In November 1923, First Lady Grace Coolidge gave permission for the District of Columbia Public Schools to erect a Christmas tree on the Ellipse south of the White House. The organizers named the tree the “National Christmas Tree.”
That Christmas Eve, at 5 pm, President Calvin Coolidge walked from the White House to the Ellipse and “pushed the button” to light the cut 48-foot Balsam fir, as 3,000 enthusiastic spectators looked on. The tree, donated by Middlebury College, was from the President’s native state of Vermont.
From 1924 to 1953 live trees, in various locations around and on the White House grounds, were lit on Christmas Eve. In 1954 the ceremony returned to the Ellipse and expanded its focus. Local civic and business groups created the Christmas Pageant of Peace. Smaller live trees representing the 50 states, five territories, and the District of Columbia, formed a Pathway of Peace.
On December 17, 1954, President Dwight D. Eisenhower lit the cut tree donated by the people of Michigan. Cut trees continued to be used until 1973.
Central to the season’s celebration is the living National Christmas Tree, a 27-foot white fir, planted on the Ellipse on October 30, 2021. The previous tree was a 30-foot Colorado blue spruce from Palmyra, Pa., planted in Oct. 2019. The tree was removed in May of 2021 after developing needle cast, a fungal disease that affects spruce trees and causes their needles to turn brown and fall off.
Today, the National Christmas Tree stands as a daily reminder of the holiday spirit and of the tradition each succeeding President has participated in since 1923.
In 1924, the American Forestry Association–who had promoted the planting of live community trees in memory of those who lost their lives in World War I–donated to the Christmas Eve event a living tree. Because of the recreational and multipurpose uses of the Ellipse throughout the year the permanent tree was planted in nearby Sherman Plaza, (southeast of the White House and south of the Treasury Building). On Christmas Eve both President Coolidge and First Lady Grace Coolidge participated in the tree lighting ceremony.
Organizers (including representatives of various electrical-related organizations promoting the use of lighted community trees throughout the United States) renamed the tree “The National Community Christmas Tree.” The phrase “Community” remained until the late 1960’s when the name of the tree returned to the “National Christmas Tree.”