With a week filled with unrolling the holiday season at the White House, unveiling Christmas decorations hosting Hanukkah receptions, there was one more annual tradition President Barack Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama and family had to partake in; lighting the National Christmas Tree. Late Friday afternoon, Dec. 6, 2013 President Obama, the First Lady, their daughters Malia, 15 and Sasha 12, and Michelle Obama's mother Marian Robinson lit the tree at a star-studded party on the Ellipse in President's Park located behind the White House. With the weather cold and rainy the President shortened the countdown and also paid tribute to military members and Nelson Mandela in his brief remarks at the 91st annual event.
President Obama and family started off the National Christmas Tree ceremony by lighting the tree, a 31-foot Colorado blue spruce. However, the President was deterred from counting down the annual tradition from 10 because of the cold and very rainy weather, telling the crowd; "It's a little wet out there, so we shouldn't start at 10." Instead Obama curtailed the countdown starting only at five then flipping on the switch. Not getting enough of the cold weather jokes, the President also asked the audience in attendance "Is everybody still a little bit wet, but having fun?"
Glee actress Jane Lynch hosted the event that consisted of a star line-up of entertainment including; "The Avett Brothers, Joshua Bell, Renée Fleming, Forte, Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin, Prince Royce, jazz singer Arturo Sandoval, rock group Train, and Nolan Williams, Jr., and Voices of Inspiration" with Mariah Carey as the finale to the party.
Among the more memorial performances were Janelle Monáe singing "The Christmas Song" and Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul who sang "Joy to the World" and "The First Noel." The First Lady gave her annual contribution, reading "The Night Before Christmas" with the help of a Sesame Street Muppet, Abby Cadabby.
Only President Obama did not have an act, which he managed to make enough jokes about it, saying "This show is always a great way to get in the holiday spirit. Every year, I rehearse my own little act, just in case. But it seems like, yet again, they couldn't find space to squeeze me into the program." He also joked with the crowd that "You are lucky I'm not singing!" Still the President managed to dance along with a little girl dressed an elf who was part Mariah Carey's act.
Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell introduced President Obama, who delivered some brief remarks that were far more serious in tone. The President began his remarks discussing the annual tradition and spirit of the holidays; "For 91 years, the national Christmas tree has stood as a beacon of light and a promise during the holiday season. During times of peace and prosperity, challenge and change, Americans have gathered around our national tree to kick off the holiday season and give thanks for everything that makes this time of year so magical - spending time with friends and family, and spreading tidings of peace and goodwill here at home and around the world."
There has not been a speech or event that President Obama has been at and delivered remarks since Nelson Mandela's death Thursday evening, Dec. 5 that Obama has not mentioned Mandela's impact and legacy, and did so again at the tree lighting ceremony. The President eulogized the former South African President and anti-Apartheid leader; "This year we give a special measure of gratitude for Nelson Mandela and man who championed that generosity of spirit. In his life, he blessed us with tremendous grace and unbelievable courage, and we are all privileged to live in a world touched by his goodness."
The President also wished those present at the ceremony and all Americans a happy holiday season. As has been the theme this holiday season at the White House, service members and their families have been front and center, and Obama made sure to honor them in his remarks. The President expressed; "We are our brother's keeper. We are our sister's keeper. So on this season of generosity let's reach out to those who need help the most. Let's make sure that in this season of reflection our incredibly brave service members and their families know how much we appreciate their sacrifice."
Concluding his remarks, President Obama spoke about the true nature and message of the holiday and Christmas season; "In this season of hope, let us come together as one people, one family to ensure that we are doing everything we can to keep America the land of endless opportunity and boundless optimism for which we are so thankful. Only Mariah Carey topped President Obama in the ceremony's line-up singing at the end of the party singing her perennial Christmas hit "All I Want for Christmas is You."
National Christmas tree lighting ceremony was began by President Calvin Coolidge in 1923. The story started when First Lady Grace Coolidge allowed the District of Columbia Public Schools to put up a large Christmas tree at the Ellipse, which they named the National Christmas Tree. The tree was a 48-foot Balsam fir. President Coolidge lit the 2,500 "red, white and green" bulbs by "pushing a button" during a Christmas Eve ceremony that also featured a choir and a U.S. Marine Band quartet.
This commenced a tradition that every President has adhered to since, only World War II temporarily stopped the annual joyful event, even President John F. Kennedy's assassination in 1963 only postponed the ceremony, but did not cancel it, with President Lyndon Johnson declaring a month after the assassination; "Today we come to the end of a season of great national sorrow, and to the beginning of the season of great, eternal joy."
Bonnie K. Goodman is the Editor of the Academic Buzz Network, a series of political, academic & education blogs which includes History Musings: History, News & Politics. She has a BA in History & Art History & a Masters in Library and Information Studies, both from McGill University, and has done graduate work in Jewish history at Concordia University as part of the MA in Judaic Studies program. Her specializations are US, Canadian & Israeli politics.