A Christmas to remember

Stephanie Taylor Ferriell, Print Editor

Not very many people can say they’ve watched the President and First Lady flip the switch to light the National Christmas Tree, but the Green family of Pekin can. The Greens traveled to Washington, D.C. last month and attended the tree lighting ceremony. It was a dream come true for Ruth Ann Green.

“Conner [the eldest son] was born on Christmas and when he was little we started watching ‘Christopher the Christmas Tree,’” she said. “I used to think it would be a fun thing to go to D.C. and see the National Christmas Tree.”

“Christopher the Christmas Tree” was written by the late George Bowers, a Salem resident, and tells the story of a scraggly pine tree who dreams of becoming a beautiful Christmas tree, bringing joy and love to all.

Ruth Ann and her husband, Mark, had their second son, Caleb, in 2008. Ruth Ann still dreamed about attending the ceremony but, well, life rolled on year after year and it didn’t happen.

Until this year. 

Ruth Ann was online in October and saw that the National Parks Service was holding a lottery for tickets to attend the National Tree Lighting. She entered just two days before the deadline.

“I thought, ‘We’ll never get tickets,’” she said. “I said silent prayers, but I didn’t tell Mark or the boys so they wouldn’t be disappointed when it didn’t happen.”

Fate was on Ruth Ann’s side this year. On Nov. 2nd she received an email informing her she had been drawn for tickets to the ceremony. Her Christmas child didn’t believe the news at first. “He said, ‘You’re just teasing me.’”

The family didn’t have much time to prepare for the trip, but Ruth Ann tackled that task with gusto. The parks service provided only tickets to the ceremony; all travel arrangements and expenses were the family’s responsibility. They decided the special family trip would be a big part of their Christmas gifts this year.

They flew into D.C. Nov. 27, a Tuesday, one day prior to the ceremony. They stayed in the Georgetown area of the city.

The tree is situated in President’s Park, which is a national park, right in front of the White House. Unfortunately, the weather was not cooperative. “It was extremely cold and windy that night,” said Ruth Ann. “That’s the only thing I didn’t like about it.”

The crowd of several thousand waited in anticipation for the arrival of President Trump and First Lady Melania Trump. They were driven the short distance from the White House in a limousine and the President gave remarks at the ceremony.

“The President and First Lady did the countdown,” said Ruth Ann. They were very close to the First Family - Mark estimates about 60 feet. The immense living tree is decorated in a red and green color scheme and illuminated with thousands of lights.

The tree lighting was only the beginning of the evening’s events. Fortunately for the Grays, much of the crowd left immediately following, giving them more room and a better view.

The U.S. Army Band played and there were several special performers, including Thompson Square and a group of nuns, the Dominican Sisters of Mary. Choirs from surrounding states sang and Santa Claus made an appearance, leading an audience sing-a-long.

The grounds also include a display of 50 small  trees representing each state. Those trees are decorated by school children from each state; Our Lady of Grace Catholic School was selected to decorate Indiana’s tree this year.

This was the 96th lighting of the National Christmas Tree. The tradition began with President Calvin Coolidge, who walked from the White House to light the tree in an era long before the security concerns of today. The Greens said President Trump was behind a clear shield for almost the entire time he was present.

The Greens made the most of their trip to the nation’s capital.

Ruth Ann contacted Congressman Trey Hollingsworth’s office, and they arranged a tour of the U.S. Capital. Hollingsworth met them personally, escorting them to a chapel that isn’t normally seen by the public. They also got to walk through the tunnels underneath and view the artwork by high school students that decorates them.

“We were pretty excited Trey took time out of his busy schedule to come and meet with us,” said Ruth Ann. “We thought that was pretty neat.”

The capital was one of Mark’s favorite sites. He said as they were living he asked the guide if they could exit through the front as they had come in the back. “She said, ‘No, you didn’t. There is no back or front,’” recalled Mark. The guide explained that’s because freedmon doesn’t look back, it always faces front. “I thought that was really neat,” he said.

They saw several other landmarks as well, including Jefferson and Lincoln memorials, the Vietnam Wall and the memorials for both World War II and the Korean War. The family visited the Air and Space Museum and Arlington National Cemetery, but were unable to tour the White House; visits there require two months’ minimum advance notice. However, they did get to view an impressive Lego model of the White House, which took over 800 hours to build.

The botanical gardens were a favorite for the entire family. Mark said there are sculptures of many capital landmarks, all constructed from natural materials, such as seeds, bark and other items. They were made by a man in Kentucky they learned.

Being in the city for the holidays made the experience even more special. “It was decorated so pretty,” said Ruth Ann. “Everything was decorated, all the stores and Union Station. It’s extra pretty this time of year.”

Ruth Ann had visited the capital before, but this was Mark’s first trip. “I was shocked!” he said. “I had never been to D.C. It was bigger than what I expected it to be.”

The family returned home on Saturday, a short visit completed but leaving all four with memories to last a lifetime.

“All these years, I wanted to go and was afraid we wouldn’t get to,” said Ruth Ann. “Our capital visit was a very special to all of us. It was really nice.”


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