Meet America’s National Christmas Tree, And the Man in Charge of Selecting It

Jim Kaufmann says this year's People’s Tree is one in a million

October 22, 2021 12:07 pm
This white fir from the Six Rivers National Forest in California is this year's DC tree.
This white fir from the Six Rivers National Forest in California is this year's DC tree.
USDA Forest Service

Like a mad scientist in a movie thriller, Jim Kaufmann sat in a chair in his office this summer, his desk piled high with files, his lunch box by his side, watching clips of videos taken by drones flying over hundreds of acres of forest. 

Okay, so Kaufmann is a little less mad scientist and a lot more horticulturalist. But, in a COVID-pivot, that’s exactly how Kaufmann, Director of Capitol Grounds and Arboretum for the Architect of the Capitol (AOC), selected the 2021 Capitol Christmas tree. Also known as “The People’s Tree,” it will adorn the west lawn of the Capitol Building from right before Thanksgiving until just after Christmas. This year’s tree will come from California.

With the help of the US Forest Service, Kaufmann is the country’s Christmas tree guy and has been for four years. His pre-COVID selections were a lot more Blair Witch Project — traipsing deep into the woods.

While the White House Christmas Tree is permanent, that is, it’s planted into the ground and lives in front of the White House permanently, the People’s Tree comes from a different state each year — a 50-years-plus tradition. Last year’s tree was from Colorado. “It’s representative of a vast part of our country,” says Kaufmann of the tree. “It brings a taste and a flavor of the population from that region that it’s from — so whether it’s New Mexico or Maryland, you know, it’s going to have a different sense and feel.” That’s true not only because of the physical look of the tree, itself, and whether it’s a spruce or a fir, but also because the Christmas tree is decorated with ornaments provided by residents of the state from which it hails. So, not only is “it a really good source of pride for a local population,” says Kaufmann, each year, the tree looks different. The 2019 tree from New Mexico had a lot of handmade UFOs and Roswell themes. He expects this year’s tree to have a good amount of Bigfoot decorations, as the tree from Montana did in 2017. “It’s all that local flair from the area where the tree is harvested that really makes the Capitol tree unique and different from the White House tree.”

Jim Kaufmann is DC's "Christmas tree guy."
Jim Kaufmann is DC’s “Christmas tree guy.”
Jim Kaufmann

This year’s tree, a white fir, is from the Six Rivers National Forest in California which was home to the largest recorded wildfire in California history – the 2020 August Complex Fire — which the Forest Service says destroyed half of the 160,000 acre forest. Dubbed  “Sugar Bear,” the 84-foot tree will be harvested from the Mad River Ranger District of the forest on October 24th before its three-and-a-half week whistle-stop journey to Washington, DC begins. After making 13 stops in California, the tree will continue on for stops in Arizona, New Mexico, Arkansas, Missouri and Maryland before it arrives on November 19th at the Capitol; 12 days later, on December 1, the AOC will host the tree lighting ceremony in front of the Capitol. Those interested in following the tree’s path to DC via social media can use the hashtags #CapitolChristmasTree and #PeoplesTree.

Each year, planning for next year’s tree begins almost immediately after the tree lighting. The Forest Service chooses a region, and the search for the perfect tree begins with forest rangers scouting for trees over a million plus acres of land. “Wild grown trees are wild, and they’re not the best looking, typically, to put at the front of the Capitol. So that’s the challenge. It’s a needle in a haystack,” says Kaufmann of the hunt. “We find the right one eventually, and, of course, size matters.” Trees that make it into final selection are usually about 75 feet with a 25-foot diameter. Plus they have to look good from all sides. “That’s where the challenge really starts,” says Kaufmann. This year’s “was selected because it best fit all requirements. It has a symmetrical form that appears full and healthy. The tree is in an area that is safely accessible and will allow for efficient harvesting,” says Kaufmann. 

A customized, 80-foot-plus trailer hauls the tree across the country to  Andrews Air Force Base, where it is then escorted by motorcade to the Capitol. “It’s probably one of the most impressive police escorts that you will see,” says Kaufmann. “It rivals the Presidential motorcade any day.” Once it arrives at the Capitol Building, a large mobile crane lifts the massive tree off of the trailer. It’s placed in a four-foot hole and anchored firmly in place with concrete and four ground anchors before the decorations commence. Given pandemic protocols, the specific details about this year’s tree lighting ceremony will not be announced until next November.

While Kaufmann has the final selection, he says the annual Capitol Christmas tree project includes a large team of people from both the Forest Service and the Architect of the Capitol, from arborists to gardeners, mechanics to the high voltage folks in charge of the lights. “It’s just a huge number of people … making sure the tree is a showstopper.”

The InsideHook Newsletter.

News, advice and insights for the most interesting person in the room.