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The Tall (and Expensive) Tale of the Capitol Christmas Tree

The Capitol Christmas will light up on Wednesday. (Al Drago/CQ Roll Call)
The Capitol Christmas will light up on Wednesday. (Al Drago/CQ Roll Call)

It may be an unstoppably powerful combination: The seemingly unbridled expansion of everything about “the holidays,” and the perception that even the most modest and benign government program will eventually spiral out of control.  

This is in no way a “bah, humbug” screed; the family has been making an annual pilgrimage to the West Lawn since the 1980s, and we’re eager to repeat the ritual again in the coming weeks. But just maybe there’s a cautionary tale woven into the history of the Capitol Christmas Tree. This year’s conifer is in place and ready for the traditional lighting ceremony, scheduled to begin 15 minutes after sunset Wednesday. The festivities are probably going to get more press coverage than normal, mainly because camera crews are eager to record Paul D. Ryan as master of ceremonies during one of his first iconic Washington set pieces since becoming speaker of the House.  

It’s the tree itself that’s customarily the main attraction on such occasions. And the 2015 specimen — a 74-foot-tall, sharply proportioned, arrow-head-shaped Lutz spruce — looks worthy of all the attention. But the epic back-story is what’s really getting noticed.  

As the first tree to come to the Capitol from Alaska, it’s traveled farther than any of its Yuletide predecessors: After it was cut down in the Chugach National Forest and trucked 120 miles up the road to Anchorage, it traveled 1,400 miles over three storm-tossed days in a container ship crossing the Pacific to Tacoma, Wash., and endured another 2,800 miles or so on a flatbed truck with a series of police escorts on a three-week, 15-city tour through the Rockies, the Great Plains and the Corn Belt before finally arriving at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland just before the Thanksgiving recess.  

Contrast that Odyssean voyage with the fundamentally different journey taken by the earliest congressional Christmas trees.  

The first Capitol tree was raised on the East Front plaza 102 years ago, on Christmas Eve.  

The decision of where to harvest the 2015 spruce was announced on Jan. 2, even before the 2014 tree was taken down. And the chainsaws did the job on Oct. 27, fully a month before “Black Friday” and two months before the actual holiday.  

In 1913, volunteers took a couple of hours to adorn a Norway spruce (provenance unknown) with a few strands of red, white and blue electric bulbs. The big splurge was for an illuminated placard at the base with the inscription, “Peace on earth, good will to men.”  

After this year’s tree was moved to the West Front on Nov. 20, teams aided by a pair of cherry picker trucks spent several days festooning the boughs with thousands of LED lights and 2,000 ornaments that arrived in a separate shipment — again, all the way from Alaska, where they’d been crafted for the occasion by schoolchildren, artisans and tribal leaders. (One of the kids, 10-year-old fifth-grader Anna Kathleen DeVolld of Soldotna, is flying in to help Ryan flip the ceremonial switch.)  

The original celebrations were under the purview of the Capitol Police, with the help of a local Boy Scout troop.  

Today’s trees are a joint venture of the Agriculture Department, which picks the specimen and gets it to the Hill; the Architect of the Capitol, which does the decorating; and Choose Outdoors, a nonprofit that promotes recreation on public lands and which pays most of the bills with donations from a dozen corporate sponsors.  

A century ago, the tree was the centerpiece of a community gathering featuring a chorus singing hymns and a Marine band striking up the national anthem. This year’s tree has already drawn attention, but for political rather than religious or civic reasons: Graffiti deriding some presidential candidates got scrawled on the truck during a stop in Ohio, and on the “Tonight Show,” Jimmy Fallon offered this: “The tree will only be at the Capitol for about a month-and-a-half, which actually makes it the hardest-working member of Congress.”  

Lack of funds was cited as the reason the nascent congressional Christmas tree tradition lapsed at the start of World War I, not to return until Speaker John W. McCormack had a modest tree erected in Statuary Hall days after the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. After that, the Massachusetts Democrat proposed planting a conifer on the West Front that could take care of the holiday duties indefinitely — and a 24-foot Douglas fir, purchased from a commercial nursery in the Amish country of Pennsylvania, played the role for four years before dying on the job after a severe storm.  

After cadging trees cut down in the Maryland suburbs for a couple of years, Congress began relying on USDA’s Forest Service to provide government-grown timber in 1970. Though the specimens have come from national forests in 20 states, one trend has been clear: The firs and spruces have steadily gotten much, much bigger.  

Forest Service records reveal how the trees of the 1970s averaged 47 feet tall when felled, growing to 54 feet on average in the following decade; 63 feet in the 1990s, 69 feet in the previous decade and a 76 feet for the six in this decade — triple the size of what got planted for Christmas 1964.  

The cost of “the People’s Tree,” as House members and senators like to call it, has grown even faster: The 1964 sapling, the one chosen in hope of lasting decades, set Congress back $700 — about $5,400 in today’s dollars. Choose Outdoors has already ponied up more than 120 times that amount, $650,000, to cover expenses in advance of Wednesday’s lighting ceremony.  

That’s not even a drop in the budgetary bucket, especially because businesses — not taxpayers — are footing the bill. But in politics, like the holidays, some secular symbols get accorded outsized importance. The elaborately prepared, enormous and pretty expensive Capitol Christmas Tree may have a place on that list.

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