Even on the coldest winter night, a trip to the National Christmas Tree will warm your heart. A beacon of twinkling lights on December’s darkest nights, the tree brings people from every walk of life together, to observe that most sacred of holiday traditions: taking cute photos for social media. A case in point: When I visited last week, a perfect stranger handed me his phone, and I didn’t even think about stealing it — at least not until it was way too late.
More cautious tourists asked the ranger on duty to take their photos and then pelted him with questions. “Are you sure there’s a tree under there?” asked one middle-aged man. Covered in a tent of lights, the 30-foot tree could “just as easily be a pole,” he said.
“If you look about two-thirds of the way up, you can see some of the branches poking out,” was the ranger’s well-practiced answer. The National Christmas Tree is played by a living Colorado blue spruce that’s there on the Ellipse year-round. Tenting it is easier on the tree than dangling decorations from its branches, the ranger explained.
Even though it’s not exactly traditional, the National Christmas Tree is pretty impressive, thanks to the tent’s 74,000 LED lights and other decorations, courtesy of General Electric. (Industry groups have supported the spectacle since its inception in 1923 in order to promote electric holiday lighting.) Plus, there are nightly musical performances, a Nativity scene and the “Pathway of Peace” — 56 smaller trees representing U.S. states and territories, which are hung with plastic balls that have been decorated by schoolchildren.
Unfortunately, much of the children’s art is impossible to see, because the plastic balls fill with condensation, obscuring the scenes placed inside. Some young artists avoided this problem by decorating the surface of the balls instead of filling them like snow globes. This was the approach used by ingenious students from Oklahoma, who covered one of their balls with beads and feathers. Way to think outside the sphere, Middle School of Piedmont!
While the state trees looked nearly identical to me, I overheard several New Yorkers complaining that theirs was runty. “It’s the smallest, scroungiest one,” one man grumbled. His young daughter agreed. “They are making us look bad in front of everyone,” she said. Later, another presumptive New Yorker carped about the tree’s sign. “The light on it is too bright, so you can’t even read it,” he said.
A few highly observant visitors to the tree also noticed that President Trump got that military parade he wanted — albeit in miniature form. Among the model villages at the base of the tree, there’s one with tanks and jeeps in the streets and a marching band in the town square. A train marked “U.S. Marines” circles the town towing even more military vehicles, and a stand of tiny spectators wave American flags that are bigger than their homes.
Despite this potentially partisan tableau, the crowd at the tree seemed united in the simple joy of watching model trains zoom through tunnels and over bridges. “Is this my life?!” exclaimed one locomotive-crazy toddler, thrilled to the point of existential crisis.
The trains are a relatively recent addition to the National Christmas Tree display, but they don’t quite make up for the loss of the yule log, a roaring bonfire that was discontinued in 2012 for safety reasons. A pair of 30-something women who said they’d voted for Trump told the ranger that they would ask the president to bring the yule log back. “He’s going to be tweeting about this tomorrow,” one chirped.
I miss the bonfire, too, but I have an idea for a replacement that could also help warm people up: a hot chocolate stand. There’s currently nowhere to get refreshments in the food desert that is the Mall at night. Luckily, plenty of eateries are a short Uber ride away — including a Christmas-themed bar that also brings people together for that most sacred of holiday traditions: photo ops.
“Let’s go to Miracle on Seventh Street,” a 20-something guy said to his friends. “There’s more Christmas stuff there.”
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