Skip to main content

Tale of a Tree and a Star

Posted by Robert Hudson Westover, U.S. Forest Service, Washington D.C. in Forestry
Nov 29, 2017
A tree on truck
After a journey of over 2,000 miles, the massive 79-foot U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree is parked on Third Street in D.C. before being installed on the West Lawn of Capitol Hill. (Photo credit: Robert Westover, U.S. Forest Service)

For many in the D.C. area, the arrival of the towering Capitol Christmas Tree means the holiday season has begun. Every year local residents and tourists from all over the country, as well as delegations from the state that provides the tree, come to view the official lighting of what is fondly referred to as “the people’s tree” on the West Lawn of Capitol Hill.

Since 1970 the U.S. Forest Service has provided the national Capitol Christmas Tree, and every year it’s different and exciting in literally thousands of ways. This year’s tree, a 79-foot Engelmann spruce cut from the Kootenai National Forest in Montana, will be adorned with thousands of ornaments handmade by the children on Montana.

The tree called Beauty of the Big Sky began its cross country sojourn in early November and has made 21 stops at towns and cities along the way including the states of North Dakota, Minnesota, and Kentucky.

And in a first, the tree will have a star built in the same state. In August, organizers reached out to The Washington Companies, a Missoula-based conglomerate that includes Montana Rail Link, mining company Montana Resources, and environmental remediation business Envirocon.

A high maintenance star
High maintenance star. The U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree is from the Kootenai National Forest this year and will be adorned by perhaps one of the largest stars ever built for a live tree. It will be a challenge to install the five-foot, 90-pound star atop the tree, according to experts. (Photo credit: Robert Westover, U.S. Forest Service)

The firm drew up plans for an eight-pointed star that would pay homage to Montana, including features such as a copper frame and the state flower, a bitterroot, at the center. The actual fabrication of the star took place at a shop in Belgrade, Split Mountain Metals, which spent three weeks and more than 1,000 man-hours constructing the five-foot, ninety-pound tree topper—possibly one of the biggest stars ever made for a live Christmas tree.

It’s so large that it will be a challenge to install it. However, according to Capitol Grounds Superintendent Ted Bechtol, for the Architect of the Capitol this presents an exciting challenge. Because Beauty of the Sky has a split top, installing the massive star might not be too great a problem to overcome.

The official tree lighting will be hosted by the Architect of the Capitol with members of the Montana Congressional Delegation speaking as well as USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan presides over the ceremony, which will begin at 5:00 p.m. on Wednesday, December 6th on the West Lawn of the Capitol.

As is the tradition, a child from the home state will flip the switch to illuminate the tree. Ridley Brandmayr, an 11-year-old Bozeman boy who lost the fingers of his right hand in an accident this summer, has been chosen by Montana Sen. Jon Tester to light the U.S. Capitol Christmas tree at the outdoor ceremony.

The tradition of a U.S. Capitol Christmas tree dates to the 1960s. In 1964, a 24-foot Douglas fir was bought for $700 from a nursery in Birdsboro, Pennsylvania, and placed on the West Front lawn. That tree died after a severe storm and root damage, but the tradition of a tree on the Capitol grounds continued with the USDA Forest Service providing a tree from one of its forests.

A tree in the air
A great deal of expertise is required to safely position the U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree in place. The next stop for the dangling colossus will be the West Lawn. (Photo credit: Robert Westover, U.S. Forest Service)
Category/Topic: Forestry