- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 6, 2012

Thousands of holiday revelers bundled against a brisk Thursday evening joined President Obama in welcoming the start to the D.C. Christmas season with the lighting of the National Christmas Tree.

“If it wasn’t cold, it wouldn’t feel like Christmas,” said John Caskey, 42, a Montgomery County resident who has spent the last few Christmas holidays in Hawaii.

Temperatures dipped into the low 40s Thursday evening as people gathered in President’s Park between the White House and Washington Monument to watch Mr. Obama light the holiday tree. The evening’s festivities were hosted by actor Neil Patrick Harris and included performances by musician James Taylor; the most recent “American Idol” winner, Phillip Phillips; and the U.S. Navy Band Commodores.

The National Christmas Tree lit up the Ellipse shortly before 6 p.m., after a countdown from the audience and flip of the switch by first lady Michelle Obama and her daughters. This year’s tree is lit with green, white and red lights and is dotted with larger white stars.

As the day turned into night, it got colder in the park. Lower temperatures and a late arrival by the Obamas forced thousands of people to tighten their scarves and pull on their mittens. Some even left before the president’s speech in order to escape the cold and beat the rush home.

When he spoke around 6:45 p.m., Mr. Obama said Christmas is a chance for people to open their hearts to those less fortunate.

“It’s more important to give than to receive,” he said. “It’s a chance to count blessings and give thanks.”

This year marks the 90th anniversary of the event, which started in 1923 when President Calvin Coolidge lit a 48-foot fir tree decorated with 2,500 lights. Since then, there has been a tree-lighting ceremony every year — except from 1942 to 1944, when a blackout was enforced during World War II.

The near-century-old tradition has gone through some tweaks since the Coolidge administration, such as swapping out the electrical lights for the sustainable LED version and larger crowds. The National Park Service handed out 17,000 tickets this year to lucky winners who put their names into October’s ticket lottery, while countless others watched the event online.

“What started with just a few thousand people about 90 years ago … is now watched by millions and millions of people around the U.S. and around the world,” Interior Secretary Kenneth L. Salazar said.

Watching a magician perform for a small audience in the standing section, Katherine Brown said this was her first year attending the lighting.

Her husband won the tickets, the Vienna, Va., woman said as her young daughter laughed at a trick.

“We’ve been around D.C. so long. This is just a neat ceremony,” she said. The performers list is great; certainly so is seeing the president.”

As she surveyed the crowd from beneath her winter hat, St. Petersburg, Fla., resident Zanetta Starks said she entered the lottery on a whim.

She and four members of her family flew into the city Tuesday.

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