Updated Nov 21, 2023 - Politics & Policy

"A small army": How the iconic Capitol Christmas Tree is picked, gets to D.C.

Map: Sara Wise/Axios; Illustrations: Maura Losch/Axios
Map: Sara Wise/Axios; Illustrations: Maura Losch/Axios

Each year, federal officials pluck one towering evergreen from among acres of American forests to bring holiday cheer to the Capitol.

Why it matters: The decades-old tradition is both a feat of logistics and rich with history and symbolism.

Where is this year's tree from?

This year's tree, a 63-foot Norway Spruce, hails from West Virginia's Monongahela National Forest — "one of the most ecologically diverse areas" in the country, according to the U.S. Forest Service.

  • Two top sawyers from the state cut the tree down on Nov. 1, and it's now making its way to Washington, D.C., stopping in communities along the way.
  • This year's tree "is estimated to be about 38 years old and has a very traditional Christmas tree shape," Scott Owen, a spokesperson for the U.S. Forest Service, told Axios.
  • The Shawnee Tribe has named this year's tree "wa'feem'tekwi," meaning "bright tree" in the Shawnee language.

When did the tradition start?

The practice of choosing a Capitol Christmas Tree and holding a tree-lighting ceremony was officially established in 1964, according to the Architect of the Capitol (AOC).

  • The tradition started when then-House Speaker John W. McCormack had a live Christmas tree placed on the Capitol lawn, Owen said.
  • The Forest Service has provided the trees since 1970.

Choosing the perfect tree

Each year, a different national forest is chosen to provide the tree.

  • The ideal tree is between 60 and 80 feet tall and has good color and density.
  • Over the summer, Forest Service staff nominate about a dozen tree candidates, whose measurements, photographs, and map locations are then sent to AOC employees, who then visit the trees to examine them and pick a winner.
Capitol Christmas Tree in 2023
Last year's Capitol Christmas Tree — which came from North Carolina — is seen in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 29, 2022. Photo: Elizabeth Frantz for The Washington Post/Getty Images

How the tree gets to Washington

The tree is transported by truck to Washington, D.C., with stops along the way for public viewings.

  • The Forest Service is in charge of delivering the tree, and notes that "it takes a small army of folks to travel with, guard, water, and coordinate all the stops the tree will make along its journey."

Of note: When the tree came from Alaska's Chugach National Forest in 2015, it marked the first and only time the tree has traveled by boat.

The 2021 U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree is hoisted from the flatbed truck on the West Front of the Capitol on Nov. 19, 2021.
The 2021 Capitol Christmas Tree, which came from the Six Rivers National Forest in California, is hoisted from a flatbed truck at the Capitol on Nov. 19, 2021. Photo: Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

How is the tree decorated?

The tree's decorations are made by hundreds of kids from its home state, per the Forest Service.

  • This year, school groups and other West Virginians are providing 14,000 ornaments to decorate the tree, local news reported.
  • Members of the Shawnee tribe have also created ornaments for this year's tree, an AOC representative told Axios.
  • About 4,000-5,000 LED lights are used to light the tree, which takes about a week to completely decorate, the representative added.
  • West Virginians are also providing handmade tree skirts, according to a press release from the governor's office.

What else is special about this year's tree?

This is the third time the Capitol Christmas Tree has come from West Virginia's Monongahela National Forest, but the last time it happened was in 1976 — nearly 50 years ago.

When can you see the tree in D.C.

The Capitol Christmas Tree is slated to arrive on the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol Building on Nov. 17.

  • House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) will light the tree in a ceremony on Nov. 28. It will be lit from sundown to 11 pm every night until Jan. 1, Corinne Day, a spokesperson for Johnson, told Axios.
  • "The Speaker is ecstatic to hold his first Capitol Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony," Day said.
  • The Capitol Christmas Tree is tentatively scheduled to be removed from the Capitol complex on Jan. 3, 2024, Day added.

Editor's note: This story was updated with info from Speaker Johnson's spokesperson.

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