WASHINGTON – Thousands of people danced to holiday music Thursday to keep warm in freezing temperatures and a blanket of snow that covered the capital. They gathered on the Ellipse,south of the White House,for musical performances and to see the 84th annual National Christmas Tree Lighting ceremony.
Performers at the show that preceded the lighting included country singer Sara Evans,classical artist Holly Stell,Broadway’s Brad Oscar as Santa Claus,and his sister,Victoria,as Mrs. Claus. Choirs from St. Albans and National Cathedral High Schools in Washington sang back-up vocals.
“I’m really excited to be here,” said a polished Stell,15,during rehearsals earlier in the day. Stell said she was excited to be singing “My Favorite Things” and “O’ Holy Night” for the president and his wife.
“It is such an honor to even be in his presence,” said the soprano,who is making her second musical appearance at the Christmas lighting ceremony. “I’m a little nervous because of the weather. I’m just thankful for hand-warmers.”
Holiday tunes were provided by the United States Air Force Band,led by Col. Dennis M. Layendecker.
“Once again the Air Force has generated a lot of snow,” Layendecker said,chuckling. “Last time we had a blizzard.”
The four service bands rotate appearances at the ceremony. Layendecker was last here five years ago.
“I’m proud to be here again,” Layendecker said. “We were up at o’dark hundred hours to make sure we were here at seven. It is always extra special to do this for the president.”
The president was joined by first lady Laura Bush,Vice President Dick Cheney,Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne and people from all over the nation,who came to see the Colorado blue spruce lit up. For the first time,the tree is outfitted with energy efficient LED lights,which will use 59 percent less energy than last year’s lights.
Smaller pine trees set up around the national tree symbolize the 50 states,the District of Columbia and the U.S. territories. The smaller trees were decorated with ornaments characteristic of each state and territory.
President Calvin Coolidge hosted the first national tree lighting in 1923.
“There’s at least one person here who remembers that year,” Bush said. “Santa we’re glad you’re here. We appreciate you bringing Mrs. Claus. Both you and I married well.”
Bush thanked everyone for attending and paid a special tribute to the men and women who will be overseas during the holiday. He was joined by “two of the nation’s youth,” Brianna Kinder and Damarcus Hawkins,identified by the White House as children who participate in after-school programs,to help light the tree.
Families at the ceremony didn’t seem to mind the cold. Maddy Skrocki,12,came with her sister,Alice,10,and parents,Sheryl and Tom Skrocki,all of Fairfax Station,Va.