What It’s Like to Attend the National Christmas Tree Lighting in Washington, D.C.

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Have you ever considered attending the National Christmas Tree Lighting in Washington, D.C.? Presented by the National Park Service and National Park Foundation and held in President’s Park, it’s a true honor. My parents and I attended in 2018 and here’s a bit of our experience in a journey to #FindYourPark.

This is NOT the National Christmas Tree but One in the White House Visitor Center with Ornaments from Different States, Including Florida. Nov. 28, 2019.
This is NOT the National Christmas Tree but One in the White House Visitor Center with Ornaments from Different States, Including Florida. Nov. 28, 2019.

A Very Brief History of the National Christmas Tree Lighting

The first National Christmas Tree was in the Ellipse and President Calvin Coolidge lit it on Christmas Eve in 1923 at 5 p.m. The ceremony has evolved over the years and remains a festive, American tradition. And, my luck, I scored three tickets in the standing area to witness the 2018 National Christmas Tree Lighting.

Congratulations 2018 National Christmas Tree Lighting Winner!

Yay! Receiving an email from Recreation.gov in late October filled with festive joy. My “holiday spirit is requested at President’s Park in Washington, D.C. on November 29, 2018!,” it read.

Now, this was not an out-of-the blue invitation, it was in response to entering the lottery to attend the National Christmas Tree Lighting ceremony. It’s an event I have wanted to attend for several years and due to its popularity, the National Park Service holds a lottery to determine who attends.

Program from the 2018 Christmas Tree Lighting.
Program from the 2018 Christmas Tree Lighting.

How to Apply for the National Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony

How did I know when to apply? About every month leading up to the fall, I set an alert in my calendar to check thenationaltree.org for an announcement about the lottery. Once I knew when the lottery was, I set another alert in my calendar. I believe the 2018 lottery application was open for a weekend.

Recreation.gov conducts the lottery and it’s free to sign up for an account and free to participate, although you need to get yourself there on your own dime. I have been trying to see the synchronous fireflies in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in late May/early June (time is dependent on, well, the fireflies.) Due to their popularity, the National Park Service conducts a lottery to control how many people enter the park.

Anyway, I applied to the National Christmas Tree Lighting lottery with my first choice being in the seated area and second choice in the standing area. After a few weeks of waiting, an email arrived indicating I was selected for the standing area. I was over the moon!

My parents have never been to Washington, D.C., before and this was the perfect introduction to the nation’s capital, except for the cold. Along with the National Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony, we took in some of the D.C. sites and that’s for another post.

National Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony, Washington, DC, Nov. 28, 2018
People Waiting in Line for the 2018 National Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony, Nov. 28, 2018.

Hurry Up and Wait

We needed to arrive to the National Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony between 3 and 4:30 p.m. Once arriving to the entrance area around 2:30 p.m., I found a bench for my parents to sit and wait while I stood in the long line. To my surprise, once 3 p.m. came along, the line moved quickly. Quickly, I reunited with my parents and we passed through security.

The Transportation Security Administration runs security at D.C. events. I know because I’ve attended three inaugurations and dealt with it. During Obama’s second inauguration, TSA made me throw away my point-and-shoot camera because I forgot to put the battery in it! You can read about that story here.

National Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony, Washington, DC, Nov. 28, 2018
One of Many Groups Singing Christmas Carols in President’s Park Before the National Christmas Tree Lighting.

Our bags were searched. Although we didn’t have to take off our layers of cold-weathered clothing, we did pass through metal detectors. My dad received extra screening for his belt buckle.

Once through security, we saw some groups singing carols throughout the grounds. attempted to enter the seated area, which was closer to the stage and festivities. Of course, we could not sit there so we found a place along a fence with a decent look at the stage, jumbotrons, the National Christmas Tree, and the White House in the background.

National Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony, Washington, DC, Nov. 28, 2018

Our View Well Before the National Christmas Tree Lighting, Nov. 28, 2018.

When Did the Show to Begin?

Then we waited. We people watched. Then, we watched the videos on the Jumbotrons. We talked. And then we waited some more. As we did, the temperature dropped and we tried to figure out when the lighting ceremony would happen.

The event had a program but it did not contain times. And, what we saw on stage did not match the schedule. For instance, the program indicated Ryan Zinke, then Secretary of the Interior, would provide an introduction before President Trump and the First Family deliver a Christmas message and light the tree.

National Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony, Washington, DC, Nov. 28, 2018

The National Christmas Tree in President’s Park Lit on Nov. 28, 2019.

Let the Show Begin!

At 4:45 p.m., the temperature was 35 degrees and it was getting colder. There was pre-show entertainment which included schools and groups from Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, and Washington, D.C. Eventually, a female National Park Service ranger and another woman walked onto the stage and welcomed everyone.

Around 5:15 p.m. or so, after the sunset, the band LOCASH accompanied by Michael West, performed “Run Rudolph, Run.” The seats in front of us were packed!

The National Menorah Located in President's Park. It was First Lit in 1979 by President Jimmy Carter. I Wasn't Lit During My Visit. Nov. 28, 2018.
The National Menorah Located in President’s Park. It was First Lit in 1979 by President Jimmy Carter. I Wasn’t Lit During My Visit. Nov. 28, 2018.

The evening’s host, actor Antonio Sabato Jr., walked on stage, welcomed everyone and introduced President Donald J. Trump. The president said few words but said the most important ones of the season, “Merry Christmas.”

There was a countdown beginning with 10 and at “one,” First Lady Melania Trump flipped the switch. The magnificent tree was a vibrant green with strings of lights forming red ribbons cascading down. There were “ooohs” and applause once the National Christmas Tree was lit in all its festive glory.

Although more performances were ahead, it was so dang cold, we headed out, along with hundreds, if not thousands, of others.

Overall, we spent a lot of idle time waiting for the main event but how often can you be part of a national event? It was an experience we’ll always remember.

Literally Chilling at the National Christmas Tree Lighting Tree Ceremony in Washington, D.C., Nov. 28, 2018.
Literally Chilling at the National Christmas Tree Lighting Tree Ceremony in Washington, D.C., Nov. 28, 2018.

Things I Wish I Brought to the National Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony

I knew it was going to be cold and thought I was warm enough, especially since I have attended three presidential inaugurations. To make my experience more enjoyable, I wish I:

  • Wore three layers on my legs, brought handwarmers, and a blanket.
  • Brought my big lensed camera or a pair of binoculars.
  • Kept my phone charged during the day and charged my camera the night before. My camera battery died before the ceremony and my iPhone died right after the lighting.
  • I certainly thought there would be at least hot chocolate for sale once inside the secured area but there was nothing to purchase. Bringing snacks and water would be ideal.

Will I attend again? I’ll try but will probably only go if I have access to seating. Plus, I will stay an extra day to view the state trees which are near the National Christmas Tree.

Visit the National Christmas Tree website to view the video of the 2018 lighting and keep up to date with future lightings.

Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links to support this blog, my traveling habit, and my special-needs dog.

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Author: Solo Travel Girl

Originally from Buffalo, N.Y., a hiking trail led Jennifer Huber, aka: Solo Travel Girl, to a career path in tourism. She has worked in the tourism industry for more than 20 years including 10 years with a park management company in Yellowstone, Death Valley and Everglades National Park. She currently lives in Southwest Florida, and maintains this travel blog with the goal of inspiring others to travel alone, not lonely.

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