By Robert Hudson Westover, Office of Communication, USDA Forest Service
The journey of more than 3,000 miles started with the felling of a tree on the Willamette National Forest for this year’s U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree. That’s because the tree, a magnificent noble fir, is travelling all the way from Oregon on what is being touted by the forest as the “Oregon Trail in reverse.”
When the tree arrives in Washington D.C. on November 26, a 47-year-old holiday tradition will kick off on the West Lawn of Capitol Hill with fanfare as the massive 75-foot tree is lifted by an equally massive crane and set in place to be decorated and officially lit by the Speaker of the House on December 5.
In fact, every year since 1970, the USDA Forest Service has provided our nation’s capital with a tall and sturdy Christmas tree harvested off national forests from California to Virginia—and even Alaska a few years back.
Towering on the West Lawn of Capitol Hill, tourists often mistake the U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree with the National Christmas Tree that sits on the Ellipse just south of the White House. The big difference is, well, big. For instance, the White House’s National Christmas Tree, lit by the First Family, is a living fixed tree about 47 feet tall, whereas the U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree can hover, once the star is installed, at nearly 75 feet in height.
Another big difference is the ornaments. The White House’s National Christmas Tree has a series of handmade ornaments representing each state created by artists selected for the honor. However, the U.S. Capitol tree’s decorations, also all handmade, are created by hundreds of kids from the state hosting it, thus giving it the nickname the People’s Tree.
Both trees are beautiful and inspiring, but the People’s Tree has a unique place in the hearts of Americans because it is brought to Washington, D.C. as the gift of literally thousands of volunteers.
The Forest Service supplies and delivers the tree selected by the Architect of the Capitol, but volunteers ensure that it reaches its final destination and is properly decorated. Partners, like the non-profit Choose Outdoors, and everyday people help raise the money and support needed to ensure that 10,000-plus handmade ornaments are not only made, but make it safely to Capitol Hill to adorn the tree.
And once the tree itself is harvested, it takes a small army of folks to travel with, guard, water, and coordinate all the stops the tree will make along its journey to Washington, D.C. via an enormously long semi truck’s travel trailer. Sometimes this journey can be perilous, with unforeseen obstacles, heavy snow, and rainstorms along the way. In fact, when then tree came from Alaska, it had to travel by boat from the Chugach National Forest to Washington state—to date the only ocean-going People’s Tree!
This year, that journey is coast-to-coast with, hopefully, no open water to cross. The tree’s big national tour began last week, and it will stop at more than 20 towns along the way.
Without this outpouring of grassroots support, the People’s Tree would not be logistically possible. So if you happen to be lucky enough to live in one of the areas where the tree stop, take an afternoon to join in on the fun activities as the People’s Tree passes through.
Once the tree arrives in Washington, D.C., everyone living in or is visiting the capital can view the tree 24 hours a day until January 1.