WASHINGTON — It was the industrial Christmas complex at work, on the White House Ellipse, and Christmas trees have never been the same.
Photographs of Christmas in Washington before 1923 are striking -- trees have tinsel, ornaments and plenty of presents underneath, but no lights strung around the branches.
Christmas tree lights made their debut in 1882, but they remained too expensive, too ostentatious and too odd a concept for American homes even in the early Roaring Twenties.
But a former engineer from General Electric had an idea to help the new electric industry, in the form of increased Christmas (power) consumption.
Frederick Morris Feiker transitioned from the world of GE to D.C. in the early 1920s, working as a press aide for future President Herbert C. Hoover.
Feiker first devised the idea of a national Christmas tree, one that would use 2,500 red, white and blue electric light bulbs glowing within sight of the White House.
The erstwhile electrical engineer wrote a letter to President John Calvin Coolidge Jr., with the nation’s 30th president immediately taking to the idea.
Author David McLaughlan asserts the concept of Christmas trees with electric lights would be quickly publicized and spread through a new age of mass communication, reinforced as the new standard for a timeless tradition.
"He thought if the White House lit a tree with electricity (lights, cables and power supplied free by the electricity companies) that the idea might catch on," McLaughlan writes in the book, "The Top 40 Traditions of Christmas."
And it did!
The Library of Congress digitized a photograph of the first National Christmas Tree, with a captivated crowd gathered on Christmas Eve, 1923.
The Washington Post later reported, "At 3 p.m. on Dec. 24, 1923, a 100-voice choir from the First Congregational Church assembled on the South Portico of the White House and began a two-hour concert of Christmas carols. At 5 p.m. (dusk), President Coolidge touched a button at the foot of the tree which lit the ornaments, but he did not speak. A searchlight from the nearby Washington Monument was trained on the tree to help illuminate it as well. The Coolidge family invited citizens of the city to sing Christmas carols on the Ellipse after dark. Between 5,000 and 6,000 people thronged the park, joined by 3,000 more people by 9 p.m."
O Christmas tree, o Christmas tree, how lovely are thy branches – lovely enough to transform a tradition, making spirits merry and bright for Christmases yet-to-come.