In And Around Hannibal: December 15, 2012

Rita Hooper


Ah, what to write about two weeks before Christmas that I haven’t written about in the past say 25 years. As I drove through the village on my way to the high school Christmas band concert, passing our lovely lit Christmas tree, it dawned on me, even though it was dark, that I should write about the national Christmas tree.

From the Hannibal Square to Clinton Square in Syracuse to Rockefeller Center to Washington, D.C., towns across the country have had a tree lighting ceremony, symbolizing the start of the Christmas season. So delving into Christmas in the White House by Albert Menendez and doing some internet research, I found the following to share with you, my faithful readers!

The very beginnings of a Christmas tree ceremony in our nation’s capitol began with what was billed as a “Civic Christmas” in 1913 – gee that’s 99 years ago, my dad would have been a teenager! The Marine Band played, there were 1,000 singers and a Nativity Pageant. It was held on the East Plaza of the Capitol.  Woodrow Wilson was president at the time and wanted the program recognized as a national event.

On Christmas Eve 1923, on the Ellipse, President Calvin Coolidge lit the first community Christmas tree. The tree itself was a gift from Middlebury College in President’s Coolidge’s home state of Vermont.

A man named Feiker came up with the idea of lighting the tree as the electrical industry was hoping to get more people interested in lighting outdoor trees.

This is an interesting story in itself to research but time dictates. Suffice it to say the tree was decorated with 2,500 electric bulbs in red, white and green supplied by the Electric League of Washington. NBC broadcasted it on radio. The Epiphany Church choir sang and the band played on!

From 1924-1933, the tree was located in Sherman Plaza near the east entrance of the White House. This was the first living/planted Christmas tree and was a Norway spruce from our own New York State. Coolidge lit the tree by pushing a button on the switch box. That switch box is still used today. I wonder if they keep it in a special box labeled Christmas Switchbox – I know I’d probably loose it!

Coolidge is the one credited with giving the first president’s Christmas message, which he delivered in 1925. President Hoover lit the tree from 1929-1931, vice-president Charles Curtis in 1932 and Pres. F.D. Roosevelt in 1933.

From 1934 to 1938 the tree lighting occurred in Lafayette Park while they made some landscaping changes in Sherman Plaza. FDR lit the tree until 1942.

From 1939 to 1940, the ceremony was once again moved to the Ellipse, so as to accommodate the larger crowds.

In 1941, FDR choose to invite the public to the White House for the tree lighting. A 30-foot Oriental Spruce was choose and stood a 100 feet from the fence on the south grounds. A Girl and Boy Scout brought greetings from the people of DC. Carols were sung led by a number of local churches.  Britain’s Prime Minister Winston Churchill made a surprise appearance. Pearl Harbor had recently occurred. It was a somber time in the nation’s capitol.

The years 1942-1944 saw the tree go dark for security reasons during WWII. The tree was decorated with ornaments donated by many service organizations with the name of servicemen serving in war around the world on them.

In 1945. the ceremony moved back to the Ellipse. President Truman lit the tree in 1945-1947. The first televised lighting of the tree took place in 1946. He did not appear at the lighting in 1948, 49 and 51, preferring to spend Christmas at home in Independence, Mo. Attendance dropped and it was feared that the ceremony would not be revived.

In 1953, President Eisenhower lit the tree on the White House lawn but only a select few were allowed inside the iron fence.  Much criticism occurred. After World War II and the Korean War, it was decided that “peace” should be included in the title of the annual program.

From 1954-1972, the ceremony moved back to the Ellipse. In 1954, a group of Washington businessmen and interested citizens organized to oversee the annual celebration and formed a non-profit, non-partisan, non-sectarian organization, the Christmas Pageant of Peace, Inc.

President Dwight Eisenhower presided over the expanded program symbolizing America’s desire to maintain peace around the world through the spirit and meaning of Christmas.

It was decided that the program would no longer take place on Christmas Eve and was moved to Dec. 17. The tree lighting ceremony was followed by three weeks of nightly Christmas entertainment on the Ellipse.

The Pageant included a life-sized reproduction of the nativity scene, a large stage, a children’s corner, and exhibit booths.

The Pathway to Peace, leading to the National Community Christmas Tree, was bordered by smaller Christmas trees decorated by embassies, states and U.S. territories. The tree was lit by President Eisenhower from 1954-1960, Vice President Lyndon Johnson in 1961, and President John F. Kennedy in 1962.

In 1963, the tree was not lighted until Dec. 22 by Lyndon Johnson following a national 30-day period of mourning for the assassinated John F. Kennedy. The tree was lit by Johnson each year until 1968, by President Richard Nixon in 1969, 1970 and 1973 and Vice President Spiro Agnew in 1971 and 1972.

In 1973 on the Ellipse, a 42-foot living Colorado Blue Spruce from northern Pennsylvania was planted to serve as a permanent National Christmas Tree. The National Arborist Association donated the tree.

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This week’s menu at Senior Nutrition is soup and sandwich, salad, juice, and jello Monday,; glazed ham, scalloped potatoes, lemon dill carrots, juice, and  special dessert Wednesday; and  chicken and biscuit, mashed potatoes, vegetable, juice, and fruit Friday.

Monday, they will be making Christmas ornaments and Friday, they will be playing some Christmas games. They will have their Christmas party on Wednesday with a holiday sing-along with Bob Simmons.

Please call Rosemary at 564-5471 to make your reservations.

If you would like to volunteer your time to deliver Hannibal Christmas Bureau Boxes Dec. 19 from 9 a.m. to noon please call 564-7916. Two students will be assigned to go with each driver.  I’ve done it many times over the years and it really is great fun and puts you in the holiday spirit.

The Hannibal Historical Society is looking for new members.  Those who are interested in history, including the history of Hannibal, are invited to join by contacting Carol Newvine at 564-5650 or e-mailing

Please send me info on your church’s Christmas schedule so that I may include it in next week’s column. I’d rather receive the info from a dozen folks than none at all.

Many thanks to the Hannibal Senior Band for inviting the community seniors to be their guests at the lasagne dinner preceding the Christmas concert.  The concert was great and sure to put you in a Christmas spirit.  You have given us much to be proud of. Special thanks go to Mrs. Terrinoni for her hard work throughout the years — her love for our children shows!

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