Sean C. Morgan reports from Washington: U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree Lighting
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December 5, 2018
Courtesy of U.S. Forest Service
Referencing the film "It's a Wonderful Life," Speaker of the House Paul Ryan called on Hillsboro fourth-grader Bridgette Harrington to join him in lighting the U.S. Capitol Christmas tree tonight.
"We all have angels in our own lives who remind us of our own blessings," Ryan said. "There is so much good, so much joy, so much compassion all around us, but we often simply fail to see it. It is there, but it's hidden. All it needs is a few points of light. So in a moment, we will light this tree. We will always try to bring an expert here to help us do that though. This year, we have got a brilliant young expert. This year, we have Bridgette Harrington from Hillsboro."
Harrington won a statewide contest with her poem, "'Twas the Month Before Christmas," and the privilege of helping Ryan light the tree.
"It's time to cut our Christmas tree," Harrington said, wrapping up a recitation of her poem. "We've got to find the right one. Can't wait to get it home inside, all decorated and done. As I close my eyes for sleep, my heart holds memories dear, thinking of my home, our state, my Oregon, how glad I am here."
"Let's hear it for Bridgette," Ryan said, before leading a count-down from five.
"Let 'er rip," he said as Harrington switched on the lights, to applause, below the Capitol building on the west lawn.
"Wow. What a beautiful thing, a blessing and an honor for Sweet Home," said Sweet Home City Councilor Susan Coleman, who led the local effort to organize a Christmas celebration around the Christmas tree, following the ceremony.
"Sweet Home can always use a shot of good news. When goodness happens, it's good to celebrate it."
"Perfect," said Councilor Dave Trask. "Wasn't that amazing?"
"I'm ecstatic," said Mayor Greg Mahler. "I'm honored to be here. It's amazing to come here and be part of history, representing the citizens of Oregon and Sweet Home."
"It's great," said Sweet Home City Manager Ray Towry. "It's fantastic. It's a testament to the community's ability to be on the big stage. We helped do it right – as Oregon at its best. It was a huge opportunity to portray Sweet Home in a positive light on a national stage."
William Dowling, the son of the late Dr. Harold Dowling of Sweet Home, made it to the Christmas tree lighting ceremony. The Sweet Home native has spent the last 20 years in the Washington, D.C., area. He is employed by the Department of Naval Aviation in the Department of Defense.
He was surprised and excited to learn the Capitol Christmas tree was coming from his home territory.
"I was just thinking a month ago or so, they always get the tree from South Carolina or Vermont," Dowling said.
"Oregonians do lots of things well, and what we do best is grow Christmas trees," said Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden said during the ceremony. "And nobody does that better than Sweet Home. Sweet Home is a wonderful place for the holidays. I had a chance to march in the parade. It's when we officially launched the journey (across the country), and the reality is the theme of this year's tree, the people's tree, is Find Your Trail. That's fitting because the national trail system turned 50 this year, and the Oregon Trail turned 175. That's older than almost all the sitting members of the United States Senate if you can believe it."
He made special note of Harrington.
"I've had a chance to listen to her wonderful poetry," Wyden said. "You folks are going to be reading her poetry often in the years ahead."
Wyden reflected on what the evening was all about.
"We're enjoying holiday celebrations, Christmas, Hanukkah, Diwali, Kwanzaa and more, and it is such a treat to see people from sea to shining sea decorating their trees, lighting their menorahs and oil lamps, cooking wonderful meals and above all, enjoying time with family," Wyden said. "Our diversity is a strength. It is one that Americans owe to the framers of our wonderful Constitution. The right to freely practice one's religion or to practice no religion at all, is a part of America's national DNA, so no matter how you choose to celebrate the end of 2018, no matter what trail is yours, I hope you'll take a minute to reflect on this fundamental American right and why it is so worth defending."
With all of the Oregon congressional delegation out tonight, he said, it is "vintage Oregon. This is Oregon at its best. Happy holidays."
Oregon's other senator, Jeff Merkley, recounted how, 214 years ago, the explorers Lewis and Clark set out for the west coast of the United States, forging a trail that took them across the Great Plains, through the Rockies to a trail that took them down to the Columbia River and to the "great old-growth forests of the Pacific Northwest."
"Those forests have been part of our culture and our economy ever since," Merkley said. "In fact, nearly 20 percent of our state are national forests, and we love those forests, everything they bring us in commerce and in pleasure and in every possible feeding of the soul."
"Isn't this the most beautiful people's Christmas tree in the history of the United States? This is one of the grandest varieties of fir that we find out in the forest, and I've really never seen one so extraordinarily symmetrical. It's like the Willamette National Forest said, 'Let's grow the most perfect tree ever to share with the entire United States of America. So in this season, this season of joy, this season of reflection, let us join together in that spirit that unifies America, of living everyone up across our country together, and in so doing, let's each of us find our trail. Take care and merry Christmas."
Rep. Peter DeFazio said he was "really proud to represent the Fourth District, the Willamette Forest, the Sweet Home District, the City of Sweet Home."
"We've talked a lot about anniversaries tonight. It's the 125th anniversary of the City of Sweet Home this year in addition to the other anniversaries we're celebrating."
DeFazio always has a noble fir at home, he said.
"I'm pleased that finally someone had the good judgment to choose a noble as our national tree. It's my favorite Christmas tree, and this is absolutely fabulous. Oregon's a little different place for those of you who aren't from Oregon. That tree is 35 years old. We grow them quick and big in Oregon. We have the most productive forest lands in the United States of America."
Noting the history of the national trail system, DeFazio said President Lyndon Johnson was looking for something perhaps to unify the people in a tumultuous time when he instituted the network of trails in 1968.
Oregon has five national trails, DeFazio noted. "When he proposed this to Congress, he said that the beauty of the American outdoors not be a holiday treat but part of our daily life and a resource that ought to be available to every American."
Among those five trails, one is in the "magnificent Willamette forest, the home of the Capitol Christmas tree, DeFazio said.
"Just like those trails, this tree allows everyone from all over the country to come together and enjoy Oregon's beauty and bounty during the holiday season. I'm proud to call Oregon home, and it's truly an honor to have our tree here as the national Christmas tree, to celebrate this special time of year, and I hope this tree inspires all of you here to go out and find your own trail. As President Johnson said 50 years ago, beauty belongs to all the people, and this is beauty."
"The tree was brought to us this year by the people of Oregon from the Sweet Home Ranger District on the Willamette National Forest," said U.S. Forest Service Chief Vickie Christiansen. "This tree is 75 feet tall, and it's a noble fir, the first noble fir ever displayed here on the west lawn of Capitol Hill. The tree is called the 'people's tree' and for good reason. It reminds us that even in a nation as diverse as the United States, we are one American people.
"We share a unique history, unique values and a homeland that remains the envy of the world, including the the millions of acres of forestland that contribute so much to all of us. It embodied the same American spirit of national unity."
The tree traveled 3,000 miles from Oregon, involving many different people of all ages in all walks of life at stops along the way to Andrews Air Force Base, Christiansen said. "The entire journey, from the selection of the tree to its arrival here in Washington, D.C., reminds us of what we can accomplish when we unite for a common purpose if we work together to sustain our nations forests. We can produce trees like this for generations to come."
"Tonight we celebrate the merriment of the season and take a moment to reflect on the history and tradition of the Christmas tree here at the United States Capitol," said Christine A. Merdon, acting architect of the Capitol and chief operating officer. The tradition began in 1964 when Speaker of the House John McCormack suggested a decorated tree. By 1970, the U.S. Forest Service began providing the Capitol Christmas tree from one of America's national forests.
"What a beautiful tree," Ryan said. "This is a beautiful occasion. This is my fourth and final time leading this event, and each time, the tree is more stunning. I will say we've had some pretty nice trees in Wisconsin, so maybe one of these days we get a Wisconsin tree here, but I've got to say this noble fir is the best that I have seen. It is a gorgeous tree."
Reflecting on the loss of President George H.W. Bush, "a beacon of joy," this week, Ryan said, he recalled a letter written by President Bush to his granddaughter the day she was born.
"He ends the letter by saying how you can do all these incredible things in life," Ryan said. "But even with all of that, he writes what counts is family and love. Now he didn't necessarily write about Christmas, but is there anything that better captures its spirit, its light? We celebrate Christmas year after year and somehow it never becomes less special. It's a season dedicated to wonder and faith. We take our joy at the birth of a Savior, heralded by angels, and we spread that joy to all others in their lives. I think we could all say that we could all use a little bit more of that. Sometimes our best blessings are hidden."
Ryan said his favorite Christmas movie is "It's a Wonderful Life" which describes how George Bailey who falls so far he imagines the world would be better without him.
"Only when an angel comes to him and reveals how much he is loved, how much he is worth, what kind of an impact he's had on others, only then does he realize that he truly has a wonderful life," Ryan said, and like him, "we all have angels in our own lives to remind us."
"Thank you, Willamette," said Merdon, the architect. Welcome, members of Congress, distinguished guests, our Capitol Hill neighbors and those of you who are visiting the nation's capitol today. We are so happy you are joining us in celebrating this most wonderful time of year at the United States Capitol."
The tree is decorated by thousands of hand-crafted ornaments by children and adults from all over Oregon, she said, but it received one more ornament tonight from the U.S. Capitol Historical Society.
Donald G. Carlson, chairman of the U.S. Capitol Historical Society Board of Trustees, presented the final ornament. The organization was chartered by Congress to educate the public on the history and heritage of the U.S. Capitol.
The center of the ornament features a replica of the dome made from the marble original used for the east front steps of the house wing of the capitol, ascended by an estimated 9,000 members of Congress before they were removed in 1995, Carlson said. By special permission, part of the marble was ground into dust and combined with a resin to create the ornaments. They may be acquired at uschs.org.
"This year's ornament was inspired by the ornate Minton tiles which adorned the house and senate extension wings," Carlson said. "Chosen for their beauty, durability and sophistication, these tiled floors continue to be a striking feature at the Capitol building today."