmas--to jump-start the shopping season.
With heavier-handed Board of Trade involvement, Curfman says, "it began to take on the environment . . . that now stretches 'the Christmas season' almost to Halloween." But it remained basically a local event for nearly 30 years.
In 1981, after an assassination attempt on President Reagan, the Secret Service decided the president should no longer leave the White House for the ceremony. Pageant organizers "worried that with Reagan not on the platform, there would be no one to hold the crowd" for the television cameras.
Ah, yes. At some point the National Christmas Tree Lighting had morphed into a media event. It was first broadcast on radio in 1924, and in 1948 featured lighting designed specifically to show well on television. But from that moment in 1981 when pageant organizers flew in singer Andy Williams to entertain the crowd, the Pageant of Peace had less to do with peace than with programming.
Within two years there were singing chipmunks, tuba-playing Santas and a three-cycle magenta-and-white lighting scheme that turned the National Christmas Tree alternately from white to pink beneath its clutter of three-dimensional plastic snowflakes and crisscrossed ropes of tinsel.
"It's just sort of mushroomed from there," Curfman says. Celebrities such as Kathie Lee Gifford, Larry Gatlin and Patti LaBelle are now flown in to perform. Local and national businesses donate most of the money and expertise for the event. The figure for the total cost "is not normally something made public," Curfman says. "But if we had to cost it all out, I'm sure it would be at least $500,000."
Though White House and U.S. Park Service personnel are obviously involved, the Pageant of Peace is run basically independent of the government by a 15-member board of directors and a 12-member advisory committee, all overseen by Peter F. Nostrand of Crestar Bank.
Curfman, a member of the board's executive committee, says he's never heard any discussion of whether the National Christmas Tree and its lighting ceremony may have strayed from the original concept. But around 1962, Congress began putting up the Capitol tree, perhaps in quiet counterpoint.
It's a low-key sort of tree. Usually it's trucked in from some national forest. This year's 70-foot white spruce came by Amtrak from Wisconsin. For the past eight years, the tree selection and decoration has been under the auspices of Matthew Evans, the landscape architect in the office of the Architect of the Capitol. He says Capitol gardeners put it up, take it down and decorate it.
"We don't even have a line item for it in the budget," he says.
And while pointedly declining direct comment on that other tree just down Pennsylvania Avenue, he notes, "Just as Congress is the people's branch of government, we consider this the people's tree. We've tried to make it look like one you'd see in a home rather than in a shopping mall."
There's no corporate-sponsored entertainment at the Capitol Christmas tree, no singing chipmunks or Wayne Newton. There's no burning yule log or nativity scene or electric trains or sound systems blaring "Frosty the Snowman." There's nothing, in fact, but the graceful evergreen lit with 10,000 gold, blue and white electric lights and hung with 4,000 ornaments--little beehives, sleds, dolls, cheese wedges--homemade by the people of Wisconsin.
Compared with the stroller-pushing throngs chattering and flashing their cameras at the national tree, the few visitors who find their way to the Capitol tree at night don't talk much. They tend to stand quietly and ponder it, then stroll slowly around it, marveling at the craftsmanship and good cheer manifest in the homemade ornaments.
When they finally wander off, they're usually smiling. And why not? The Capitol Christmas tree is a small oasis of yuletide renewal--such a spiritually restful little corner of Christmas that you could almost call it a pageant of peace.
CAPTION: The Capitol Christmas tree glows without the increasingly commercial fanfare . . .
CAPTION: . . . that accompanies the lighting of its colleague at the other end of the avenue.
CAPTION: The Washington Monument and the National Christmas Tree, more commercial each year.