A retired military chaplain reminded hundreds of people at the 87th annual National Christmas Tree Lighting in Washington, D.C., on Thursday about the reason for the season.
The Rev. Darrell D. Morton, assistant for federal chaplaincy ministries to the presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, delivered the invocation at the lighting in President's Park. During the first half of the start-studded affair, he prayed, "This night as the Christmas tree is lighted, we are reminded of the light which has come into the world through your son."
During his prayer, Morton also highlighted the plights of the homeless and the poor.
"Make us mindful that he whose birth that we celebrate in this season, came to us as one without a home or a bed within. Remind us that across our great land, so many of our neighbors, your children and his brothers and sisters, have no home, no bed and no Christmas tree," he raised.
He asked that those listening would open our hearts to those who suffer from lack of basic comforts. He said that in their faces, we would be reminded of Jesus Christ who, according to the Bible, had a feed trough for his first bed and whose earthly parents had no place other than a stable to give birth to the Christ child.
President Barack Obama also mentioned the story of Christ's birth.
"Each year we've come together to celebrate a story that has endured for two millennia," he said. "It's a story that's dear to Michelle and me as Christians, but it's a message that's universal: A child was born far from home to spread a simple message of love and redemption to every human being around the world."
He also touched on the themes of homelessness and poverty in his remarks. Obama hinted at the recent unemployment statistics as he said, "We remember our brothers and sisters who have lost a job or are struggling to make ends meet."
According to a recent report from the U.S. Department of Labor, the jobless rate rose two points to 9.8 percent, nearly a tenth of the nation.
Obama was joined by his wife, mother-in-law, and daughters, who flipped a switch to light the National Christmas Tree. According to the official National Christmas Tree website, the purpose of the annual lighting is to gather local and national communities together "to celebrate the season and to share the message of peace."
Remembering those who are unable to be with their families this season, Obama and Morton both urged prayers for troops serving overseas.
"Tonight we also remember those who are far removed – family and friends as they serve us and seek to protect us. Generations have longed for peace. And yet another has risen with men and women in uniform far from home, praying, 'I'll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams.' Protect them and return them safely to the arms of their families and loved ones," Morton said.
The annual lighting of the national Christmas tree dates back to 1923 when President Calvin Coolidge walked from the White House to the Ellipse to light a 48-foot fir tree decorated with 2,500 electric bulbs in red, white and green, as a local choir and a "quartet" from the U.S. Marine Band performed.
Eighty-six years later, this American holiday tradition continues to bring citizens together to share in a message of hope and peace.
Rapper Common hosted the Christmas tree lighting for the television special. The evening featured many activities. The National Park Service sponsored Santa-themed skits, offering Christmas safety tips and First Lady Michelle Obama read the story "The Night before Christmas."
There were also musical performances from groups such as the Marine Corps Band, child singer Jackie Evancho, pop sensation Maroon 5 and the soulful king of blues B.B. King.