Washington is a city full of traditions. Such as inaugurations, state funerals, and Congressional dysfunction.
And the holidays are no different. Since 1913 there have been public celebrations of Christmas in Washington.
Washington’s holiday season begins on the Ellipse with the lighting of the National Menorah, a tradition started by President Carter. At the White House receiving or lighting a menorah in the Oval Office was a tradition for many years but President George W. Bush was the first president to host a menorah lighting ceremony and reception in the White House residence to mark the beginning of Hannukah.
The next event a horse drawn wagon making its way up the White House driveway to deliver its official Christmas tree where it’s received by members of the first family. Now in actuality, there is more than one tree in the White House.
A few days after the tree is delivered First Lady has a media reveal for the White House holiday decorations. This usually gets lots of media attention, especially comparing the current decorations to those of past administrations, which is another Washington tradition.
Next comes the lighting of the Capitol Christmas tree, a tradition that dates to 1963. It’s on the Capitol’s west lawn. And each year National Park Service selects a tree from a different national forest. The Architect of the Capitol oversees its installation.
The next day all attention turns to the White House where the president lights the national Christmas tree. This tree is originally from Pennsylvania and was transplanted here so it’s used year after year. And this is a big event. Streets are closed early in the afternoon, there’s A-list entertainment, and a few days later it broadcast on national television. President Calvin Coolidge was the first president to light a tree here in 1923. His remarks were brief: “I accept this tree and I will now light it.” He wasn’t called Silent Cal for nothing.
Now, my personal preference is for the Capitol tree. You can get close to it, the ornaments are fun, it looks stunning with the Capitol behind it, parking and metro is easy, and there isn’t a big crowd.
Lastly, on Christmas Eve thousands flock to Washington National Cathedral. This event is so popular you must get tickets in advance. The service is in the rich Episcopal liturgical tradition and includes the familiar hymns, readings, and a Christmas message from the bishop of Washington.
If you’re lucky enough to be visiting Washington during the holidays, make sure you take part some of these wonderful traditions.