Friday, December 06, 2013

President Obama Salutes Nelson Mandela During Rainy National Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony

Rain pours on the President & First Family & Lynch
Photos & video: Glee star Jane Lynch emcees 91st annual festivities, with performances by Mariah Carey, Aretha Franklin, Arturo Sandoval, Janelle Monáe...
Washington, DC - The only stars shining on Friday evening as President Barack Obama and the First Family attended the 91st annual National Christmas Tree lighting ceremony were the talented A-list stars singing to a sodden but excited crowd  huddled on the Ellipse, located just beyond the White House's South Lawn fenceline.

As was the case at the President's Thanksgiving turkey pardon, a worsening rain storm drenched the festivities, emceed by Glee star Jane Lynch

The President made the best of the situation from the brightly lit stage where side-blown rain spattered faux icicles and fairy lights.  He included a salute to Nelson Mandela, who died on Thursday at age 95. 

The South African leader "blessed us with tremendous grace and unbelievable courage," the President said, and the world "owes him a debt of gratitude."  

"We are all privileged to live in a world touched by his goodness," President Obama said.

But before that tribute, there was business to take care of:  Getting the Christmas tree lit, story time, and star-studded caroling.  All as the rain worsened.

President Obama presses the tree-lighting button
"Is everybody a little wet but still having fun?" President Obama, clad in a long dark overcoat and a muffler wrapped around his neck, called out to the crowd as he took the stage shortly after 5:15 PM.

He was unprotected by an umbrella, as were First Lady Michelle Obama, First Daughters Malia and Sasha, and First Grandmother Marian Robinson.

The crowd, many covered in plastic ponchos, cheered.  They also had no umbrellas: Organizers had instructed that these be put down, so all could see the lit stage in front of the National Tree.  Getting wetter by the second, the President cut the traditional countdown to the tree lighting in half.

"We're going to start at five," he said.  "Since it's a little wet, we shouldn't start at ten."

The crowd shouted out the numbers, and on "one" the President pressed the lighting button, and the glorious 31-foot-tall Colorado Blue Spruce blazed with multicolored bulbs, to cheers and a flourish from the military band.  The President and First Family rapidly departed the stage. 

The National Christmas Tree is lit
Singer Janelle Monáe, Forte, violinist Joshua Bell and vocalist Prince Royce performed before Neal Mulholland, the President and CEO of the National Park Foundation, took the stage and explained the history of the ceremony, and saluted the men and women of the Park Service.

Mrs. Obama, wearing a black felted wool coat with a diamond pattern and shiny black knee-high boots, returned to the stage to read a rousing rendition of 'Twas The Night Before Christmas, accompanied by a gang of eight cute kids and sharing the lines of the famous poem with Sesame Street's Abby Cadabby.  The pink puppet is one of the many characters from the kids' TV show that will soon be promoting fruits and vegetables for Mrs. Obama's child obesity campaign.

Mrs. Obama and Abby Cadabby read to rain-coat clad kids
"So much joy!" Abby exclaimed at the end of the story.  Mrs. Obama wished all "a Merry Christmas" and fled the stage, trailed by the kids.

A musical interlude followed, with performances by soprano Renée Fleming, The Avett Brothers, soul legend Aretha Franklin--clad in a floor-length white fur cape--rock band Train and Jazz great Arturo Sandoval, who recently received the Medal of Freedom from the President.

The President then took the stage again.

"Every year I rehearse my own little act just in case, but this year again the could not squeeze me into the program," President Obama said.  "You all are lucky I'm not singing."

The President shows off his dance moves with an elf
"For 91 years, the National Christmas Tree has stood as a beacon of light and a promise during the holiday season," President Obama said.

"During times of peace and prosperity, challenge and change, Americans have gathered around our national tree to kick off the holiday season and give thanks for everything that makes this time of year so magical--spending time with friends and family, and spreading tidings of peace and goodwill here at home and around the world."

"This year, we give a special measure of gratitude for Nelson Mandela, a man who championed that generosity of spirit," President Obama said.   

"In his life, he blessed us with tremendous grace and unbelievable courage.  And we are all privileged to live in a world touched by his goodness." 

The President and Mrs. Obama will travel to South Africa next week for the state funeral, the White House announced on Friday.  On Thursday evening, shortly after Mandela's death was announced, the President also lionized the human rights icon during his White House Hanukkah party.  

The flag over the White House on Friday was at half staff in tribute to Mandela, as it was on all government buildings.   

The First Family with all the performers
With the weather getting worse, the President rapidly told the story of the birth of Jesus Christ, "a child who came into the world with only a stable’s roof to shelter Him." 

"Through a life of humility and the ultimate sacrifice, a life guided by faith and kindness towards others, Christ assumed a mighty voice, teaching us lessons of compassion and charity that have lasted more than two millennia," President Obama said.  

"...It’s a message both timeless and universal -- no matter what God you pray to, or if you pray to none at all -- we all have a responsibility to ourselves and to each other to make a difference that is real and lasting.  We are our brother’s keeper.  We are our sister’s keeper." 

He saluted Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, celebrating her first tree lighting, thanked the National Park Service and The National Park Foundation, Lynch and all the performers, and saluted the troops.

"On behalf of Malia, Sasha, Marian, the First Lady Michelle, plus Bo and Sunny, I want to wish everybody a Merry Christmas and a joyful holiday season," President Obama said.   "

"God bless you.  God bless our troops.  God bless the United States of America."

Mariah Carey performs with Santa and elves
The program had a sparkling finish as Mariah Carey, clad in a snow white mini dress and high heels, took the stage to wild applause.  After singing solo, she was joined by the other performers, the President and First Family, as well as Santa and some dancing elves.   The President showed off some of his dance moves with one especially talented elf as all sang.

The tree lighting ceremony dates back to 1923, when President Calvin Coolidge walked from the White House to the Ellipse to light a 48-foot fir tree decorated with 2,500 electric bulbs in red, white and green, as a local choir and a quartet from the U.S. Marine Band performed.


The evening's program is scheduled to be broadcast on PBS stations across the nation throughout December.  The event was courtesy of the National Park Foundation and the National Park Service.
 
Aretha Franklin performs
The President and First Family were back at the White House by 6:40 as the rain continued.
 
President Obama has no public events scheduled on Saturday.  On Sunday, he and Mrs. Obama will host a reception for the Kennedy Center Honorees, and then watch the tribute performances at the Kennedy Center.

*CLICK HERE for links to all holiday posts.

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*Photos by the Department of the Interior; second photo by Pete Souza/White House