December of 1923 was, like 2020, a difficult time for America. The dual horrors of World War I and the Spanish Flu were not far in the past; and only in August, President Warren G. Harding had died, leaving Vice President Calvin Coolidge to assume the mantle of the presidency. Coolidge knew the nation was seeking a return to normalcy, and he believed in the promise the future held for that normalcy – including the creation of a national Christmas tree lighting ceremony.
Coolidge, by then, was well-known and well-respected as a deeply conservative Republican of few words, whose steadfast commitment to law and order was venerated in a time of domestic uncertainty and global upheaval.
Everyone, everywhere, was seeking something of the sense of the world that was forever lost in 1914, and the path that would lead them forward. Coolidge’s calmness was a dramatic and welcome contrast against events overseas, including the violent rise of socialism in Russia.
In November, Lucretia Walker Hardy, from the D.C. Community Center Department, wrote to Coolidge’s secretary, C. Bascom Slemp, advocating the idea of a Christmas tree on White House grounds. This, she explained, would “give the sentiment and the exercises a national character.” Coolidge agreed. Christmas, after all, spoke directly to the hearts of Americans as a celebration of peace and joy rooted in faith and tradition – a very clear demonstration of normal life.
The stage was set. Middlebury College of Coolidge’s native Vermont, along with alumni, gifted the nation with a 48-foot Balsam fir, which was erected at the Ellipse at the White House – America’s house. As the use of electricity was rapidly growing in the country, indicative of the nation’s technological progress, the Society for Electrical Development urged the use of outdoor lights on the tree. 2,500 red, green, and white lights were donated by the Electric League of Washington for that very purpose. Churches, choirs, and the U.S. Marine band were slated to appear at the event, which would be opened to the public, white and black alike.
Although Coolidge was determined to carry out the promise of normalcy upon which he and Harding had run, there was nothing political about Coolidge’s plans for the ceremony. Coolidge was deeply religious and utterly genuine. In his autobiography, he explained the importance of a Christmas tree as being “lighted in the symbol of Christian faith and love.”
It was from his faith that Coolidge drew courage and confidence to always seek to do the right thing as a leader. That December, Coolidge issued an address to Congress which not only looked at the national situation, but envisioned a better, normalized future, resounding with the best of the American spirit and the influence of faith.
Among those things he pressed for included government needing to stay out of the way of citizens in daily life; that veterans had to be cared for; and that rights for Black people needed to be protected and secured. The Coolidge years would not be about going back in time, but cherishing and sustaining the sacred moral truths and traditions that helped found America, no matter the time. As Coolidge had previously explained in a Christmas message as vice president, “It is the realization of these great truths that warrants an abounding optimism. They have not failed, they cannot fail.”
Coolidge expanded on a number of national topics at a press conference a few days before the ceremony in 1923, not only describing what to expect, but what his own role would be. He said simply, “I think I am to press some buttons to light a Christmas tree down on the Ellipse.”
More than 6,000 people turned out to watch him do it. The ceremony was so well-received locally and across the country, it immediately became a tradition which continues to this day. In the United Sates, our traditions are not merely customs, but testaments to our society, our culture, and our values.
Those assembled in the warm, electric glow of that first national Christmas tree recognized not merely their heritage and their history, but the hopes they shared present in the light – the light of the past, illuminating the way forward.
A few years later, Coolidge’s Christmas address to the nation reflected that same light. “Christmas is not a time or a season, but a state of mind,” he said. “To cherish peace and good will, to be plenteous in mercy, is to have the real spirit of Christmas.” In our own times, his wisdom remains timeless.
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Joe Vigliotti, a contributor to The Flip Side and a Taneytown city councilman, writes from Taneytown. His column appears every other Friday. Email him through his website at www.jvigliotti.com.