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.
“Being in President’s Park right after the election, this is just an exciting time,” she said.
The 2012 tree is a 30-foot Colorado blue spruce from northwest Virginia. It replaced its predecessor, which died earlier this year from what National Park Service officials called “transplant shock.”
The park service has had a recent spate of bad luck with its National Christmas Trees. Along with the tree that died of shock, the blue spruce before it was snapped in half by a strong windstorm in February 2011. That tree had stood on the Ellipse for more than 30 years.
The president was well aware of the park service’s bad luck with the past few trees.
“Our trees are having a hard time,” Mr. Obama said to the crowd. “It just goes to show nobody’s job is safe here in Washington.”
Those who didn’t win lottery tickets for the event have the rest of the month to come to see the tree lit up, as well as the other holiday exhibits with it.
Visitors can wander the Pathway of Peace, which is lined by 56 smaller trees that represent the U.S. states and territories. All of the trees, including the National Christmas Tree, are scheduled to be lit each night between now and Jan. 1 from about dusk until late evening, Park Service officials said.
Visitors can also stop in Santa’s Workshop until Christmas Eve to meet elves and the man in red before his busy night.
The Park Service also has scheduled a range of performances throughout the month for the stage near the National Christmas Tree. These include the Washington Redskins Marching Band and, from Virginia, the Boyle School of Irish Dance from Manassas, the Cool Spring Elementary Chorus of Leesburg, and the Bach-Herzog Young Piano Performers from Springfield.