Tuesday, November 20, 2001

While America is a relatively young nation, she is nonetheless rich with tradition and the White House and the first family have always played significant public roles in this. Tomorrow, for example, first lady Laura Bush will receive the official 2001 White House Christmas Tree that will be displayed in the Blue Room. Two other highly anticipated events are tied to this holiday as well. Thousands of people usually attend the lighting of the National Christmas Tree and the month-long Pageant of Peace most of them families who trek from beyond the Beltway. That’s why it is truly discomfiting to learn that the Bush White House has broken with tradition and disinvited the public this year.

The White House tradition of lighting the National Christmas Tree began at sunset on Christmas Eve 1923, when President Coolidge strolled from the White House to the Ellipse and lit an 8-foot Balsam fir as 3,000 spectators looked on. While that idea was proposed by the D.C. Public Schools, the Pageant of Peace, which was the idea of local civic and business groups, began in the Eisenhower White House. The Pageant of Peace is an exhibit that surrounds the National Christmas Tree. It includes a nativity scene, a stage for nightly entertainment and exhibits from the 50 states, the District of Columbia and U.S. territories. Families of various faiths and ethnicities stroll through the exhibit and sip hot chocolate from concession stands reminded every step of the way of its religious and cultural significance.

Not even the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor severed the vital connection between the public, the president and Christmas traditions. “Despite the country’s grim wartime reality, the South Lawn was opened to the general public, who were required to check their packages at the gate before entering,” according to the National Park Service’s web site. “As twilight approached, both President Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill appeared between the central columns of the South Portico porch [and] spoke to the crowd.” Both delivered appropriate messages: Roosevelt appealed to Americans “to arm their hearts … for the labor and suffering and the ultimate victory which lie ahead.” Churchill, meanwhile, encouraged Americans to “let the children have their night of fun and laughter … let us share in the full in their unstinted pleasure, before we turn again to the stern tasks in the year that lies before us. Now, by our sacrifice and daring, these same children shall not be robbed of their inheritance or denied the right to live in a free and decent world.” At this year’s ceremonies, precisely 60 years later, it is hoped tradition in general and the particular spirit of those messages have not been lost on all the president’s security men.

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