Every year, a Christmas tree selected from one of the country’s National Forests is displayed on the West Lawn of the Capitol. (That’s the side facing the Washington Monument.) In contrast to the National Christmas Tree in front of the White House, former Congressman Tip O’Neill named this tree “the People’s Tree.” This year, the tree came from the White River National Forest in Colorado, so that was especially exciting for me since for the purposes of this year, I am effectively a Coloradan.
Not only did Colorado send the big tree, and not only did the residents make thousands of ornaments for the big tree, but they also sent two smaller trees for the offices of the Colorado Senators. A Girl Scout troop sent hand-made ornaments for our office tree as well, although there was some disappointment in my sugar-fixated office that there were no Girl Scout cookies as part of the care package.
Transporting the 73-foot tall Engelmann spruce was not a straight-forward endeavor, and the process displayed the pride of Coloradans for supplying the tree. Former Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell took charge of driving the tree, strapped to a Mac truck, on its journey first in an Olympic torch-esque tour of the state and eventually from Meeker, CO where it was cut to Washington, DC. Senator Bennet reported that one of his daughters took a look at the truck when it came through Denver and asked, “Daddy, why can’t you do that?”
As for the main event, I was feeling a bit pleased with myself since I was on staff of one of the hosting offices, and I obviously had the inside scoop on the occasion. As staff, I was allowed into the VIP area along with our Colorado constituents, so I had an excellent view of everything. Then I looked up at the Capitol itself, and I saw all the people standing out on the balcony. How did they get there? How did they know that would be a wonderful view? I may have some insider’s information about Washington, but I obviously have a bit yet to learn about working all the angles.
In Washington, even a tree lighting ceremony is not necessarily simple. Having planned out every little detail of the event, an additional challenge was added less than an hour before the planned start time. A pair of roll call votes was called for the Senate, including the vote on the Defense Authorization Act, and since these votes are scheduled to last only 15 minutes, and the ceremony was planned for 30 minutes, it was a bit of a challenge. In the House, Representatives can hand off their proxies to colleagues, but in the Senate, all voting is done in person.
With exquisite coordination, Senator Michael Bennet arrived at the ceremony on time, and the program was rearranged so that he could speak prior to Senator Mark Udall, the senior Senator from Colorado. Sen. Bennet said a few quick words, explained that he needed to go vote, introduced his colleague, and dashed off to the Senate floor. Sen. Udall had waited for the vote to start, cast his vote, and arrived at the ceremony just a little late, but the choreography ensured that Colorado would be well represented.
We had a spell of extremely warm weather early this week, and it hit 70 degrees on Tuesday. Sen. Udall pointed out that in Colorado, there’s a standing rule that for every degree below zero it is outside, you must shorten your speech by a minute. He threatened to go on and on in honor of the warm weather, but he managed to keep his remarks concise.
In addition to the presence of the entire Congressional delegation from Colorado, the Fellows were also well-represented, evenly divided among Senate and House Fellows. As staff, we were all allowed into the VIP viewing area, so we got some excellent pictures.
Since I moved to DC only for a year, I tried very hard not to over-pack, and that included leaving Christmas decorations at home. I think I am enjoying everyone else’s decorations that much more this month, and I feel that as a temporarily transplanted Coloradan and simply as someone living in this country, I am allowed a sense of ownership of the People’s Tree. As an added bonus, I don’t have to worry about taking it down in January.