The Man Who Grew the White House Christmas Tree
First Lady Michelle Obama didn't waste time with small talk Friday morning as she met a horse-drawn, ribbon-draped wagon out in the cold in front of the White House and inspected its contents. The U.S. Marine Band played "O Tannenbaum." Daughters Malia and Sasha and the two family dogs looked on. President Barack Obama was nowhere in sight. "Thumbs up," the first lady said. "It's a go. We're taking the tree. Our work here is done."
Thus marked the formal arrival of the 2014 White House Christmas Tree that will be displayed in the Blue Room. Accompanying the tree was Chris Botek, 44, of Lehighton, Pa., a registered Republican from a family of tree farmers, who keeps his politics to himself and had only good things to say about the president and the first family.
The annual tradition, coordinated with the National Christmas Tree Association since 1966 during LBJ's administration, is getting to be a familiar one for Botek. This is the third time his family has won the honor, though he says it's just as exciting every time.
After the delivery, he and his family grabbed a quick lunch at the Old Ebbitt Grill near the White House and planned to head back to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. in the afternoon before the trip home. "We want to watch them try to stand that thing up, because it's a giant," he said by telephone from the restaurant. "It's a lot of tree."
Here are the highlights of our conversation:
It's a 19-foot-plus concolor fir, also known as a white fir. Botek said it's rare for that species to grow so tall and full. It's only the third time this type of tree has been displayed in the Blue Room since the tradition began, according to the National Christmas Tree Association. This tree was planted at the Boteks' farm in 1995, and probably got its start in a seed bed around 1991, making it 23 years old. Though the tree is donated to the White House, Botek said he'd charge $300 to $400 for something comparable. "I'd give you a discount if you told me I could come and watch you put it up!" he laughed.
How trees are picked
Growers first compete at the state level and then win a national contest with a smaller tree, about 8 feet tall. Botek's 8-footer won the national contest over the summer in Michigan. Then White House officials go to the winner's farm and pick out a taller tree, at least 18.5 feet, per tradition. That happened in September, though the tree wasn't actually cut until Sunday.
This is actually the fourth Botek tree to be displayed in the Blue Room. Botek's parents, Francis and Margaret, started Crystal Spring Tree Farm in 1964 and won the national contest in 2006. Chris Botek won in 2010. Last year, Botek said, a friend of his won but they went with one of his when another tree had to be substituted at the last minute. "To do this once is really a big deal," Botek said. "To do it three times is lightning striking the same place three times." Still he said, "I'll try. I'll try my hardest."
Meeting the Obamas
Michelle Obama meets the winning growers when they come to the White House. Botek brought his children Ashley, 16, and Lauren, 11. "She chatted with us for probably about 10 minutes in there," he said. "This is the third time we're meeting with her, so she even noticed the kids are getting bigger." Botek has never met the president. "Nope," he said. "This is our third strike."
"Absolutely not." That was Botek's instant response when asked if he takes an interest in politics. "Whatever party is in, I still have to go to work every day and pay my bills and my taxes and stay out of trouble." Botek said he's a registered Republican, his parents are registered as Democrats.
He had only nice things to say about Obama. "I feel that he's done a good job," he said. "It's absolutely one job that I wouldn't want to have. I have enough stress and responsibility in what I do."
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