On December 24, 1923, President Calvin Coolidge threw a switch that lighted the first National Christmas Tree on the grounds of the White House. The first tree contained electric lights and was harvested from Coolidge's home state of Vermont. The tradition of having a tree inside the White House was begun by President Benjamin Harrison, who set up a tree in 1889, decorated with ornaments and candles.
The year after that first lighting, Coolidge reversed his position on cutting down trees for decorating, and a live tree was planted in Sherman Plaza, where the tree was decorated and lit for the next ten years. In 1934, two trees were planted in Lafayette Park, north of the White House grounds for use as the "National Christmas Tree(s)." In 1939 and 1940, a tree was transplanted from the Mount Vernon Parkway to the Ellipse for use as the National Christmas Tree and then returned to the parkway shoulder. At the request of Eleanor Roosevelt, the ceremony (and the trees) were moved inside the gates of the White House grounds until 1954.
That year, the Pageant of Peace was introduced and the ceremony was moved out to the Ellipse. For the next twenty years, until 1973, cut trees were brought to the Ellipse to be used as the National Christmas tree. In October 1973, a Blue Spruce was planted on the Ellipse to be used as the National Christmas Tree, however it was damaged in the transplant and a new tree was planted in 1977. That tree was heavily damaged by winter storms the following year and a third tree was placed on the site in 1978. In 2011, that tree was felled in a winter windstorm and a replacement tree was installed in 2012.
Last night the tradition continued with the National Christmas Tree lighting (and Pageant of Peace) - and all of the associated traffic headaches and detours. This weekend will also likely mark the annual outing to secure the Christmas tree(s) for the launchpad.