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Office of the Press Secretary

For Immediate Release December 9, 1998
                       Wednesday, December 9, 1998

Today, the President and Mrs. Clinton preside over the 1998 Pageant of Peace. This marks the 75th year for the lighting of the National Christmas Tree where the President will give the annual holiday message and push the button lighting the National Christmas Tree.

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 a community Christmas tree placed at the Capitol so the program would be recognized as a national event. A huge crowd attended the pageant which featured 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 is still 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 40-foot, 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.

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 between the Department of Energy and the Department of Interior that began in 1994, solar electric panels have been installed on the Ellipse to help power the 1998 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.

Guest entertainers this evening include the Paul Hill Chorale, guitarist Jose Feliciano, members of the cast of "CATS," the United States Air Force Band, opera singer Leona Mitchell and singer Tony Bennett. Other participants include John Betchkal, the Pageant of Peace President, and Reverend Dr. Deborah J. Johnson of the Church of the Redeemer in Baltimore. NBC Television personality Al Roker will make a return appearance this year as Santa Claus.

During the lighting ceremony, The President and the First Lady will be accompanied by Jessica Scott, a member of a Brownie troop 1257 in Washington, DC, and Edgar Allen Sheppard, Jr., a Cub Scout from the DC Takoma Park Troop.