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Friday, July 19, 2024

The Journey of the Capitol Christmas Tree

Months ago, the holiday spirit began deep inside West Virginia’s Monongahela National Forest, and in several nearby tree farms. 

Every year, farmers, truck drivers and politicians team up to deliver “the people’s tree” to the US Capitol as a symbol of national unity throughout the holiday season. Several companion trees are also delivered to service members at Joint Base Andrews and other federal agencies across the District. 

The Capitol Christmas tree sets out from West Virginia’s Monongahela National Forest. Photo: James Edward Mills of The Joy Trip Project.

This annual tradition began in 1964 and has featured trees from across the nation. The original Capitol Christmas tree was not cut –it was actually planted on the West Front lawn and was decorated every holiday for three years before severe weather caused the tree to die. 

Since then, a new tree is delivered to the front lawn of the Capitol Complex from a National Forest in a differing state. This year’s tree is adorned with more than 5,000 LED lights and ornaments hand crafted by West Virginians. The West Virginia Congressional delegation expressed gratitude to their home state and all who participated in keeping this long-standing tradition alive.  

But the tree is a celebrity itself.  This year’s tree, standing at a towering 63 feet tall, made appearances throughout West Virginia before arriving in the District to be decorated in front of the Capitol. 

Jim Rockis, a West Virginia tree breeder and farmer, provided a 25-foot Canaan Fir tree from their family farm for the USDA federal building. Rockis and his step-daughter Beth Bossio said they were honored to participate in this year’s event.

“We will always be thankful for the gift the people’s land gave to the Christmas Tree Industry, as many farmers are able to grow and harvest trees on land they couldn’t have successfully accomplished with other tree species,” he said. 

The tree arrives in the District. Photo: James Edward Mills of The Joy Trip Project.

Before the Capitol tree is selected, the US Forest Service (USFS) spends nearly a year scouting the forest. After the search is narrowed down, the Director of Capitol of Grounds and Arboretum at the Architect of the Capitol James Kaufmann traveled to West Virginia to inspect the trees. 

The Capitol Christmas Tree arrived in the District on Nov. 17 and was officially lit Nov. 28. But the tree was fêted from the time it was harvested Nov. 1.

Festive celebrations began on Nov. 1 just miles from where the tree was harvested as a dedicated team of truck drivers from Werner Enterprises worked together to transport the tree, ornaments and companion trees nearly 1,000 miles to the District. They stopped on the way to allow residents in cities and small towns to see the tree.

These “cream of the crop” drivers have millions of accident-free miles between them. One driver, Tim Dean, recalls several stops along his journey to DC and the enthusiastic support of the small town communities along the way. 

“I think [the town’s] population was 520, but there were like 1,000 people there,” Dean recalls of one stop. “Whether you’re in DC, West Virginia or anywhere in the United States, that is our tree. It’s a reminder of the holiday spirit.” 

Ornaments from West Virginia adorn the tree. Photo: Beth Bossio.

Steven Jones was one of the drivers who transported the tree. he has driven over 1 million accident-free miles throughout his career with Werner, but noted that this “once in a career” trip stands out. “It’s just truly an honor to be selected,” Jones said. “I’m gonna remember this forever, it was an amazing event.”

President of the Truckload Carriers Association Jim Ward noted the importance of truck drivers to the everyday operations of the country. “We deliver more than just the general merchandise to distribution facilities… and I’m very proud to be part of the delivery of this tree to the Capitol lawn.”

The tree has become such a popular part of the holiday tradition that you can even track its movement from the forest to the Capitol as it goes on its own whistle-stop tour.

The 14 stop tour of West Virginia attracted residents from far and wide to see the tree as it passed through their town. People signed the banner on the side of the truck that would carry it to DC. 

AOC staff work to decorate the Capitol Christmas tree Nov. 22. It takes ten days to fully trim the 63-foot tree. Photo: E.O’Gorek

When the tree arrives, the AOC only has about 10 days to decorate the tree for the lighting ceremony. Gardeners, equipment operators, laborers, masons and plumbers are among the 30 employees that work to prepare the tree. This year’s tree is adorned with more than 5,000 LED lights and ornaments hand crafted by West Virginians. 

“It takes a small army to make this special tradition successful and joyous for all year after year,” Kauffman said. 

But no celebration on the road could compete with the ceremony in the District, when the tree in full holiday costume stands tall against the backdrop of the Capitol Dome. It was lit Nov. 28 in a ceremony presided over by Speaker of the House Mike Johnson and a West Virginian Delegation that included Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Ethan Rees from Beverly Elementary School in West Virginia, this year’s “youth tree lighter”. The event included live musical performances and remarks from several members of the West Virginia Congressional delegation. 

Manchin lauded the “festive, historic tradition” and expressed gratitude for the West Virginians who helped the tree make the journey to Washington. Congresswoman Carol Miller (R) noted that the tree, named wa’feem’tekw by the Shawnee tribe, means bright star which serves as a “great representation of what West Virginia is to the rest of America,” she said. 

The Capitol Christmas Tree will be illuminated nightly from dusk to 11 p.m. until Jan. 1. Visit uscapitolchristmastree.com to learn more about the tree and how to get involved in this year’s festivities. 

Sarah Payne is a reporter for Capital Community News. She can be reached at sarahp@hillrag.com

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