- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 1, 2011

Washington’s holiday season officially began Thursday night when thousands gathered behind the White House in President’s Park to watch the first family light the National Christmas Tree.

The event, which dates back to 1923, began at sunset as temperatures dropped and many of the lucky ticket-holders zipped their coats and donned hats and gloves.

“Blessings came true,” said Angelica Johnson, a Fort Washington resident who for the first time got a ticket through the National Park Service lottery.

“I knew it would be cold,” added Ms. Johnson, who brought a blanket to keep her three children warm as the temperature dipped into the mid-40s.

This year, 17,000 tickets were released.

Lucki Simmons, also of Fort Washington, said she came to the lighting 15 years ago and remembers quite a different scene.

“We used to just go gather around the tree when it was lit,” she said. “There wasn’t all this extra.”

President Obama during his remarks urged Americans to stay focused on the true meaning of the holiday season by following the golden rule of loving neighbors as oneself. He called for greater generosity this season, urging the crowd to help “the homeless, the hungry, the sick and the shut in.”

“We all know this tradition is larger than a single tree,” he said. “It’s to honor a story that lights the world.”

After the bright-colored lights were lit to great applause, first lady Michelle Obama and muppet Kermit the Frog sat on the stage and took turns reading the poem “Twas the Night Before Christmas.”

This year’s tree is a Colorado blue spruce from New Jersey that stands 26 feet 4 inches. It replaced a blue spruce that occupied the spot in the D.C. park for 33 years until it blew down in February during strong winds.

“We’ll fill it with spirit and start a new tradition,” the president said.

The event was hosted by late-night TV host Carson Daly. It began with holiday songs performed by the United States Air Force band, the Airmen of Note, and went on to feature performances by Big Time Rush, Rodney Atkins, Marsha Ambrosius, the Tribe of Judah Choir and One Republic.

“It’s nice having your own band,” Mr. Obama joked.

The lighting concluded with a rousing rendition of Winter Wonderland sung by the president and Mrs. Obama, their daughters, Sasha and Malia, Santa Claus, Kermit, and all of the bands and choirs, who gathered on stage and swayed to the music.

The ceremony begins a month of holiday celebration open to the public. The tree is illuminated every night — by 2,000 watts of color-changing LED lights — through Jan. 1.

Visitors can view the tree and the model train display at its base, as well as the 56 smaller trees nearby that are decorated to represent the 50 states along with U.S. territories and the District.

The monthlong celebration also includes daily performances from area musicians, such as St. Mary’s Chorus & Advanced Band from Rockville, the Lee High School Madrigals from Springfield, and the Washington Mennonite Chorus from the District.

Washington has had a National Christmas Tree every year since 1923, when President Calvin Coolidge lit a “Community Christmas Tree.” The tree was not lit from 1942 to 1944, when a blackout was upheld to recognize World War II.

Susan Crabtree contributed to this report

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