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How many Christmas trees does it take to light up Washington?

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J. Scott Applewhite/AP

(Read caption) The Obama's Christmas Tree is seen in the Blue Room of the White House. This year’s 18-1/2-foot Douglas fir came from West Virginia.

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Important things in Washington often come in threes. There are political institutions: Congress, White House, and Supreme Court. There are sports teams: baseball Nationals, basketball Wizards, and hockey Capitals. (The football Redskins are so bad this year Decoder is counting them out.)

And there are Christmas trees. Three nice ones, which every year jostle their branches and flick their globes at each other in a competition to be Washington’s most glamorous.

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Most Americans may vaguely think there is something called the National Christmas Tree, cut down somewhere snowy every year by a guy with a dog and a sled and trucked to the White House, where it is presented to the first lady, who invites the guy and his dog in for cookies and punch.

The president then puts up the tree in the Rose Garden. The House speaker and chief justice come over, and they all light it together, while singing nondenominational holiday tunes.

That’s not what happens. Here’s the real tree scorecard:

White House Christmas tree. The White House does have its own tree, and it is the one that is cut down and trucked in. This year’s 18-1/2-foot Douglas fir came from West Virginia.

But it’s erected inside, generally in the Blue Room, and decorated to match the theme of the rest of the White House decorations. So it’s not always highly traditional.

This year’s theme is “Reflect, Rejoice, Renew.” Among the items used for tree and wreath trimming are dried root materials from the garden on the South Lawn, according to the White House.

National Christmas Tree. The White House tree is not to be confused with the National Christmas Tree, which is outdoors, but not really on the White House grounds. Nor is it trucked in.

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The National Christmas Tree is a living blue spruce on the Ellipse, south of the White House and outside the fence. It’s decorated every year by the National Park Service, in conjunction with a foundation that takes corporate donations. It has a more populist feel than the White House tree, since the populace can actually see it, and it’s surrounded by other stuff – small trees, yule logs, sometimes reindeer.

Capitol Christmas tree. Yes, Congress has its own tree. It’s from Arizona this year, another blue spruce. Cut, not live. They tried planting one in 1963, but it quickly died. Who says partisanship isn’t toxic?

But in Decoder’s experience, this one outshines the rest. Its lights are understated, and the long sweep of Capitol Hill, with the Capitol itself in the background, is a perfect setting for holiday decorations. That is, if you ignore the shouting about healthcare reform coming from inside the Senate.


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