Nothing would keep Leah Golden from enjoying the lighting of the National Christmas Tree on the Ellipse last night -- not several inches of snow on the sidewalks that made walking a messy, tricky task, and certainly not the hand-numbing winter cold that drove most people to warmer environs.
Golden, 38, a nurse from Murfreesboro, Tenn., was visiting friends in the District and didn't want to pass up an opportunity to see the president, the 40-foot Colorado blue spruce and what amounted to a white Christmas in Washington.
"It's a chance to be a part of something that's a national tradition," Golden said from deep inside a scarf and hooded coat. "I actually thought it would be more fun, because it seems perfect to have it in the snow."
Golden and several thousand other brave souls gathered across the street from the White House to watch President Bush illuminate the National Christmas Tree's 200,000 red, green and gold lights, carrying on a presidential tradition that has survived -- snow or no snow -- since 1923. Bush's father did the honors in similar conditions in 1992.
After an hour's worth of musical performances from country music star Lee Ann Womack, the operatic Three Mo' Tenors and others, President Bush and two Washington area schoolchildren flicked the switch that turned on the tree's cone of lights. Samara Banks and Benjamin Schneiller, both 7, were invited to the event for volunteering on behalf of the homeless.
"With the lighting of the National Christmas Tree, we observe one of the great traditions of our nation's capital," Bush told the crowd.
The president donned a cowboy hat for warmth. Others wrapped scarves around their heads, wore earmuffs or tore open hand warmers. The cold made noses runny, shoes soggy and cheeks rosy.
"I'm surprised I feel my toes," said Eu-Wanda Sexton, 48, a disaster specialist with the American Red Cross in San Francisco who attended the event with equally frozen colleagues.
Slava Revutchi didn't know what all the fuss was about. "This is not cold," said Revutchi, who recently moved to the United States from Moldova in Eastern Europe, where they know cold. Back home, he said, "it can easily snow up to your waist."
Many who attended the ceremony last night -- Washington area families and tourists from around the world -- said they sacrificed a bit of warmth to enjoy the view. The morning's storm coated the Ellipse in a thick layer of picture-perfect powder, covering everything and everyone with the same frosting, from the roof of the White House to the tree's gold garland.
The tree-lighting tradition has a unique resiliency. The ceremony has survived periods of national turmoil, including the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 and the Kennedy assassination in 1963. Events have altered the tree lighting or changed the location, but nothing has ever caused officials to cancel the tradition, now in its 79th year.
The event marks the beginning of the Christmas Pageant of Peace, a month-long holiday celebration at the Ellipse. Church groups and high school choirs, many from the Washington area, perform nightly for free, tonight through Dec. 30. There are no performances Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Other attractions include the 56 smaller trees representing the 50 states, five territories and the District.
The annual pageant is organized by the nonprofit Christmas Pageant of Peace Inc. in conjunction with the National Park Service.