Tree lighting lifts heavy spirits on Capitol Hill

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WASHINGTON (Gray DC) -- While the country continues to mourn the loss of a former president, the holidays just got a bit brighter in the nation's capital. That's thanks to a tradition rooted in American history.

"Three, two, one, let her rip," House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) exclaimed Thursday night as the Capitol's Christmas tree lit up the Washington night sky.

The 75-foot fir back-tracked the Oregon Trail from Willamette National Forest to Congress last month. "Oregonians do lots of things well, and what we do best is grow Christmas trees," Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) proudly proclaimed at the annual ceremony.

While the tree is a hallmark of the Christian faith, Wyden's speech celebrated it as tribute to the genius of the Founding Fathers and as an icon of the country's religious diversity. "The right to freely practice one's religion - or to practice no religion at all - is a part of America's national D.N.A.," he said.

The Christmas cheer comes in stark contrast to the shadow of mourning cast over the Capitol by the passing of President George H.W. Bush. The tree lighting was delayed a day out of respect.

"We lost a giant in our nation this week," said Speaker Ryan, "and the loss... was great sorrow, but it also reminds us of a man who was a beacon of joy."

For Speaker Paul Ryan, this is his fourth and final year leading the House and the annual tree lighting ceremony.

He said the legacy of the late President Bush and the holiday season should remind us all of what we so often take for granted: friends and family. "There is so much good, so much joy, so much compassion all around us, but we often fail to see it," he said.

The first national Christmas tree - planted in 1964 -- hung around for three years. This year's and the 10,000 hand-crafted ornaments will only be up through the holidays.