In 1923, President Calvin Coolidge lit a 48-foot fir tree in the Ellipse at the White House adorned with over 2,500 electric bulbs in red, white, and green–as voices sang holiday carols in the background. In 2016, and for the 94th time, President Coolidge’s original message of hope and peace carries on to become a highly celebrated tradition, better known as the National Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony in Washington, DC.
With the best star-studded line-up to date, this year’s ceremony is different. It is hard to ignore a bittersweet feeling in the air. This itch wouldn’t leave me alone in the back of my mind. It is Barack Obama’s last Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony at the White House; it’s the beginning of his final send-off.
Hosted by Eva Longoria, this year’s star-studded line-up features Kelly Clarkson, Chance the Rapper, Yolanda Adams, The Lumineers, Marc Anthony, James Taylor, Garth Brooks, and Trisha Yearwood–as well as appearances by Barack and Michelle Obama, with special guest Olympic Gold Medal swimmer Simone Manuel.
President of the National Parks Foundation, Will Shafroth, says, “There’s something in our National Parks for everyone, and we’ve represented that with the breadth of this year’s talent for tonight’s ceremony.”
Parks are one of the few parts of our country that genuinely bring people together. Shafroth adds, “The Statue of Liberty is just as patriotic a place for a Democrat, as it is a Republican. We are fortunate that we [The National Parks Foundation] represent a place of unity and peace in this post-election world where the country has felt pretty divided along the way.”
One of the night’s most talked about performers Chance the Rapper, who dropped his third mixtape earlier this year titled Coloring Book, feels the great honor to be invited to attend. “It’s historic to me to be here tonight for one of Obama’s last public events in his term. I’ve always wanted to perform for the President and for it to be during the holiday season and on the eve of a new presidency is something I won’t forget,” he says.
Chance talks about how he’s going to miss the photos of Obama with kids at the White House from various events throughout the year. He explains, “It’s the vision that a President who is so powerful, with a magnitude of great character is so down to earth and compassionate at the same time. It sucks a little bit to see him leave.”
Also in attendance is Simone Manuel, who won four medals at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games. Most notably, Manuel became the first African-American woman to win an individual Olympic gold in swimming. Prior to joining the First Lady onstage, she mingles and takes photos with other talent. Manuel says, “I just met Yolanda Adams, who is one of my favorite gospel singers. I actually listened to her song ‘Victory’ before I swam my 100-freestyle.”
Manuel feels honored to be invited to one of Obama’s last public events as president. “While this is my second time at the White House, it’s bittersweet because I know it’s Obama’s last one,” she says. Manuel reads ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas with the First Lady onstage to children from the Boys and Girls Club and is also introduced as an ‘American Hero’.
After an evening of cheerful performances, the last to take the stage is the President himself, Mr. Barack Obama. He drives home the core of his election eight years ago – hope.
Obama says, “After eight years as your President, I still believe that there’s so much more that unites us than divides us. I’ve seen big-hearted, hopeful people, who look out for each other and who have each other’s backs. Who find strength in our differences, and keep moving forward, knowing we’re all in this together. That is our values and who we are, who we always will be.”
As he speaks, the crowd is silent, the tree glistens behind him with the White House further back, and those in attendance know they just witnessed a piece of history that they probably will be seeing for the last time.
He concludes the night with this: “I just want to express what an incredible honor it has been to serve this nation, and to feel its warmth and to feel its generosity, and how our family has been awed by America’s goodness. And, most of all, it has been so special to share these eight years with all of you.”
As bittersweet as the night felt throughout, it is and remains about coming together.