Dec. 1, 2014 -- At 5 p.m. (EST), Thursday, Dec. 4, the Marine Band will provide the holiday soundtrack for the lighting of the National Christmas Tree on the Ellipse in front of the White House hosted by Tom Hanks and his wife actress Rita Wilson. Directed by Lt. Col. Jason K. Fettig, the band will play songs of the season to compliment special guest artists including Patti LaBelle, Steve Miller, The Tenors, Chely Wright, Nico and Vinz, Fifth Harmony, and Ne-Yo.
There is much debate over whether the tradition of lighting a “national” Christmas tree in Washington, D.C., began in 1913 or 1923. But there is no question as to who led the musical portion of the event. According to historical accounts, more than 20,000 people gathered to sing carols and light a tree on the East Plaza of the U.S. Capitol on Christmas Eve 1913. The Evening Star reported that in preparing for the event, “Franklin D. Roosevelt, assistant secretary of the Navy, has said the [Marine] band would be available for the Christmas celebration provided the President did not need its services on Christmas Eve.” Since President Wilson did not attend the festivities, the lighting was deemed a community, not a national, event.
But in 1923, the president of Middlebury College sent President Calvin Coolidge a 48-foot Balsam fir as a gift from his home state of Vermont. With the push of a button, Coolidge lit the 2,500 electric bulbs, and the tradition of lighting a National Christmas Tree on the Ellipse began. The prelude featured a quartet of Marine Band musicians including cornetists Arthur Witcomb and John Miller, euphonium player Peter Hazes, and trombone player Lee Janford, and the ceremony featured the full band led by Director Capt. Taylor Branson.
The location of the National Christmas Tree Lighting moved from the Ellipse to Lafayette Park and then to the South Lawn of the White House (for a tree lighting ceremony that included Winston Churchill just weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor), before moving back to the Ellipse in 1978 when a Colorado blue spruce from York, Pa., was transplanted there.
The tree remained dark from 1942-44 due to World War II. More than 30 years later, in 1979, President Jimmy Carter lit only the star in deference to the Americans held hostage in Iran, and in 1980 he lit the tree for only 417 seconds, one second for each hostage. Several weeks later, newly inaugurated President Ronald Reagan ordered the tree to be lit on Jan. 20, 1981, after the hostages were released.
It was the Marine Band or a brass choir from the band who performed at nearly every Tree Lighting for many years. The 1939 program for the event reads, “The United States Marine Band leads off with a preliminary concert lasting about 30 minutes ... It is the custom that the finale shall be ‘Cantique de Noel,’ a cornet solo played by a member of the Marine Band, and if there is earthly music nearer Heaven than the cornet’s notes in this French carol on the frosty air of Christmas Eve, it is far to seek.”
The frosty air in 1975 resulted in no music at all. According to the band’s library log, “Not one note was played! 20-30 mph winds, chill factor made it well below zero! Horns completely frozen in less than 5 minutes!”
The modern National Tree Lighting features music provided by an ensemble from a different service band each year, as well as other unique highlights. Since 1954, the décor around the Ellipse includes a “Pathway to Peace,” 56 smaller, decorated trees representing all 50 states, five territories, and the District of Columbia. In 1993, a model train was added to the base of the tree, and in 2008 the tree featured energy efficient LED bulbs and the “Pathway to Peace” included a stop at Santa’s Workshop.
But the Lighting of the National Christmas Tree has always featured the sounds of the season, and “The Presidents’ Own” will once again take a place on the Ellipse for the most wonderful time of the year.
The Lighting of the National Christmas Tree is free, but tickets are required. For ticket and live streaming information visit www.thenationaltree.org.