Capitol tree coming from the land of enchantment

For the second time in 14 years, New Mexico is sending a holiday tree to decorate the Capitol lawn.

The tree, an 80-foot Engelmann spruce, hails from the Santa Fe National Forest at 8,500 feet in elevation. It will make 16 stops around New Mexico for community holiday celebrations before beginning its journey north for the annual Capitol tree lighting ceremony.

File Photo
2002 Christmas tree reaches D.C.

The annual tree selection had an unusually rocky start this year when a new Forest Service policy almost delayed the cutting of the Capitol tree.

In response to a new Federal District Court environmental ruling, the U.S. Forest Service suspended all activities in the forest and required a 30-day public comment period for anything from Boy Scout camping trips to cutting Christmas trees.

Under the ruling, the harvesting of the Capitol holiday tree was put on hold until a federal judge determined that the environmental law did not apply to harvesting the holiday tree.

The tree was harvested on Nov. 7 and is leaving the Land of Enchantment on Nov. 22. It is scheduled to arrive at the Capitol on Nov. 25 after stopping in Richmond, Ind., for a community celebration, according to Lawrence Lujan, Santa Fe National Forest public affairs specialist.

Once it arrives, the tree will be decorated with lights and ornaments made by New Mexico schoolchildren and other organizations that have been preparing since October.

The lighting ceremony will take place Dec. 8 at 5 p.m. on the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol. Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) will do the honors, and the New Mexico delegation is expected to attend, according to Lujan.

Sixty-five “companion trees” will accompany the tree from the Land of Enchantment to be displayed in various government offices, including the New Mexico delegation offices and the Supreme Court.

According to the Architect of the Capitol’s website, the regular practice of displaying a holiday tree on the Capitol grounds is relatively recent. Correspondence of 1919 in the architect’s files indicates that a holiday tree was purchased that year. However, it was not until 1964 that a definite procedure was established.

In 1963, then-Speaker John McCormack (D-Mass.) suggested to then-Architect J. George Stewart that a holiday tree be placed on the Capitol grounds. Intending it to be a permanent, flourishing tree, Stewart purchased a live, 24-foot Douglas fir from a nursery in Birdsboro, Pa., and planted it on the West Front lawn.

Each year through 1967 this tree was decorated and a tree-lighting ceremony held. But a combination of factors, including root damage and a severe windstorm in the spring of 1967, led to the tree’s demise.

To replace it, the architect’s office in 1968 assembled a 30-foot artificial tree from two white pines from Finxburg, Md. In 1969, one 40-foot white pine from Westminster, Md., was used.

For the 1970 season, Paul Pincus, then the landscape architect, decided to have the U.S. Forest Service choose the tree with input from the architect’s office, rotating from among various national forests.

Michigan claims the most Capitol trees, with five, followed by Minnesota, Wisconsin, Vermont and California, all with four.

More than 1,000 people typically attend the lighting ceremonies, which are open to the public and free of charge. The tree will be lit each evening through Jan. 1, from nightfall until 11:00 p.m. It will be removed on Jan. 2.