Frequently Asked Questions
How do you decide which national forest will provide the tree?
The process is a labor of love that starts up to two years in advance. A team in the Forest Service headquarters in Washington, D.C., begins coordinating with employees in the field. The forest is chosen based on:
- The location of national forest. We prefer to select a tree from different areas of the country.
- The capacity and interest of the forest staff to generate partners, who will work to fund the project, generate enthusiasm among state residents and work for at least a year on the project.
- Whether there is a significant historical event or theme affiliated with the forest or the state, such as the agency’s centennial celebration in 2005.
A 65-foot white fir from the Stanislaus National Forest in California became the 2011 Capitol Christmas Tree. After an elder from the Tuolumne Band of Me-wuk Indians blessed the majestic tree, two cranes hoisted it onto a flatbed truck in preparation for its cross-country journey. (U.S. Forest Service photo)
So what is the process to select the tree?
There is a lot that goes into selecting just the right tree to adorn the U.S. Capitol grounds. The hardest part is finding the perfect tree – or the perfect six to eight trees. The final selection is made by an official from the Architect of the Capitol. For at least 15 years, that person has been, Ted Bechtol, superintendent of the Capitol grounds. He bases his decision on:
- shape and fullness of the tree, viewed from all sides
- height of the tree, preferring one that is between 60 and 85 feet tall
- tree color with foliage that is rich and appropriate for the species
- characteristics of needle retention and pliability of branches
- ease of harvesting, loading and transporting the tree out of the woods where it is found
Awaiting Spring by Cheryl St. John Fine Art is the official artwork of the 2012 Capitol Christmas Tree. Community involvement includes art, an officials song and a host of other events to generate excitement about the tree.
What do the partners and state residents have to do?
While the selection of the perfect tree is essential, the work really begins when the partners decide the direction of their program.
Each partnership works with the forest to decide the scale of the project. The size of the state helps because there are more resources, but often smaller states are light tight-knit communities that rally to make the event spectacular. In general, the program involves several key elements:
- The tree: Finding and locating a 60-foot or taller near-perfect specimen in a forest that covers thousands of acres is not as easy as it sounds.
- Companion trees: Another 60 to 70 trees ranging from 6 feet to 25 feet tall are donated for a variety of government offices throughout Washington, D.C.
- Raise money: The partnership with an organization that can solicit and accept donations is key. That organization also serves as the fiscal agent for the project. Efforts in the past have ranged from $100,000 to nearly $1 million in cash and in-kind contributions. Strong support from state and local communities means minimal cost to taxpayers.
- Host events: Community celebrations, fundraisers, harvesting ceremonies, and contests are staged through the host state. In Washington D.C., the host state also assists in the tree lighting and reception.
- Collect lights and ornaments: Each state collects between 4000 to 5000 handmade ornaments made to specific criteria, ensuring they will hold up in wintery weather and be visible for distances up to 70 feet.
- Transport the tree to the Capitol: There is a great deal of coordinating needed to move the trees, people, ornaments and other items to D.C. Also, the host state, through the established partnerships, provides security for the Capitol Tree throughout its journey from the woods to the Capitol lawn.
Ornaments to decorate the tree are donated by peole from the state where the tree is harvested, such as this one from a Brownie Troop in Parker, Colo.
How many lights are placed on the tree?
Almost 10,000 low energy and regular lights, provided by the Capitol Architect, are added to illuminate the tree throughout the holiday season.
That’s one big tree. What does it take to drive it to the U.S. Capitol?
It’s a lot more involved that harvesting a family tree. Once cut, the tree is loaded by a crane onto a flatbed truck equipped with a special platform to protect the tree, which is wrapped for its protection.
The journey is not just a delivery. It’s a celebration. The tree winds its way across the U.S., stopping in many cities and towns where it is greeted, sometimes to very enthusiastic crowds and events.
What happens when it gets to D.C.?
Once the tree arrives in Washington, D.C., it is officially presented to the Architect of the Capitol, and the Capitol landscape crews take over. It takes them seven to 10 days to put the tree in a ready-made 5-foot-deep hole and secure it in place. During that time, they also make any cosmetic changes by adding extra branches, stringing the lights and painstakingly placing the thousands of handmade ornaments on the branches.
The Forest Service distributes the companion trees to designated offices throughout the D.C. area. U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell, who hosts a program and reception in early December, gets one for his office. Others go to the U.S. Department of Agriculture and other official offices.
The Speaker of the House hosts the Tree Lighting Ceremony on the west lawn of the Capitol, assisted by the Architect of the Capitol Architect and Congressional members from the host state. Partnership members, sponsors, and key state and community leaders often travel to D.C. for the event. The tree stays lit generally to the first week of January.
These events are followed by an evening reception hosted by the State’s Congressional Officials. The tree remains lighted throughout the holiday season and after the tree is removed, it is mulched and used around all of the congressional offices.
Do you provide the tree for the White House?
No. The official National Christmas Tree is planted outside the White House, a long-standing tradition that began with the Calvin Coolidge administration in 1923. Since 1933, the care of the tree has been the responsibility of the National Park Service. The National Park Foundation assists in the annual tree lighting event.