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Office of the Press Secretary

For Immediate Release December 4, 1997

Thursday, December 4, 1997

Today, the President and Mrs. Clinton will preside over the 1997 Pageant of Peace. The President will give the annual holiday message and push the button lighting the National Christmas Tree. The lighting of the National Tree and 56 smaller trees representing the States and Territories of the United States will take place at the conclusion of a one-hour musical program.

Gregory Peck will be the master of ceremonies. Guest entertainers include international opera singer Placido Domingo; country singer Lorrie Morgan; Motown vocalist Martha Reeves (Martha and the Vandellas); the Shenandoah Valley Children's Choir; the United States Coast Guard Band; and The Snowdens, a chorus of dancing snowmen. Actor Robert Prosky will make an appearance as Santa Claus. Other participants include John Betchkal, the Pageant of Peace Chairman; and Msgr. William O'Donnell, retired pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes, Bethesda.

The President and the First Lady will be accompanied by Campfire Girl Whitney Symone Powell and Campfire Boy Joseph Sherren during the lighting ceremony.

The origins of the national tree lighting ceremony date to Christmas Eve, 1913, when an elaborate "civic Christmas" was held by President Woodrow Wilson on the east plaza of the U.S. Capitol. He wanted the community Christmas tree placed at the Capitol so the program would be recognized as a national event. A huge crowd attended the pageantry featuring 1,000 singers, the U.S. Marine Band, and a costumed group portraying the Nativity.

The ceremony moved closer to the White House in 1923, to Sherman Plaza, where a living tree was decorated. President Calvin Coolidge was the first president to light the tree by pushing the button on a switch box that still is used today. Coolidge also began the tradition of delivering the president's Christmas message. In 1925, his speech was broadcast coast to coast on radio.

In 1934, the ceremony was moved to Lafayette Park where live Fraser fir trees were planted on either side of the statue of Andrew Jackson in the center of the park. In 1939 a live red cedar from George Washington's original estate was planted on the Ellipse. And in 1941, two live Oriental spruce trees were planted on the White House south lawn where the ceremony was held through the war years. The 1941 tree lighting, following the attack on Pearl Harbor, witnessed a surprise appearance by Sir Winston Churchill at President Franklin Roosevelt's side on the south portico. Wartime blackouts kept the tree unlit from 1942 until 1944.

Following World War II and the Korean War, it was decided to use "peace" in the title and give direction of the program to the Pageant of Peace, Inc. On December 17, 1954, President Dwight Eisenhower presided over an expanded program symbolizing America's desire to maintain peace around the world through the spirit and meaning of Christmas. It was the first time the program had not been held on Christmas Eve.

The practice of using fresh-cut trees from various places around the country continued until 1973, when a live tree was transplanted to the Ellipse. The tree in use today, a live Colorado blue spruce, was transplanted to the site in 1978. It came from a farm in York, Pennsylvania, the gift of Mrs. William E. Myers who had received it as a Mother's Day gift 15 years earlier.

The theme chosen this year for the Pageant of Peace emphasizes a renewed dedication to strive for world peace. This theme influences the lighting and design of the National Christmas Tree, a live, 40-foot-tall Colorado blue spruce. The lighting and design were given this year by the General Electric Company. The 56 State and Territory Trees, each about 8-feet tall, will be decorated with ornaments donated by participating organizations.

When President Clinton pushes the button tonight at the National Christmas Tree Lighting ceremony, solar power will help provide illumination to the tree and to the Pageant of Peace. As part of a partnership that began in 1994, between the Department of Energy and the Department of Interior, solar electric panels have been installed on the Ellipse to help power the 1997 Pageant of Peace and the lights on the National Christmas Tree. The solar lighting at the pageant helps fulfill the Clinton Administration's commitment to expanding the use of solar power and reducing greenhouse gas emissions for a cleaner environment. The Department of Energy supplies the photovoltaic components for lighting the tree. The Department of Interior's Office of Surface Mining supplied the trees grown on reclaimed surface-mined land. A garden-sized model railroad display around the tree was added for the first time to the customary exhibits of nativity scene, reindeer and a burning yule log.

The Christmas Pageant of Peace is scheduled with nightly entertainment and refreshments from 6-8 p.m., through December 26. Seasonal displays include a nativity scene and burning yule log. The tree will remain lighted through January 1.

Chronology of Presidents and Vice Presidents who have lighted the National Christmas Tree:

Calvin Coolidge 1923-1928

Herbert C. Hoover 1929-1931

Charles Curtis 1932

Franklin D. Roosevelt 1933-1942
Spoke from Hyde Park, N.Y., 1943-1944

Harry S. Truman 1945-1950
From Independence, Mo.; 1951 and 1952

Dwight D. Eisenhower 1953-1954
From Gettysburg, Pa., 1955-1960

Lyndon B. Johnson 1961

John F. Kennedy 1962

Lyndon B. Johnson 1963-1968

Richard M. Nixon 1969, 1970, 1973

Spiro T. Agnew 1971-1972

Gerald R. Ford 1974-1976

Jimmy Carter 1977-1978

In 1979 and in 1980, only the main ornament was lighted because of the American hostages in Iran. The tree was fully lighted on Inaugural Day (Ronald Reagan) Jan. 20 1981, when the hostages were released and their homebound aircraft had cleared Iranian airspace.

Ronald Reagan 1981-1988

George Bush 1989-1992

Bill Clinton 1993-present