Many of us watch as the Capitol Christmas tree on the lawn outside the White House is illuminated each year. It’s almost like the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade or even that silly Yule Log that you can find burning on some cable channels during the holiday season — it’s tradition.
I’ve never thought much about the tree itself or any of the other traditions surrounding the monolith. I discovered this year that there is so much detail, logistical planning, and even cultural significance goes into this event .And the tree is on its way across the country right now–maybe coming soon to a town near you. Check the schedule here.
Many months before anyone is thinking of Christmas, an epic journey is underway. Nearly a full year before the tree would be harvested it was known which National Forest would play host to the hunt. By mid-May, the search was underway for the perfect tree. By August, media outlets everywhere across Minnesota were talking about the Capitol tree to be chosen from one of two National Forests there.
History in the Making
National Forests across the United States have been supplying the Capitol Christmas tree to the west lawn of the White House since 1964. So, on the 50th anniversary of this customary exchange, the Midwest had the honor of supplying a White Spruce from the Chippewa National Forest.
The chosen tree is 88 feet tall and 88 years old, according to foresters that harvested the tree.
Since there are 155 National Forests in the National Forest System (part of the US Department of Agriculture) there are a lot of options for tree-choosing locations. For a community to get to take part in the fun is really a special event — the last time the Chippewa National Forest had the honor was 1992. So, the kids who got to see that tree roll on down the road might have children of their own to bring to the event this year.
Choosing the Tree
The search is on for a perfect tree starting in the summer. Forest employees are encouraged to be on the lookout for the epitome of what the Capitol tree should be.
Many “entries” are submitted and there is a fantastic prize for the person who submits the tree that is chosen. An official from D.C. actually comes to approve the tree selection. The location is not disclosed, just in case there are Grinchy Ebenezers afoot looking to spoil the fun.
When the time is right (a few weeks before the ceremonial lighting) the Forest that has been home to the chosen tree holds a ceremonial cutting.
It’s a BIG deal. Senators and politicians are invited. The brass from the USDA Forest Service sometimes show up. Employees on the local level ask spouses to spruce up their uniforms for the big event.
In this case, an added bonus was the cultural import of the tree to the local Leech Lake Ojibwe Reservation. The tribe was there in regalia, dancing and drumming for the event.
The Honor of the Cut
The felling of the tree went to Minnesota’s “Logger of the Year” — a northern Minnesota logging crew operator named Jim Scheff. The name is one common to northern parts of the state and the logging industry. In a land where legendary lumberjack Paul Bunyan reigns over all the lore, it just seems fitting for a tree of epic size and stature to come from Minnesota! So once cut, the tree became a national icon, a treasure of sorts!
There was a considerable amount of trimming to be done (around 18 feet to be precise) and another likeness was cut and provided some “filler” limbs to make this tree even more beautiful for the unveiling.
Many folks at the cutting celebration including Minnesota politicians staked a claim on one of the many “tree cookies” cut from the trimming process. Some were as big as three feet in diameter! Thousands of “Minnesota-themed” ornaments were made and donated by folks all around the Land of 10,000 Lakes. Local communities held ornament-making parties and of course, schoolchildren near the forest were asked for their help too.There are so many ornaments that they merit their own separate vehicle in the convoy to carry all of the ornaments.
Another 70 smaller trees will be used as decor around the Capitol and White House grounds for the season as well. Students at nearby Bemidji State University spent days volunteering to tie up branches and prep the gargantuan tree for its’ journey. Didn’t realize this much went into the few minutes that your family tunes in to see the lighting each year? I didn’t either!
Just to keep with the holiday theme, Tannenbaum seemed fitting, however, don’t get confused, a Tannenbaum actually refers to a fir and a fir this tree is not. It is a gorgeous White Spruce!
After the tree is cut (and trimmed) it is placed on a specially designed trailer, just for hauling trees. The tree is under constant surveillance throughout its pilgrimage to Washington D.C., guarded by federal law enforcement. Just in case.
The tree and its entourage are traveling via truck and specially designed trailer across the Upper Midwest to Washington D.C. at this very moment.
To partake in the festivities which include everything from ornament making to music and dancing and of course good old-fashioned hot cocoa with cookies, check out the schedule of stops that are planned between now and the White House Lighting Ceremony.
The tree started out near the Headwaters of the Mighty Mississippi River and will get to be on-site for a Cleveland Browns football game. It will cover many miles and inspire the spirit of the imminent holiday season as it travels on down the road. Will your family get a chance to sign the banner? Ours did!
A Capitol Christmas and a Time-Honored Tradition
On Tuesday, December 2, 2014, the Speaker of the House, John Boener will light the tree after it has been erected on the West Lawn of the White House. The tree will remain lit during the evening each night until January 1, 2015 at 5 p.m.
Since 1964, the Capitol Christmas Tree has been an American tradition. The goodwill and spirit of the season is displayed for the entire nation to witness and enjoy, just as many of us display trees in our own homes. There is something special about the season that allows us to feel warm and fuzzy if just for a few weeks, in spite of the war, disease, and divide that we sometimes get wrapped up with during the rest of the year.
If the tree is coming to a city or venue near you, whether this year or next, sometime, I implore you to take in the festivities, be part of history. It’s frivolous, sure, and it’s an extremely expensive holiday decoration after about a year of planning and preparation goes into all of it, but it’s one that also reminds us to have fun, be kids again with our own kids.
A traveling tree on a gigantic trailer making its way across the country? It has the makings of fairy tales and epic adventures for little curious kiddos and it’s something to be cherished and encouraged.