Washington holiday season begins with arrival of White House Christmas tree

The Washington holiday season had a festive start Friday when First Lady Michelle Obama presided over the arrival of the White House Christmas tree – a balsam fir from Wisconsin.

First Lady Michelle Obama speaks with daughter Sasha as they receive the White House Christmas on Friday. The 19-foot balsam fir is from Wisconsin.

The Washington holiday season got off to a festive start Friday when First Lady Michelle Obama presided over the arrival of the White House Christmas tree.

The picturesque scene, outside the North Portico of the White House facing Pennsylvania Avenue, offered a sharp contrast to scattered reports of violence – including one shooting and one incident of pepper spraying – that accompanied the predawn start of Black Friday shopping at malls around the country.

At 11:09 a.m. a green wagon loaded with a 19 foot-tall balsam fir was pulled up the White House driveway by two horses with wreathes and red bows around their necks. A Marine Band brass quintet struck up the German carol “O Tannenbaum” (O Christmas Tree) as Mrs. Obama, daughters Malia and Sasha, and first dog Bo walked out the mansion’s front door.

IN PICTURES: A gallery of Christmas trees

After inspecting the tree, the Obamas posed for pictures with Sue and Tom Schroder whose Wisconsin farm – dubbed Schroeder’s Forevergreens – grew this year’s tree. After several minutes, the Obamas headed back into the White House. As she left, Mrs. Obama told the assembled reporters and news photographers, “You all take care. Happy holidays.”  

The arrival of the tree marks the beginning of a very active period at the White House, which last year hosted some 20 holiday parties and receptions involving 12,000 guests. In addition, some 100,000 visitors toured the mansion during the season when it is filled with Christmas decorations and the official tree is displayed in the Blue Room.  

The full holiday party schedule for 2011 has not been announced. But some invitations – featuring the presidential seal surrounded by a green holiday wreath and a big red bow – have already gone out.  

The First Lady’s office said Friday that military families would be the first to see this year's holiday decorations. She will host a special gathering for them November 30 where she will speak, and the White House chefs and florist will talk about holiday decorations and food. The theme of this year’s Blue Room Christmas tree will be honoring Blue star families, the White House said. Blue Star families are those who have a member serving in the military during a time of war.

Mrs. Obama’s office also said Gold Star families will take part in decorating a special Gold Star tree that will be placed at the visitors’ entrance to the East Wing. Guests at White House holiday events enter through the East Wing entrance near where Mrs. Obama's office is located. Gold Star families are those who have a relative killed while serving in the Armed Forces in wartime.

The growers of this year’s official tree won the honor in a Christmas tree contest held in August by the National Christmas Tree Association (NCTA).

This is the seventh time a Wisconsin grower has provided the White House tree, according to NCTA records which go back to 1966. North Carolina growers hold the record for providing the official White House tree, having done so 11 times. Wisconsin and Washington State are tied for second place with 7 wins each. This year is the first since 1998 when a balsam fir was the winning species.

While the Blue Room tree is the most highly decorated and has a place of honor, it is usually just one of many trees placed around the White House. Last year there were 19 trees in all.  

White House holiday receptions include events for members of Congress and the administration, diplomats, and members of the media.

The early history of the White House Christmas tree is in dispute.  The Christmas Tree Association website says that New Hampshire native Franklin Pierce brought the first Christmas tree to the executive mansion in 1853. The White House Historical Association gives that distinction to President Benjamin Harrison in 1889. 

The practice of having an “official” Christmas tree decorated under the auspices of the First Lady began with Lou Henry Hoover in 1929. In 1961, Jacqueline Kennedy began the tradition of having a theme surrounding the decorations. Mrs. Kennedy’s first theme was “Nutcracker Suite” based on Tchaikovsky’s ballet. 

While the White House tree presentation has a festive air, some portions of the Christmas tree industry are suffering. 

The Associated Press reports that Christmas tree growers in Texas and Oklahoma have been hard hit by drought which has killed thousands of trees. To meet local demand, some growers are importing trees from North Carolina. Growers from Texas and Oklahoma have not supplied a White House Christmas tree since records began in 1966.  

IN PICTURES: A gallery of Christmas trees

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