December 24: First National Christmas Tree Lighting (1923)

At 5:00 p.m. on December 24, 1923, President Calvin Coolidge pressed a button and lit the first “National Christmas Tree.” The tree was a cut, 48-foot balsam fir donated by Middlebury College in Vermont, President Coolidge’s home state. The tree was placed in the center of the Ellipse, just south of the White House. Decorating the tree were 2,500 electric bulbs in red, white, and green, donated by the Electric League of Washington. A searchlight from the nearby Washington Monument was trained on the tree to help illuminate it as well. President Coolidge made no remarks at the lighting. The crowd of about 5,000 people was led in the singing of Christmas carols by the choir of the Church of the Epiphany and the U.S. Marine Band.  Later in the evening, the band played a one-hour holiday concert.

The idea of a decorated, outdoor national Christmas tree originated with Frederick Morris Feiker. Feiker was a highly educated engineer who had been a technical journalist for General Electric. In 1921, Feiker joined the personal staff of U.S. Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover as a press aide. The Society for Electrical Development (an electrical industry trade group) was looking for a way to encourage people to purchase more electric Christmas lights and use electricity, and Feiker suggested that President Coolidge personally light the tree as a way of giving Christmas lights prominence. Vermont Republican Senator Frank L. Greene accompanied Feiker to the White House, where they successfully convinced Coolidge to light the tree. A beloved holiday tradition was born. In 2006, the Epiphany Choir returned to the White House, joining other musical ensembles in providing holiday music to White House visitors.

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