There was a wintry chill in the air on Thursday evening as President Obama and the First Family attended the 90th annual ceremony to light the National Christmas Tree. With a crowd of more than 17,000 gathered on the Ellipse just beyond the South Lawn of the White House, the First Family counted down and then threw the switch to illuminate the giant blue spruce, officially kicking off Christmas in the Nation's capital.
The 5:30 PM event included musical performances and First Lady Michelle Obama giving her annual dramatic reading of 'Twas the Night Before Christmas, joined by Modern Family actor Rico Rodriguez. Modern Family star Neil Patrick Harris hosted (above, right, with the President and First Family and Rodriguez)
Clad in a dark overcoat with a red muffler, President Obama hailed the tree as a symbol of rebuilding and strength, likening it to the survivors of Hurricane Sandy. The tree is the second replacement for the long-standing National Christmas Tree that grew on the Ellipse for more than 30 years until it was felled by high winds in February of 2011.
"In times of war and peace, triumph and tragedy, we've always come together to rejoice in the Christmas miracle," President Obama said. "But our tree has been having a hard time recently."
"Just goes to show, nobody's job is safe here in Washington," he added, to laughter from the crowd.
The President told a story from Midland Beach, NY, which is still devastated by Sandy. Despite the damage, a group of friends who grew up in the neighborhood created a community Christmas tree, he said.
"One local nursery donated the tree," President Obama said. "Another chipped in for the lights and a star. And 70-year-old Tom Killeen and his longtime buddies from the area planted it at the end of the street overlooking the town beach."
"As Tom says, 'The tree has one message. It's Christmas time, not disaster time."
President Obama recognized members of the military in his remarks, as did singer James Taylor, who headlined the musical program.
Mrs. Obama was clad in a snow-white shirt and pants, with a sparkling necklace and a bright blue overcoat as she joined with Modern Family star Rico Rodriguez to give her annual dramatic rendition of "'Twas the Night Before Christmas." At the end, they joined the other musical performers, host Neil Patrick Harris, star of How I Met Your Mother, and Santa Claus onstage to sing "Santa Claus is Coming to Town."
The entertainment included Kenny "Babyface" Edmonds, The Fray, Ledisi, Jason Mraz, Phillip Phillips, and Colbie Caillat.
Changes to this year's ceremony included a new stage location to better showcase the White House behind it, and a new color scheme for the tree, which is surrounded by a small-scale train and 54 smaller trees representing the states, the District of Columbia, and territories.
Last year's tree died of transplant shock, according to the National Park Service, and the new one was transplanted on the Ellipse in October.
President Calvin Coolidge started the National Tree Lighting tradition in 1923, when he lit a live 48-foot fir decorated with 2,500 electric bulbs. Above, during the sing-along.
*Photos by Getty/Pool