A Dec. 1 article incorrectly described David Curfman as the historian of the National Christmas Tree. He is the historian for the Pageant of Peace, which includes festivities connected with the tree, which stands behind the White House on the Ellipse. (Published 12/2/2005)

There is skulduggery afoot. There are unspoken rules, there is upstaging and there is backbiting. Some who talk about such things insist on anonymity. Others refuse comment.

The issue is Christmas trees.

According to the calendar of official Washington, the holiday season kicks off tonight, when the president and first lady flip the switch to light thousands of bulbs on the Colorado blue spruce on the Ellipse, the one the White House declares the nation's official Christmas tree.

Except New York flipped the switch last night for the tree at Rockefeller Plaza. It was, said some steeped in the tree wars, a careful, calculated decision to preempt the president.

National Christmas Tree organizers bristle at the call they say comes each year from New York asking when the president will light the White House tree. And then the tree at Rockefeller Plaza sometimes is lighted before that.

The spokeswoman for Rockefeller Center issued a statement declining to comment.

"I don't think they should do that. New York tries to kind of outshine us, and it is a little bit irritating," said David Curfman, the official historian for the White House tree and an executive board member for the Pageant of Peace, which includes the festivities connected with the tree on the Ellipse.

The Washington-New York rivalry is legendary. But inside the Beltway, there is another tree duel: the White House vs. the Congress.

The National Christmas Tree is elaborately decorated and lighted by General Electric Co. There are snowflakes, a giant model train and singers, dancers, movie stars and TV personalities.

The event has evolved since the first tree was decorated in 1913. The lighting became a presidential ceremony in 1923, when White House aides told a somewhat reclusive Calvin Coolidge they couldn't afford an extension cord that would reach from the tree to his office.

Politics has always played a part in the pageantry. Trees were planted live when the sensibilities of the time frowned upon cut trees, they were dimmed when wartime dictated it and they were beautified for television when the nation tuned in.

"This is the National Christmas Tree, and this is the 82nd year in a row it has been the nation's tree," said Bill Line, a spokesman for the National Park Service.

In the 1960s, Congress decided it was time for a Capitol tree. After several failed attempts to cultivate live trees, the U.S. Forest Service delivered a 40-foot Norway spruce from West Virginia in 1970, giving birth to an annual tradition.

The Capitol tree comes from a different national forest every year, and states jockey to donate. They form fundraising committees and throw fundraising galas, in the manner of political campaigns.

Once chosen and cut down, after an appraisal from the Capitol landscaper, the tree is taken on a tour of small-town hot chocolate and caroling festivals before arriving at Capitol Hill.

The Capitol tree is decorated with thousands of handcrafted ornaments made by students and artists. Home-state politicians surround it during the lighting ceremony.

"I think the tree is the people's tree; it complements the other tree by the White House," said Eva Malecki, spokeswoman for the Architect of the Capitol, the office responsible for the tree. "I think of the White House tree as the one in your formal living room. Then the Capitol tree is the one in your family room, with the ornaments you made."

Paul Pincus, a former chief Capitol landscaper and the tree's steward until his retirement in 1995, had a less flattering comparison: "The feeling, the emotion that goes into the Capitol tree is something really special. That other tree, some decorator does that tree; there's nothing personal about it. It looks like it could be in any shopping mall."

Landscapers are very, very careful to place the tree precisely in the center of the Capitol lawn, equidistant from the House and the Senate sides, said one person who survived a year when the tree wasn't placed so judiciously. He did not want to be named.

That is just one of the niceties. The White House gets to light its tree first. That has been flouted in years past, reflecting political schisms, such as in the early 1980s, when House Speaker Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill, a Democrat, usually lighted the congressional tree the day before President Reagan lighted his.

Pincus claims some responsibility. "Every year, I'd wait to see when the White House was doing theirs. Then I'd schedule ours the day before," he said. But things are different now, he said.

This year, with a White House and congressional majority that generally agree, the discussions are civil. "It is an unspoken rule that the National Tree is lit first these days," Curfman said. The Capitol tree ceremony will be next Thursday.

But there is always room for adjustment. In the early 1990s, the Capitol tree became known officially as the "Capitol Holiday Tree," a nod to non-Christians. Pincus said he was proud that there were no angels on top of the tree -- it was festive but nondenominational.

"We got lots of letters back then from people who thought it should be called the holiday tree, simple as that," said Pincus.

Not this year. House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) wrote a letter to the architect of the Capitol asking that the tree be renamed the Capitol Christmas Tree, and the architect obliged.

"The speaker wanted the name changed to reflect what it is -- a Christmas tree," said Hastert's spokesman, Ron Bonjean. "The reaction has been overwhelmingly positive."

Over on the Ellipse, supporters of the White House tree said they approved of the name change. As long as it is not lighted first.

Staff researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.

The National Christmas Tree on the Ellipse will be lighted by the president and first lady tonight. But New York's Rockefeller Plaza beat them to the punch.An 80-foot Engelmann spruce found in Cuba, N.M., is lowered onto the lawn in front of the U.S. Capitol.