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British Prime Minister Churchill, right, accompanied President Roosevelt to the National Community Tree Lighting Ceremony in 1941.

Pageant Peace: National Tree

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Sixty years ago, the holiday season in Washington, D.C. was overshadowed by a horrible event on December 7, the attack on Pearl Harbor. Increased security at the White House and the awareness of America's new war, however, could not dampen the spirit of the season.

President Roosevelt welcomed a crowd of thousands for the annual Christmas Eve lighting of the National Christmas Tree. Americans across the nation listening by radio heard the President's radiant voice speak words of comfort.

"Against enemies who preach the principles of hate and practice them, we set our faith in human love and in God's care for us all men everywhere," said President Roosevelt.

Then the crowd and radio listeners heard another distinctive voice-the voice of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, whose last visit to the United States was forty years earlier. The Prime Minister's surprise appearance boosted the crowd's enthusiasm.

Churchill said, "Let the children have their night of fun and laughter. Let the gifts of Father Christmas delight their play. Let us grown-ups share to the full in their unstinted pleasures before we turn again to the stern task and formidable years that lie before us, resolved that, by our sacrifice and daring, these same children shall not be robbed of their inheritance or denied the right to live in a free and decent world."

The two leaders of the Allied Forces then joined the crowd in singing carols and each nation's national anthem.

President Roosevelt had invited Prime Minister Churchill to the White House for a war council meeting on Christmas Eve. The meeting was so secretive that President told the First Lady about the Prime Minister's visit and his guests the day they were to arrive. The Prime Minister spent the holidays with the President and the two discussed the challenges to come.

The National Tree Lighting Ceremony began in 1923 when President Calvin Coolidge pushed a button to turn on the lights of a Vermont Balsam fir at a ceremony on the Ellipse hosted by the community department of Washington D.C.'s public schools.

The focus of the event expanded into the "Christmas Pageant of Peace" in 1954. Smaller live trees representing the 50 states, five territories, and the District of Columbia, formed a "Pathway of Peace."

Today, the annual ceremony is known as the "Pageant of Peace" and takes place south of the White House on the Ellipse. Center to the season's celebration is the living National Christmas Tree, a Colorado blue spruce from York, Pennsylvania, planted on the Ellipse October 20, 1978. The tree stands as a daily reminder of the holiday spirit and of the tradition each succeeding President has participated in since 1923.


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