By: Stephen Vellecca

This past Thursday, President Joe Biden lit the national Christmas tree in front of the White House, an American tradition going back to 1923. Every president since Calvin Coolidge has participated in the lighting, and it gives the president a chance to unite the country in the celebration and observance of the cheerfulness, optimism, and joy that accompanies the Christmas season. 

Each presidential speech usually conveys a specific theme, reflective of the year that the nation just experienced; Biden used his speech to discuss the rebuilding of our spirit and our nation after the pandemic. According to People Magazine, President Biden stated, for example:

“For the evergreen tree — it reminds us that even in the coldest, darkest days of winter that life and abundance will return…it’s a bright beacon of hope that reminds us of the promise we find in scripture of finding light in the darkness, which is also a very American thing to do — perhaps the most American of things: to find light. And it’s important to continue traditions like this one to remember that simple truth today.”

2021 marks the return of in-person celebration of this occasion, as the 2020 Christmas Tree Lighting was a small, televised event due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In that speech, President Donald Trump used the opportunity to bring hope to a weary nation and to thank all those who put endless hours and dedicated their lives to helping others during this time; talking about their “selflessness” and “compassion.” 

Going back in time, we see past presidents who preached similar messages. In 1963, President Lyndon B. Johnson lit the tree and spoke before a nation disheartened by the assassination of President John F. Kennedy a month before. Johnson, according to White House transcripts, remarked: 

“Tonight we come to the end of the season of great national sorrow, and to the beginning of the season of great, eternal joy. We mourn our great President, John F. Kennedy, but he would have us go on. While our spirits cannot be light, our hearts need not be heavy.

We were taught by Him whose birth we commemorate that after death there is life. We can believe, and we do believe, that from the death of our national leader will come a rebirth of the finest qualities of our national life.”

And ten years later in 1973, President Richard Nixon used this moment to celebrate the end of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam war, and to unite a nation so heavily plagued and divided by unemployment, watergate, and the war itself. He gave a message of peace and hope, telling the American people that they may have to do with less this Christmas but there was still much to celebrate:

“The spirit of Christmas is not measured by the number of lights on a tree, it is measured by the love each of us has in our hearts for family, for friends, for our fellow americans and for people all over the world…this is the first Christmas in twelve years that a president has stood here at a time when America was at peace with every nation in the world.”

In all, times may change and presidents come and go, but the message never changes; Christmas is a time where everyone can experience peace, love, and joy, which is something all of us should always remember.