The result is a moment steeped in tradition and virtually devoid of high drama.
This afternoon, President Bush will stand before a gathering at the National Christmas Tree on the Ellipse and pull a lever from a switchbox. Then, if all goes according to plan, anticipation will then give way to an outpouring of light: Decorations on the 40-foot, live Colorado blue spruce will radiate like sparklers set against a sunbeam, prompting cheers and camera flashes.
What you won't see are people who have been working since Nov. 1 to ensure that the tree lighting and other events, including musical performances, at the Christmas Pageant of Peace go off without a hitch.
Today's 81st lighting marks the 50th anniversary of the Pageant of Peace, which has maintained its pastoral appeal since its inception and includes a Nativity scene, model trains and nightly stage performances through Dec. 23. It also features the Pathway of Peace: 56 decorated trees representing all 50 states, the District of Columbia and the five U.S. territories.
The lighting ceremony begins at 5 p.m., and the display will run through Jan. 9. Hargrove Inc., a special-events contractor in Lanham, has decorated the tree and managed the attraction since 1954, while GE Lighting has supplied the decorations.
Hargrove marketing director Marvin Bond said this year's National Tree will be decorated with 140 white back-lit stars against 12,500 white lights. "It's an antique white effect," he said. "The stars are back-lit, so the anti-white light is coming through material on the stars. It's a more traditional look this year, which is a continuation of what we've seen the last couple of years."
Decorations for the smaller trees come from groups designated by governors of each state and territory and are sent to Hargrove, which encases them for protection from the weather.
The Maryland decorations are from the Sugarloaf View Neighborhood Girl Scout Council, representing the southern portion of Frederick County. They donated 50 handmade ornaments, including globes enclosing green angels.
Nineteen groups from Maryland are slated to take part in the nightly performances, including the Olney Elementary School Chorus on Dec. 14 and Hearts of Gold of Arbutus on Dec. 23.
Those who help make the pageant possible each year take pride in upholding its wholesome charm.
In fact, most folks are unaware that years ago they had trouble staving off thieves who stole the babe from the Nativity manger.
"When it first started, we sculpted the Nativity figures, and about every third day somebody would go up and steal Baby Jesus," said CEO Earl Hargrove Jr., 76, who founded the company with his father after World War II. "My father would go up to Kresge's five-and-ten-cents store and buy any old baby doll.
"He went and told the newspapers, 'By God, I wish they'd stop stealing Jesus. I'm running out of money.'"
Hargrove's company has ensured that such events are merely timeless anecdotes, instead of incidents that could have harmed the pageant's image. He said that when loading trucks and heavy rains turned the Ellipse into a quagmire, tracks were installed.
Then there was the time when live animals were used in the Nativity scene, and a sheep broke away and ran up 14th Street.
Hargrove and a law-enforcement officer ran after the animal, finally cornering it in front of a drugstore. "Someone from inside opened the door and the sheep went in," he said. "What a ... mess we had."
The tree lighting dates back to 1913. It was suspended during both world wars. Live trees have been used since 1973. The current tree, which came from York, Pa., has been standing on the site since 1978.
National Park Service chief ranger Phil Walsh said the Colorado blue spruce was selected because "it can tolerate Washington summers, handle the abuse it gets every year and is pretty sturdy. You don't have to replace it every 10 years."
Hargove's company has been the leading contractor for every presidential inaugural since 1949, yet regards the Pageant of Peace as its most important annual project.
"It's the nation's Christmas tree," he said. "Through the past 50 years, many tragic things have happened in this nation, and I, and many other Americans, feel it has drawn us together in time of need."
What: Opening ceremony of the Christmas Pageant of Peace
Where: The Ellipse, near the White House
When: 5 p.m. today
Admission: No more free tickets, required to attend tonight's ceremony, are available. The display is then open to the public daily from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.