The Capitol Christmas Tree tradition began in 1964 when then Speaker of the House, John W. McCormack (D-MA), placed a live Christmas tree on the Capitol lawn where it lived for three years. In 1970, after a request from the Capitol Architect, the U.S. Forest Service provided the first official Capitol Christmas Tree and has continued to do so every year since.
The Forest Service selects a different National Forest each year to supply not only the towering tree on the Capitol lawn, but also dozens of smaller trees for federal government offices throughout Washington, D.C. The Capitol Christmas Tree celebrates a season of hope and giving and helps to showcase the diverse landscapes of our National Forests while also celebrating the unique communities that are connected to these special places.
While the Payette National Forest is home to millions of trees, finding the Capitol Christmas Tree is harder than it sounds. The tree must be 60-85 feet tall and a perfect cone-like shape. Perhaps most limiting is the accessibility for a crane and large truck needed to safely cut and transport the tree.
To find that perfect tree, Forest Service staff turned to a unique group of professionals on staff—smokejumpers. And while they didn’t jump out of a plane to find the tree, they did help narrow down the selection for the final decision. After months of searching a forest larger than Delaware and an on-site consultation with the Capitol Architect, the Forest Service selected an 80-foot-tall Engleman Spruce, a high-elevation evergreen found throughout Western North America.
Most trees never travel in their lifetime. However, once it was cut, the Capitol Christmas Tree began a 2,000-mile journey to Washington, DC. The tree, traveling in a specially designed trailer, was accompanied by the Great Idaho Potato Truck carrying the 70 additional Christmas trees from the Payette. As the celebrity that it is, the tree made more than 25 stops across the country so communities could see the tree and visit with the accompanying Forest Service staff. To keep such a large tree green during the journey, the Forest Service has developed a special watering system that provides the tree with 40 gallons of water every day.
For the past five years, the tour has been organized and managed by Choose Outdoors, a nonprofit partner of the Forest Service. Choose Outdoors’ President Bruce Ward is one of the tour’s biggest fans: “There’s nothing quite like the whistlestop tour we do each year to bring out the best of people across the country celebrating the Christmas spirit and the many benefits of our National Forests.”
Of course, it wouldn’t be a Christmas Tree without ornaments. Each year, the tree’s home state also works with communities to create thousands of hand-made ornaments to decorate the tree. In 2014, senior citizens and school groups sent ornaments and tree skirts to decorate the Capitol Christmas Tree and accompanying trees from the Chippewa National Forest. To decorate the 2015 Capitol Christmas tree from Alaksa’s Chugach National Forest, one artist crafted ornaments out of marine debris.
In addition to the trees and ornaments, the state of Idaho is also supplying a Tree Lighting Helper. One lucky elementary school student will travel to Washington, D.C. to stand with the Speaker of the House and other officials to flip the switch and turn on the thousands of twinkling lights. This year, Senator Mike Crapo (R-ID) sponsored a contest to find the Tree Lighting Helper. Students were invited to create an original piece of art supporting the theme of this year’s tree, “An Idaho Mountain Gem.”
It’s a true team effort for the Capitol Christmas Tree to arrive in Washington, D.C. each December. From forestry professionals and ornament crafters to transportation specialists and media outlets, the Capitol Christmas Tree connects Americans across the country, clearly living up to its nickname, “The People’s Tree.”
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