- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 23, 2003

Archie had a little Christmas tree of his own which he had rigged up with the help of one of the carpenters in a big closet; and we all had to look at the tree and each of us got a present off of it….

Theodore Roosevelt, letter to Master James A. Garfield, Washington, Dec. 26, 1902

Amid the bustle of Union Station in the week before Christmas comes a surprise: Scurrying shoppers, power walkers, dogged commuters stop in their tracks to gawk at something way over on the west side of the Great Hall — the Union Station Christmas tree.

“It’s just gorgeous,” says one commuter, gazing up at the top of the 30-foot tree ablaze with 8,000 white lights. “It certainly gives you a lift at the end of a long day.”

There’s nothing like a Christmas tree to boost the spirits and help recapture the excitement of Christmas past. While department store window decorations may exist only in memories, Washington has plenty of Christmas trees to take in downtown. Beginning with Union Station, they stud the landscape from the Capitol grounds to the Smithsonian complex and all the way down to the Ellipse.

Now, a well-decorated, well-lighted tree can almost always make even the most harried soul pause. But the Union Station tree is not just any Christmas tree. It’s a gift — from the people of Norway to the people of the United States.

“It’s for the Marshall Plan,” says Norwegian Ambassador Knut Vollebaek, alluding to the United States’ post-World War II European assistance plan. “And for all the things America has done to help us both before and after the war.”

The tree is considered the District’s official Christmas tree; there’s even a formal ceremony to honor the gift. The city of Oslo has presented the tree to the District of Columbia for seven years now.

“We think that Christmas trees are a very nice tradition,” says Mr. Vollebaek. “They light up the dark days and evenings that we have.”

The Union Station tree is especially photogenic, even if you don’t know its story. There’s nothing like 30 feet of Norwegian spruce and countless strands of white lights to command respect and even a degree of awe.

“How did they do it?” marvels Tenisha Propter, 3, of Northeast, stepping up on her toes to get a closer look. “They needed a giant to put all those lights on this gigantic tree.”

When you know what it took to get it all here, the lights seem to shine even more brightly. Federal regulations prohibit the importation of trees. So Norwegian officials found a tree in Iowa, with a grower of Norwegian descent. When the city of Oslo ran short of funds for the tree this year, the Norwegian technology firm Kongsberg stepped in early and took over the project.

“The tree is very important to us,” says the ambassador. “We hope to provide it as long as the people of Washington want it.”

• • •

A few blocks from Union Station, the West Lawn of the Capitol boasts the 2003 Christmas tree, a 70-foot tall Engleman spruce from Idaho decorated with more than 10,000 lights and more than 5,000 handcrafted ornaments, many made by Idaho schoolchildren.

The tradition began in 1913, when Woodrow Wilson asked that a community Christmas tree to be placed there. That year, more than 20,000 hardy souls braved the cold to hear the U.S. Marine Band, 1,000 singers, and view a Nativity pageant.

The practice of decorating Christmas trees began in earnest in the late 1800s, when German immigrants brought the custom with them to Pennsylvania. President Benjamin Harrison began the tradition of the White House Christmas tree in 1889 as part of his own family’s Christmas celebration.

Just south of Union Station, the Library of Congress boasts its own tree, gracing the Great Hall of the historic Jefferson Building. Christmas trees have a long history at the Library, whose records indicate their presence in the Great Hall at least as far back as 1948.

Today’s tree features ornaments donated by Library staffers as well as a number created by members of the Society of Decorative Painters in 1997 to honor the Jefferson Building’s centennial. Ornaments in the shape of bookmarks, books, and storybook characters are on the 2003 tree.

But today’s tree isn’t a live one. The Library’s contents are too precious to take any chances with fire.

Going through the great change — from live to artificial, is not the only thing that has affected the Library tree. Changes in taste have also dictated changes in decoration.

“There were a lot more garlands and tinsel in the ‘80s,” says Bibi Marti of the Library’s Public Affairs Office. “The tree is a lot less glitzy now.”

• • •

That’s a change that those doing the Christmas tree circuit may notice this year. Tinsel is out. “Tasteful” is in. Call it the Martha Stewart-ing of Christmas. It’s all themes and color schemes now, rather than the exuberant assemblage of ornaments, lights, and tinsel heaped on a tree without much heed to fashion.

“We’re coming around to more natural looking floral products versus garlands and tinsel,” says Smithsonian horticulturist Melanie Pyle.

So in the lobby at the National Museum of Natural History, you’ll find handmade decorations of pomegranates, pine cones, and exotic pods, all made by horticulturist Meaghan Brewer. Some of the ornaments are 18 inches long.

“We tried not to use artificial things,” says Mrs. Brewer. “We even debated about the silver balls.”

There’s a somewhat different slant on Christmas trees in the Smithsonian’s S. Dillon Ripley Center. Here the decorations are actually live plants, green bromeliads with striking crimson centers.

Another tree nearby boasts decorations made by the children of the Smithsonian’s day-care program.

In the Arts and Industries Building, four 15-foot trees grace the rotunda, where the decorations are burgundy silk hydrangeas and gold balls, in keeping with the building’s Victorian color scheme. Horticulturist Melanie Pyle chose Douglas fir for the trees here, the better to set off the colors of the decorations.

But hurry if you want to see the Christmas trees — or anything else — here. The venerable Arts and Industries building will be closing indefinitely beginning in January. The current Smithsonian budget simply cannot support needed repairs to the 1881 structure, built to house exhibits from the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia.

At the Smithsonian Castle itself, a 15-foot Christmas tree takes pride of place. Copper and green ornaments of flowers, ribbons, and balls work together to provide a kind of floral woodland motif, set off by hundreds of chartreuse lights.

All of the Smithsonian’s tree ornaments and designs are put together by members of the horticulture department. This year, members even ventured out to a grower near Wellsboro in north-central Pennsylvania to choose the Fraser and Douglas firs that would become part of the display.

• • •

If you are looking for a traditional tree, the one at the Morrison-Clark Inn, up 11th Street from the Smithsonian, fits the bill neatly. Passersby may think themselves transported back to the 19th century when they see through the window of the front parlor. And if you venture inside for a drink or dinner, you can enjoy more decorations in the inn’s dining room.

Another Victorian tree can be found at the Brewmaster’s Castle (formerly the Christian Heurich House Museum) just south of Dupont Circle. While it’s a bit off the downtown path, a detour here is well worth the effort. The longtime home of the Historical Society of Washington, the Brewmaster’s Castle reopened to the public in September after purchase by a foundation headed by two of the original owner’s grandchildren.

Back downtown, a stop for the White House tree is of course, de rigueur. While you may not be able to get inside to see the indoor tree, the one on the White House grounds can be glimpsed by all that pass along the executive mansion’s southern boundary.

A few blocks west of the White House, the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution uses thousands of white lights along its 1910 building as a backdrop for its massive Christmas tree on the north terrace.

Finally, the tour ends at the Ellipse, where the National Christmas tree is featured along with the annual Christmas Pageant of Peace. The main tree is now surrounded by 56 smaller varieties, one for each state, territory, and the District of Columbia.

The National Christmas tree tradition began in 1923 with first lady Grace Coolidge, who encouraged D.C. public school children to erect a Christmas tree on the Ellipse. Organizers dubbed the tree the “National Christmas Tree,” and the moniker stuck through several location changes.

Since 1978, a 40-foot-tall living Colorado blue spruce, donated by an anonymous Maryland family, has served as the National Christmas Tree.

There’s a kind of bustle going on here, too, but on the Ellipse, the destination is the tree. Families regroup, couples ask strangers to take their picture in front of the tree, children ooh and ahh at the spectacle.

And it’s not just children gawking. Something about a Christmas tree brings out the child in just about everyone.

Check out these

decorations, too

Haven’t gotten your fill of Christmas trees yet? Look in on these:

• Georgetown’s first annual Festival of Trees shows off more than 40 handsomely decorated Christmas trees throughout the neighborhood. The Four Seasons Hotel, at 2800 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, features 15 of them. These are themed trees, decorated with teddy bears, stuffed animals, and decorations from around the world. The Four Seasons is at 202/342-0444.

• 1644 31st St. NW. A Christmas tree of a different sort can be found at this historic house, which was built by Martha Washington’s granddaughter Martha Custis Peter and her husband Thomas Peter, and was home to members of the Peter family from 1805 until 1983. The tree is an artificial one, but this one is made with goose and chicken feathers. Such trees were popular from the 1890s through the 1940s, when concerns about conservation prompted many families to choose a different kind of tree for their Christmas celebration. The tree is decorated with Peter family ornaments and is surrounded by toys that belonged to the Peter family children. Docent-led, 45-minute house tours daily except Monday. Call for times. Closed Christmas Day. Admission $6 adults, $5 seniors, $3 students. 202/965-0400 or www.tudorplace.org.

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