UPPER MAHANOY TOWNSHIP, Pa. — Many families have experienced the challenge of maneuvering a large Christmas tree into their home for the holidays.
The White House is no different.
On Oct. 15, White House officials visited Larry Snyder’s farm in Northumberland County to select the Christmas tree that will stand in the Blue Room this year. After a 24-foot Douglas fir was chosen, the next question was, will it fit inside?
The tree will be shortened to 19 feet so it fits under the Blue Room ceiling, and with a width of 12 feet it will just fit inside, with a little help.
“We’ll take doors off, and the chandelier in the Blue Room will have to come down so we can stand the tree up,” said White House chief usher Timothy Harleth. “We make it work.”
Despite the minor inconvenience, Harleth and White House superintendent of grounds Dale Haney were thrilled with their choice of trees, which came from Snyder’s Mahantongo Valley Farms. Sometimes it’s hard to find a tree with enough height for the Blue Room, they said, but Snyder had plenty to choose from.
Snyder earned the right to present a tree to the White House after he won the National Christmas Tree Association’s annual contest in August, which was held in Lackawanna County. He joined Harleth and Haney, along with more than 70 friends, family, media and local officials, for a walk around his farm to pick the perfect tree.
Aside from being able to fit inside the White House, there are several prerequisites that come with selecting the tree that will adorn the Blue Room this holiday season. Haney, who has worked at the White House for 45 years, said the tree must have a straight trunk, uniform shape and good color.
“We need the height as well because the tree is tied to the ceiling,” Haney said. “It takes a little time to find one that’s just right.”
One other factor that Harleth and Haney keep in mind when deciding on a tree is the holiday theme chosen by first lady Melania Trump.
So what will be the theme at the White House this Christmas?
“We’ll let the first lady make that announcement,” Harleth said. “But we do talk in advance, so we have an idea.”
Harleth and Haney actually spent two consecutive days at Snyder’s farm choosing a tree. Snyder, who raises trees on 75 acres, was thrilled when Harleth placed a large, red bow on the selected tree.
“It already holds ornaments,” he joked.
The tree will be presented to President Donald Trump and the first lady on the Monday before Thanksgiving, and Snyder will cut it down a week prior. He’ll need to remove some of the trunk to shorten the length before hauling the tree to the White House.
Snyder said being selected to provide the White House tree and meet the first family is the “ultimate reward,” and it’s something he never thought was possible until he began entering Christmas tree contests years ago.
“I’ve been growing trees since the early 1980s and never dreamed of presenting a tree to the White House, until I started entering at the state Farm Show and realized I have trees that can challenge the best growers in the country,” Snyder said. “This is an accomplishment that I hope other tree growers strive for.”
Those who do could be in for more publicity and accolades than they ever imagined.
Tim O’Connor, executive director of the National Christmas Tree Association, said the White House tree represents “the single biggest agricultural promotion that exists.”
“I’ve worked in five different agriculture segments in my career, and you can never generate this much publicity for any other commodity. The White House tree gets the most media coverage by far. It’s national and international news,” O’Connor said. “More than 2 million people are going to walk around this tree during the Christmas season. It’s an amazing number, the people that will come to the White House to see the décor and this stunning tree.”
Just as important, he said, is the local story that highlights the grower, community and the state association. Snyder’s tree will be the 10th from Pennsylvania to stand in the Blue Room — a tradition that began in 1966. O’Connor said Pennsylvania is one of the top states when it comes to Christmas tree production, and he expects more Keystone State trees to reach the White House in the future.
Harleth acknowledged that since the tree will generate an enormous amount of attention, it’s imperative to make the right choice. But he wasn’t bothered by the pressure, or the throng of media that followed him around Snyder’s farm.
Instead, Harleth said he takes pride in helping pick the tree every year.
“I’ve always viewed what I do (as chief usher) as being able to serve the country. To come out here and interact with these communities and see the hard work these farmers put into this, it presents a feeling of service,” Harleth said. “And it’s also very exciting for us because the tree selection is the start of the Christmas season at the White House.”