The White House kicked off the holiday season Thursday with the 90th National Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony on the Ellipse, south of the White House.
About 17,000 guests huddled under blankets and layers of warm clothing as carolers and performers entertained the crowd by playing and singing traditional holiday favorites. Actor Neil Patrick Harris hosted the ceremony, and welcomed the first family to the stage, where President Barack Obama was invited to flip the switch.
Once the lights were on, Obama recounted the history of the ceremony – but not without a few jokes. He reminded guests that this National Christmas Tree was freshly planted.
“Our tree has been having a hard time recently,” Obama said. “This is our third one in as many years. Our longstanding tree was lost in a storm, and then its replacement didn’t take hold. It just goes to show, nobody’s job is safe here in Washington.”
The new tree, a 30-foot Colorado blue spruce from a private owner in Virginia, weathered Hurricane Sandy without trouble. Now decked in 100 colorful strands of lights, the tree served as the backdrop for the holiday concert performances that followed.
The first family sat in the front row, next to ABC’s “Modern Family” actor Rico Rodriguez, who interrupted Harris’ hosting duties by cooing about his amazing seats.
Harris asked Rodriguez why he was sitting with the first family.
“Well, Neil, I’m glad you asked,” Rodriguez said. “I was just talking to the president about possibly joining the first family. I mean, Neil, they have a chopper!”
The president played along, chuckling and nodding his head as Rodriguez announced they were taking a family vacation to Hawaii – and that Harris wasn’t invited.
“The Obamas and I are trying to keep it just family.”
Taking the skit one step farther, Rodriguez later joined first lady Michelle Obama on the stage as they read, “’Twas the Night Before Christmas,” to a few lucky children.
The lighthearted atmosphere continued as singers Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds, Ledisi, Jason Mraz, Colbie Caillat, Phillip Phillips, James Taylor and the band The Fray performed songs including, “This Christmas,” “Sleigh Ride,” and “Silver Bells.”
The Obamas closed out the ceremony by joining Harris, Rodriguez and the rest of the musical performers on stage for a holiday sing-a-long.
“Neil, are we going out with a song?” Obama asked.
“Sure, let’s sing one,” Harris said. “You start it.”
As Santa Claus came on stage, the group sang, “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” while the Obamas made their exit back to the White House.
The National Christmas Tree will be lit from dusk until 11:00 p.m. every evening until Jan. 1. Musical performances will continue to take place on the Ellipse stage beginning Dec. 11 and run through Dec. 23.