Christmas has arrived in Washington.
After a 5-4-3-2-1 countdown, President Barack Obama and his family ushered in the holiday season on Thursday by lighting the National Christmas Tree _ a nearly 42-foot Colorado blue spruce growing on the Ellipse, a grassy area just south of the White House.
Obama was joined by his wife, Michelle, daughters Malia and Sasha, and Marian Robinson, his mother-in-law.
"This is a very proud holiday tradition. Snow or shine, in good times or in periods of hardship, folks like you have gathered with presidents to light our national tree," he said during brief remarks to an audience that had waited for hours outdoors in the wintry weather.
Obama said the gathering celebrates an enduring story "that's dear to Michelle and me as Christians" but with a message that is universal, about a child born far from home who spreads a message of love and redemption around the world.
"It's a message that says no matter who we are or where we are from, no matter the pain we endure or the wrongs we face, we are called to love one another as brothers and as sisters," Obama said.
He took note of the millions of people who've lost jobs or are having difficulty making ends meet. He also talked about service members stationed in Afghanistan, Iraq or some other far-off place who can't make it home for the holidays.
"We thank their families, who will mark this Christmas with an empty seat at the dinner table," Obama said.
The tradition of lighting a national Christmas tree dates to 1923, when President Calvin Coolidge lit the first one on the Ellipse.
Mrs. Obama read the classic Christmas poem "Twas the Night Before Christmas." B.B. King, Sarah Bareilles, Maroon 5 and Common were among the musicians who provided entertainment.
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