Tuesday, December 17, 2013
The Christmas tree is an American tradition only going back to the 1870s. While some middle-class and wealthy people adopted the tradition around then, it did not become a popular decorative item among m ost lower-middle-class and poor Americans (remember, that's half the population) until the 1920s.
The White House didn't have an indoor Christmas tree until 1929.
Interestingly, the White House had a "National Christmas Tree" outside beginning in 1923. Why? Because electric companies wanted consumers to buy more electric Christmas lights (cheap versions of which had just been invented) and to consume more electricity. That year, Herbert Hoover was Commerce Secretary. One of Hoover's top aides was Frederick Feiker, a guy who was still being paid a salary by the Society for Electrical Development -- an electrical industry trade group. The trade group approached Feiker, and said, "You know, if the President were to light a Christmas tree with electric lights, lots of consumers might do that same thing." Feiker convinced Hoover, and Hoover convinced President Calvin Coolidge.
"Keep Christ in Christmas"??? "Birth of the Savior"????
No. The National Christmas Tree was a materialistic advertising gimmick perpetrated on the American people by duplicitous federal officials.
By 1952, however, presidents had lost interest in lighting the tree. President Harry S. Truman didn't light it for four whole years, preferring instead to spend Christmas with his aged mother in Kansas. President Dwight Eisenhower wanted to spend Christmas away from the White House, too.
But the D.C. Board of Trade (our local chamber of commerce) came up with yet another marketing gimmick: Put on a show. From 1923 to 1952, the National Christmas Tree had been lit on Christmas Eve. Crowds were usually admitted around 4:30 PM, there was some singing by local massed choirs and the Marine Band played. The president or his designate would trot out around 5:15 PM, give a minute-long speech, hit the switch, and then rush back into the warmth of the White House. There'd be another half-hour of music, and then people would get shooed home. The tree would stay lit (and, in some years, there'd be piped Christmas music) until January 1.
Well, the business group thought, why not light the tree around December 15? Then we can have two weeks of constant choirs, religious services, dancing, puppet shows, live reindeer, a visit from Santa, and all that kitschy crap. It'll be a big tourist draw! "Christmas at the White House!" And in order to keep people thinking this wasn't just a gimmick to draw them into the shopping district (which is just north of the White House), we'll call it the "Pageant of Peace."
That's exactly what they did. It was a huge success. There were 300,000 people visiting the first year, 500,0000 the second year.
"The birthday of Baby Jesus"???? "Peace on earth, good will to men"?????
No. It was a tourist trap designed to boost the local economy. It had nothing to do with Christmas, really.
Now, sometimes living Christmas trees were planted somewhere on the White House grounds and these were decorated. Sometimes, cut Christmas trees were erected somewhere on the White House grounds and these were decorated.
If you're a trivia buff like me, you might wonder: Which years did they use cut trees, and which years living ones? How tall were these trees? Where did they come from? What species were these trees?
Well, now you can look it up on Wikipedia.
You'd think there was a "tradition" here of putting the tree in a certain place, at a certain time of year, etc. But no. For 30 years, no one knew what to do with the damn thing! It moved around, it was lit at different times of day and different parts of the season. It was living, it was cut, it was move around. No one really wanted the damn thing! It's really quite funny.