U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree Pays Homage to Obama—But Not Jesus

Terence P. Jeffrey | December 19, 2011 | 6:49pm EST
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This ornament, celebrating President Barack Obama, adorns the Capitol Christmas Tree that was officially lighted on Dec. 6, 2011. (CNSNews.com/Terence P. Jeffrey)

(CNSNews.com) - The 63-foot Sierra White Fir lighted at the U.S. Capitol Grounds on Dec. 6 as the official 2011 Capitol Christmas Tree includes a prominently displayed ornament paying homage to President Barack Obama, but includes no ornament readily visible to a person standing near the tree's base that uses the word “Christmas,” or includes an image of the Nativity, or bears the name or image of Jesus Christ.

On the north side of the tree--at a height of about 4 feet and easily visible to people standing near it---there is an ornament that says: “I ♥ President Obama.”

When asked whether the tree included any ornaments that mention or depict Christmas or the birth of Jesus, the office of the Architect of the Capitol, which is responsible for the tree, told CNSNews.com that it “does not have a policy nor any restrictions concerning the themes for the ornaments” that go on the tree. The office could not say, however, whether or not this year’s Christmas tree does in fact include even a single ornament that directly references or depicts Christmas or Christ.

The 2011 Capitol Christmas Tree (CNSNews.com/Terence P. Jeffrey)

The office of the Architect of the Capitol also did not directly respond to the question of whether any other elected official—in addition to President Obama—is mentioned on any ornament hung on the tree.

“There may be ornaments like those you describe near the top of the tree, or they could have been obscured or moved due to wind or weather,” the architect’s office said in a written statement to CNSNews.com.

Each year since 1964, Congress has been decorating a Christmas tree on the Capitol Grounds. Until 1968, the decorated tree was a live tree planted on the Grounds. Since then, the tree has been cut down—usually in a National Forest--and brought to the Capitol from somewhere in the United States. Since 1970, the U.S. Forest Service has been responsible for providing the tree.

Over the years, the Capitol Christmas Tree has come from an irregular rotation of states—including, not exclusively, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Minnesota, Vermont, and California. The state that sends the tree in any given year, according to the Architect of the Capitol, chooses the theme for the ornaments it will bear. People from that state create the ornaments and donate them to the government.

This year’s tree came from the Stanislaus National Forest in Tuolumne County, Calif., which sits on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, due East of San Francisco.

The view looking past the Capitol Christmas Tree toward the Washington Monument. (CNSNews.com/Terence P. Jeffrey)

The theme for this year’s ornaments was “California Shines.”

“Ornaments should be designed to reflect our theme ‘California Shines’ by showing how the rich cultural and ecological diversity of this state make it shine,” says the tree’s official website, which was funded by corporate sponsors.  ”From the Pacific Ocean to the sparkling deserts, from the high mountain peaks to its forests, rivers and abundant Central Valley, the diversity of nature and the people who live here are what make the great state of California shine.”

While the website said that all Californians were invited to submit ornaments, it put a special emphasis on getting students to participate.

“We invite participation from all Californians,” said the website. “From individuals, artists, crafters, young and old alike, any and all are invited to create and send in an ornament.”

But a flyer distributed by the website said: “Although anyone can participate, a special invitation goes out to school classes, after-school programs, home school groups, scout troops and all other interested youth groups to create the ornaments for the outdoor tree.”

In keeping with this special invitation to students, the official website also produced some environmental “lesson plans” that teachers could use in helping their students create ornaments.

“We ask that all ornaments for the Capitol Christmas Tree be made out of natural or recycled materials,” said the introduction to the lesson plans. “Please share the thoughts in our mini-lesson ‘There is No Away’ with your students when they create an ornament for the Tree.”

This ornament shows gold miner, backed by a Bible, circled by a quote from Psalm 19. (CNSNews.com/Terence P. Jeffrey)

“Ask students where they think that trash goes when they throw it away,” said this introduction. “Work with them until they understand that trash eventually ends up in a landfill. Show students the image of a landfill.”

Although the Capitol Christmas Tree, as it stood on the morning of Dec. 19, included no readily visible ornament that mentioned or depicted Christmas or Jesus, it did include one ornament that pointed to the Bible and Psalm 19. This ornament, made from an aluminum pie tin, shows a miner panning for gold with a Bible behind him. There is a gold cross on the cover of the Bible. Around the interior wall of the pie tin, these words are written with what appears to be a blue marker: “More precious than Gold” and “Psalm 19.”

This lonely religious ornament cites Psalm 19 with what appears to be a blue marker. (CNSNews.com/Terence P. Jeffrey)

Psalm 19 says in part: “The decrees of the Lord are firm, and all of them are righteous. They are more precious than gold.”

The tree also includes an ornament that from a distance looks like it could be a cross--but closer up turns out to be a road sign, pointing the direction not to California—but 4837 miles to Hawaii.

Other prominent ornaments on the tree tout Disneyland, Hollywood, the Los Angeles Lakers and the Los Angeles Dodgers.

The tree also includes a number of ornaments representing Christmas gift packages. The ribbons on these packages are arranged in a cross pattern--but all of them have "Happy Holidays" ensribed on them.

The official website of the Capitol Christmas Tree has posted 87 photos of Californians making ornaments or posing with ornaments they have made. One of these photos shows a young girl holding an ornament that depicts one of the missions founded in California in the 18th century by Spanish Franciscan missionaries. It is unclear whether this ornament was placed somewhere on the 63-foot tree.

From a distance, this ornament appears as if it could be a cross, but turns out to be a a mile marker pointing toward Hawaii. (CNSNews.com/Terence P. Jeffrey)

CNSNews.com sent a series of question about the ornaments to the U.S. Forest Service office in Tuolumne County, Calif., that was responsible for securing the tree and collecting the ornaments and sending them to Washington, D.C. These questions asked if any ornaments had been excluded because of their content and if there were any ornaments actually hung on the tree that expressly mentioned or depicted Christmas, or the birth of Jesus, or any Christian cultural site in California, such as the California missions.

Along with these questions, CNSNews.com sent the Forest Service a photograph of the ornaments that said “I ♥ President Obama” and that quoted Psalm 19, and asked if there were any other ornaments on the tree that mentioned an incumbent elected official or that cited a biblical passage from either the Old or New Testament.

A number of ornaments depict Christmas packages tied with ribbons in a cross pattern--but all say: "Happy Holidays." (CNSNews.com/Terence P. Jeffrey)

The Forest Service said that it had simply sent all ornaments that had been donated by Californians--along with the 63-foot White Sierra Fir--to Ted Bechtol, who works under the Architect of the Capitol as the Superintendent of the Capitol Ground. The Forest Service also said it had forwarded CNSnews.com’s questions to Bechtol.

Separately, CNSNews.com sent the questions and photos directly to Bechtol and Eva Malecki, communications officer for the Architect of the Capitol. Malecki responded with this statement:

An ornamental star celebrating Hollywood on the Capitol Christmas Tree. (CNSNews.com/Terence P. Jeffrey)

“Thank you for your inquiry. The Office of the Architect of the Capitol (AOC) does not have a policy nor any restrictions concerning the themes for the ornaments donated for the Capitol Christmas Tree. Each state determines its own theme each year, and the U.S. Forest Service collects the ornaments from communities throughout the state from which the tree is donated.  (For more information about the types of ornaments collected and collection process, I recommend you speak with the U.S. Forest Service.) Thousands of ornaments are delivered by the U.S. Forest Service to the U.S. Capitol in large boxes along with the Capitol Christmas Tree. There is no selection process to determine which ornaments were to be placed on the Capitol Christmas Tree and which were not based on theme or content.  Rather, the Capitol Grounds crew has to decorate a 65-foot tree in a matter of days, therefore they place ornaments on the Capitol Christmas Tree until it is fully decorated.  Their only concern is that the ornaments stand up to the weather (durable and waterproof). We cannot provide you with the information you requested as to the location of specific ornaments on the Capitol Christmas Tree. As I noted earlier, the Capitol Grounds crew placed thousands of the hand-crafted ornaments on the 65-foot tall Capitol Christmas Tree. There may be ornaments like those you describe near the top of the tree, or they could have been obscured or moved due to wind or weather. The Capitol Christmas Tree has been a wonderful tradition on Capitol Hill for more than 45 years, and it is not the AOC’s policy or practice to exclude the display of donated ornaments on the Capitol Christmas Tree because of any viewpoint of those individuals who created them.”  

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