Christmas trees are an iconic part of American traditions, and most Americans take for granted the presence of Christmas trees around our nation’s capital city. You may also not realize that the White House Christmas tree isn’t the only federally commissioned Christmas tree. Since 1970, the United States Forest Service has provided a tree to be displayed at the U.S. Capitol. This tree is separate from the one that most Americans have observed on the White House lawn, and it is referred to as the “People’s Tree.”
The U.S. Capitol Christmas tree is harvested from one of the nation’s many national forests, and a different national forest from around the country provides a different tree each year. One year, the tree may come from a federally recognized forest in Michigan, and the next year, it may be harvested from a national park in New Mexico. The forest managers consider it a great honor for their park to be considered for the delivery of such a majestic tree.
The Superintendent of the Capitol Grounds – an area immediately surrounding the U.S. Capitol, bordered by a stone wall and covering an area of 58.8 acres. Its boundaries are Independence Avenue on the south, Constitution Avenue on the north, First Street NE/SE on the east, and First Street NW/SW on the west – has traditionally been the individual to choose the special tree. The superintendent will visit various national forests over the course of the summer season, and he or she will consult with the staff at said facility to determine exactly which tree should be selected.
The Superintendent of the Capitol Grounds has a certain criteria that must be met in order for a tree to be erected as the People’s Tree near the Capitol building. First, the tree must be healthy. Next, the tree must provide a full canopy. The canopy of a tree is sometimes also called its “crown.” This part of the tree is the uppermost part, made up of branches, stems, and leaves or needles (depending upon whether the tree is a deciduous or an evergreen tree). Thirdly, the Superintendent of the Capitol Grounds and the crew of the national forest are looking for a tree offering a straight trunk. The tree must be conical in shape, and it must be “the appropriate height.”
So, what is the appropriate height for the U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree? The National Forest Foundation says that the tree “needs to fit in the tractor trailer for its cross-country journey,” but that doesn’t tell us what the exact size requirements are for the People’s Tree. Perusing over the list of trees utilized since the practice began in 1970, one can see that the trees are anywhere from 55 feet in height to nearly 90 feet. On average, the tree is between 63 and 70 feet in height.
Americans may not know that every year, seventy companion trees are also harvested to accompany the chosen tree to the Capitol Grounds. They are harvested from the same forest as the People’s Tree, and these trees are utilized in various government offices throughout Washington, DC during the holiday season.
The U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree is called the People’s Tree for many reasons, but one of them is because children across the United States craft the homemade ornaments used on the U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree. Every year, a different state’s national forest provides the main tree and the seventy other trees that accompany the U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree to the Capitol Grounds. In 2017, Montana was the state selected for its national forest, and more than 11,000 ornaments were made by the children of that state. These children surpassed the required 8,000 ornaments intended to go on the tree. That year, the children also created seventy original tree skirts to decorate the U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree. The tree skirts were used with the companion trees that are placed throughout Washington, DC’s Capitol Building offices.
How did the tradition of the U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree begin?
In 1919, a Christmas tree was purchased for the U.S. Capitol Grounds. However, there are no other records discussing a procedure used to select and decorate the U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree, and it wasn’t until the 1960s that a protocol was adopted in order to provide a tree for the Capitol Grounds.
In 1964, then-Speaker of the House John W. McCormack met with the then-Architect of the Capitol J. George Stewart to discuss placing a Christmas tree on the Capitol Grounds. This was to be separate from the White House Christmas Tree. That year, for a total of $700, the National Park Service purchased a live Douglas fir tree from a nursery in Pennsylvania. This tree was actually planted on the West Lawn. This was meant to be a tree that was decorated each year without having to harvest a tree. For three years, the tree was decorated and maintained for the holiday season. However, after 1967, the tree died and had to be removed. Wind storms as well as root damage to the tree caused it to perish.
In 1968, the U.S. Capitol Christmas tree was actually made from two trees that had been harvested in Maryland. This tree was only thirty feet tall.
The following year, a Maryland forest provided a forty foot white pine tree. Since 1970, however, the tree has been provided by the United States Department of Agriculture Forest Service.
There are nine regions in the National Forest Park service. The host Forest Service staff will nominate trees. From there, the potential trees will be photographed, measured, and mapped out; then the information is sent to the Superintendent of the Capitol Grounds for his perusal. Ted Bechtol is the current superintendent, and he will study this information before choosing the park from which the tree will come. He may visit multiple parks before he makes his final selection.
Bechtol has said that because the tree is a 360 degree view, the tree must be special as “you can’t hide the bad side of the tree with a wall.”
The U.S. Forest Service will deliver the tree to First Street each year around the Thanksgiving holiday. The AOC Construction Division will utilize a crane to decorate the tree, and it takes about ten days to get the tree fully decorated. Then, the staff prepares for the lighting ceremony. Yes, there is a lighting ceremony for both the U.S. Capitol Grounds Christmas Tree as well as the White House Christmas Tree.
The tree is placed in a hole that is four feet deep in the ground on West Lawn. It is anchored before decorating, and the Speaker of the House will officially light the tree.
It’s also interesting to know that the U.S. Capitol Christmas tree goes on a bit of a tour prior to its being brought to the Capitol Grounds. The U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree and the companion trees headed to Washington may visit as many as twenty-five different cities on its way to the nation’s capital city. The communities where the tree will stop often host an event for the tree to be observed.
Where does the Capitol Christmas tree come from?
The U.S. Capitol Christmas tree comes from one of the many national forests from across the United States. During the summer season, the Superintendent of the Capitol Grounds will visit various national forests in order to choose the tree. The superintendent will then work with the employees at the national forest once its chosen to select the perfect tree.
Who pays for the U.S. Capitol Christmas tree?
The National Park Service pays for transporting the selected tree each year. Because the National Park Service is funded by taxpayer monies, it is possible to say that the U.S Capitol Christmas tree is paid for by taxpayers.
What happens to the Capitol Christmas Tree after Christmas?
While the National Christmas Tree Association strongly advises against simply throwing live Christmas trees away, there is no public information on what happens to the National Christmas Tree after it is taken down. (This takes place after January 1, as the tree stays light through the end of New Year’s Day.) It is possible that the tree is recycled for other purposes, but there is no information to verify.
How is the Capitol Christmas tree chosen?
Every year, the Superintendent of the Capitol Grounds will visit the national forest from which the U.S. Capitol Tree will come. His exact process for choosing the exact national forest is unknown, but he will then visit with the staff of the selected national forest. There is a criteria for which the Superintendent of the Capitol Grounds must choose the tree, and there are up to seventy other live trees that will be harvested to accompany the chosen tree to Washington, DC.
Is the capital decorated for Christmas?
Yes. There is a White House Christmas Tree, not to be confused with the Capitol Christmas Tree. Multiple federal offices are decorated for Christmas as well. There are nearly one hundred trees that are decorated and placed throughout the capitol rotunda.