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Capitol Christmas Tree Takes Longer to Arrive Than Magi

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Nov. 28, 2011: The 2011 Capitol Christmas Tree arrives in Washington. (AP)

It's that time of year in Washington -- when America comes together to air-drop a pine forest on seemingly every symbolic piece of public space in the capital, leaving the city so verdant visitors would be advised to leave a trail of gingerbread crumbs in order to find their way out. 

The lighting of the National Christmas Tree Thursday afternoon outside the White House is just the start. But the upcoming ceremony Dec. 6 for the 63-foot fir outside the U.S. Capitol is what's generating all the buzz. 

Unlike the National Christmas Tree, which is from New Jersey, the Capitol tree has traveled across the country from California to get to D.C. And the fanfare surrounding the tree's selection and transport over the years has become an odd mix of reality show, beauty pageant and national security event. 

The tree, as it made its cross-country trek, was afforded its own law enforcement detail. The journey took 20 days, and the tree entourage made stops in 10 states on its way to Washington, greeted by local dignitaries, onlookers and bands along the way. The tree has private sponsors. It has 2,500 ornaments donated by the good people of California. And the champion Sierra white fir was chosen only after a rigorous selection process involving a team of judges. 

Maria Benech, this year's U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree coordinator, acknowledged the tree journey and ceremony -- dating back to 1964 -- haven't always been this grand. But hey, why not? It's Christmas. And for the most part, businesses are paying for it. 

"It's been a celebratory thing. ... It's just a really neat opportunity for folks to be a part of history," she said. 

The tradition has its detractors. Along the tour route, local news stories on the tree's arrival were subjected to the usual raft of cynical online comments. 

"Gee I would love to be able to tell my grandchildren I SAW THE CAPITOL XMAS TREE AT CITY CENTER WOW. See you there, NOT," read one comment on an article at Virginia's Daily Press about the tree's arrival in Newport News. 

The American Atheists aren't too keen on it either. 

Group President David Silverman said the Christmas tree fever is a bit much. Though the transport of the tree is privately funded, public officials are providing security, which Silverman called a "substantial" and "totally useless expense." 

"It certainly is a lot of effort and a lot of tax dollars going to promote the only federal holiday that is a religious holiday," Silverman said. 

Way to kill the eggnog buzz, man. 

But Benech downplayed the public expense. The trailer is donated, the gas money is donated, the truck is donated. She said forest officials such as herself did not get paid overtime for working the tour. As for the two law enforcement officials from the U.S. Forest Service providing the security detail, she said, "It's a matter of national security." 

She said nobody has ever tried to steal the tree to her knowledge, but officials want to make sure nobody plants anything dangerous on it before its arrival outside the U.S. Capitol. 

If nothing else, the details of the selection process make for good story-telling. 

At the start, the chief of the Forest Service picks one of nine regions in the U.S. From that region, the regional foresters in charge are tasked with picking a particular national forest. 

From that forest comes the tree. But not just any tree. In the case of the 2011 selection, officials picked the Stanislaus National Forest in California, where those foresters then put out an APB to employees and members of the public to help them find worthy contestants, preferably pretty-looking and 60-feet tall. 

People sent in photos and GPS locations for about 30 trees. From there, Benech and her colleagues narrowed it down to 15. 

They then flew out the superintendent of the Capitol Grounds, who toured the forest for two days and made the final decision. The criteria are manifold, with the superintendent weighing everything from the "fullness" of the tree to the color to the needle retention to the "branch pliability," according to the tree website. 

Though American Atheists weren't thrilled about the Christmas-promotion aspect of it, the tree until recently was called the "Holiday Tree." But in 2005, then-House Speaker Dennis Hastert ordered the name changed to the "Capitol Christmas Tree." 

As the Capitol team prepares for its lighting ceremony, the White House tree-blanketing is well underway. According to a fact sheet put out by the White House, visitors on the tour will see 37 trees, 30 of them natural, along the route. The official White House tree, from Wisconsin, is already in the Blue Room. 

And the White House Gingerbread House is set up in the State Dining Room. Weighing in at 400 pounds, the white chocolate, gingerbread and marzipan replica took two months to make.