- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 4, 2003

The District got its first glimpse of snow yesterday as the first family lighted the national Christmas tree on the Ellipse behind the White House.

The 80th annual Pageant of Peace marks the official start of the Washington area’s Christmas season.

Most of those in the crowd came dressed in knit hats, scarves and gloves to watch President Bush push the button that illuminated the 40-foot-high Colorado blue spruce.

“It is exciting to be this close to the president,” said Wilma Drinkard, 61, as she and husband Nial sat underneath a fleece blanket to keep warm.

The president urged American troops who will be far from home and family during the holidays to take some solace in the Christmas story and the nation’s gratitude.

“Separation from loved ones is especially difficult this time of year,” he said. “People in uniform can know that their families miss them and love them, that millions are praying for them, and that America is grateful for the men and women who serve and defend our country.”

Before a crowd of thousands, which included soldiers wounded in the Iraq war, the president said the story of Jesus Christ’s birth and life can bring comfort and provide “a light that can guide us still.”

The White House stood in the background with pine garland and red bows adorning the south balconies.

The spruce was decorated with thousands of lights, following a tradition that began in 1923 when President Calvin Coolidge lighted the first national tree.

Each year the tree is decorated differently but maintains the theme “Peace on earth,” National Park Service officials said.

This year the tree’s design is a “nostalgic design that harkens back to the 18th century,” said Bill Line, park service spokesman. “It is simple but elegant.”

The only ornaments on the tree were either pale snowflakes or candy-cane-striped electric candles with orange lights to resemble real candles such as those that adorned the first tree in 1923.

The U.S. Coast Guard Band began the festivities at 5 p.m. with a full orchestra rendition of “Sleigh Ride.”

“Whoever ordered the snow this year, this is great,” said Ruth Bott, a park service volunteer.

As darkness rolled in, the snowfall appeared heavier in the beams of stage lights.

“I wanted to celebrate my blessings this year, and remember the military men who are away from their families so I can be safe here with mine,” said Susan Bray, 48, of Centreville. This was the first time Mrs. Bray and husband Bob, 49, had attended the ceremony.

Caleb Ross, 6, sat in a folding chair and bashfully buried his red nose in his mother’s lap while waiting for the ceremonies to begin.

His father is one of those who will spend Christmas in Baghdad serving in the Army.

John Umali, 29, has just returned from deployment with the Air Force in Iraq. He said serving in the military “makes you appreciate life and the freedoms of America.”

The lighting ceremony is only the beginning of the pageant. Musical groups will perform most nights from 6 to 8:30 through Dec. 27. However, no events are planned for Dec. 24 or 25.

The Ellipse, or South Lawn, also has on display 56 smaller trees — one from each state, five territories and the District. There is also a large-scale Nativity scene.

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