Like many Christmas traditions, the trip to see the National Christmas Tree last night involved a lot of preparation for Karen Butler.

There was the drive from Upper Marlboro to Washington, her two little daughters squirming and asking for drinks and the cold wait in line.

But Butler says all that trouble melted away when the U.S. Marine Band started playing carols.

"We like the lights, the tree, the whole festivities," said Butler, who has made the trip for the program the past eight years. "It's a tradition."

Thousands thronged to the Ellipse in front of the White House to watch the Pageant of Peace, Washington's symbolic beginning of the holiday season.

The annual event features a 40-foot-high live Colorado blue spruce. Fifty-six smaller trees--one for each state, territory and the District--surround the site.

Last night's program included performances by singer Wayne Newton, opera soprano Renee Fleming and members of the cast of the musical "Chicago." President Clinton hosted the event, which dates to 1923 and President Calvin Coolidge.

Michael Brown, 27, standing toward the back of the crowd, brought small binoculars so he could get a glimpse of the president.

"It's one of the last years to see Clinton as president," Brown said. "How many opportunities do you get to see the president for free without going to a fund-raiser?"

But two District 4-year-olds, Alexander Richardson and his friend, Henry O'Shea, had spotted someone much more important to them: a man in a red suit hovered near police officers on the edge of the Ellipse.

"Where's his eight reindeer?" Henry said.

Alexander replied firmly: "It's at the North Pole. He drives here."

At the end of the program, about 6 p.m., Clinton gave the signal for two young scouts, Caitlin Fong and Chris Alvarez, to pull the light switch.

More than 75,000 bulbs suddenly lighted up the darkness, showing off the big tree, large evergreen bough and poinsettia flower ornaments.

Eleven-month-old Sydney DeSilva Jr., bundled in a red-and-blue coat, had been falling asleep, but when the tree was lighted, he opened his brown eyes wide and asked, "Light? Light?"

His father was just as impressed. "That tree is incredible," said Sydney DeSilva Sr., of Southeast Washington.

The Pageant of Peace continues through Dec. 30, with free performances each evening, except Dec. 24 and 25. More than 50 musical groups from the District, Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania have volunteered to perform.

The tree will wear multicolored lights until New Year's Eve. At midnight, the tree will be illuminated with white lights.

CAPTION: Thousands of people gather on the Ellipse to watch the lighting of the National Christmas Tree. The annual event dates to the Coolidge administration.