The Capitol Christmas Tree, a blue spruce from the Carson National Forest in New Mexico, is decorated with thousands of ornaments handcrafted by New Mexico communities, and stands on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol, Friday, Dec. 6, 2019, in Washington.

The Capitol Christmas Tree, a blue spruce from the Carson National Forest in New Mexico, is decorated with thousands of ornaments handcrafted by New Mexico communities, and stands on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol, Friday, Dec. 6, 2019, in Washington.

It’s the height of Christmas tree season, and most of Washington’s celebrity trees — at landmarks in and around the region — are already up and trimmed.

Find out who picks, decorates and lights one of the most famous of these Instagram-ready evergreens: the tree at the Capitol.

And when it comes to the Christmas tree you may be imagining for your own house, don’t worry if you haven’t started planning. We hear from experts who know how to grow, pick and recycle your dream tree … and make sure it doesn’t catch on fire.

Produced by Lauren Markoe


  • Sonya Brown Christmas tree decorator
  • Jim Kaufmann Director of Capitol Grounds and Arboretum, Office of the Architect of the Capitol; @uscapitol
  • Tony Falwell D.C. Fire Marshall and Deputy Fire Chief; @dcfireems
  • John Carroll Owner, Claybrooke Farm; Vice President, Virginia Christmas Tree Growers Association


  • 12:00:02

    KOJO NNAMDIYou've tuned in to The Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU 88.5, welcome. Later in the broadcast the future of local breweries, cideries and distilleries, but first last night before a festive crowd Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, lit the Capitol Christmas tree in a ceremony that took months of planning. It began in July when the Capitol's Chief Arborist flew to New Mexico to choose the tree from a forest of candidates, but many D.C. area families haven't even begun to figure out where they're going to get their tree, when they'll put it up and how they'll decorate it.

  • 12:00:34

    KOJO NNAMDIWell, we are here to help with a panel of Christmas tree experts. People who know how to grow, pick and adorn them and make sure they don't catch on fire. Joining me in studio is Jim Kaufmann, Director of Capitol Ground and Arboretum in the Office of the Architect of the Capitol. Jim Kaufmann, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:00:53

    JIM KAUFMANNGood afternoon. Thank you.

  • 12:00:54

    NNAMDIYou were at yesterday's lighting of the Capitol Christmas tree, a tree that you personally chose. How did this job fall to you?

  • 12:01:02

    KAUFMANNOh, it's a great pleasure to have this job, and representing the Architect of the Capitol to select the tree is a great honor. And I'm lucky to be able to do it because it's a big tradition for the Capitol that goes back to 1964.

  • 12:01:22

    NNAMDITell us about this particular tree and how you decided that it was the one.

  • 12:01:27

    KAUFMANNSo working with the U.S. Forest Service, they choose a region that the tree is going to come from. So I got to go out to New Mexico.

  • 12:01:38

    NNAMDIIt's a difficult job, but somebody's got to do it.

  • 12:01:41

    KAUFMANNI'm here to help out. That's right. So it's a fantastic opportunity where I was able to travel to New Mexico and meet the folks from the U.S. Forest Service. And when I got there they immerse you into the culture out there. And tell you all about the traditions of the people and the topography of the land and what kind of trees we're going to see. And that really all impacts the way how that tree is setup for the Capitol.

  • 12:02:11

    NNAMDIYou also pick a runner-up tree. Why is that?

  • 12:02:15

    KAUFMANNWell, you can't be too careful. Mother Nature can be tricky. So I'm out there looking for the perfect candidate tree. And once I find that tree we go through the whole list of candidate trees and I look for another tree that may be on the other side of the National Forest, which could be a good three million acres. So on the other side, in case there's some kind of natural disaster or in case there's something that happens to the first tree there's a backup just in case.

  • 12:02:49

    NNAMDIYou call this tree a rock star. It goes on the road. It has groupies. Tell us about the tree's celebrity tour.

  • 12:02:57

    KAUFMANNThe tree is a rock star. So it's a chance where -- this tree brings people together from all over. So it's comes from a forest in a really small town and in a really small area. So it starts off with this grand celebration where ...

  • 12:03:18

    NNAMDIIn that town in New Mexico?

  • 12:03:19

    KAUFMANNIn that town in New Mexico and the tree is harvested and put on a tractor trailer. And from that point it gets wrapped and it starts to make over two dozen stops, whistle stop tours on the way back to the Capitol. And all these little towns were it goes, folks are able to stop and sign and get their pictures taken with it. And it gets a big following. And this is all what the program is about is really showing the importance of our nation's National Forest.

  • 12:03:51

    NNAMDIThe Capitol Christmas tree is a rock star when it's on its way here. Why is it called the people's tree?

  • 12:03:57

    KAUFMANNWell, some people refer to it as the people's tree, because as I said it brings people together. And it's to celebrate the National Forest. It's to really take the culture. So in this particular case it was the Pueblo people that really celebrated the tree with their culture. They blessed the tree before it was harvested. And then it's put on there. It's decorated by handmade ornaments that the children and people of the towns make for this tree. So that really makes it unique. It's not professionally decorated. It's not setup. It's decorated by our crew, which is awesome. And they love taking the time to be able to decorate the tree with handmade ornaments and it's the personal touch that's put on there.

  • 12:04:45

    NNAMDIYou say you're quite anxious until the tree is up and decorated. What's there to be nervous about?

  • 12:04:51

    KAUFMANNOh, oh, my, you know, I'm a nervous person by nature, but thankfully the Architect has a slew of people that are very good at what they do and they help calm me down a little bit. But the tree gets put up. And from the time that we receive it on 3rd Street just before Thanksgiving to last night at 5:02 I was probably the most nervous person around.

  • 12:05:20

    NNAMDIBecause you're suspicious that anything can happen. It can be wind. It can be fire. Anything could happen.

  • 12:05:26

    KAUFMANNAnything can happen to that tree. And from the time we actually start to unload the tree with a crane the cameras are rolling. And we're working in front of cameras that are watching us do our job. But our professionals that are working with us are really good at what they do. So they get the tree up. And we had it decorated in record time, which was fantastic. And they worked through some heavy winds that we had. And the ornaments are all -- stayed on. The lights came on last night right on cue. So it was just a wonderful event put on by a lot of different people.

  • 12:06:06

    NNAMDIAnd the whole point of this event was so that your nerves could relax.

  • 12:06:09

    KAUFMANNThat's exactly it. I got a plan for another trip next year.

  • 12:06:13

    NNAMDIJoining us now by phone is John Carroll. John Carroll grows Christmas trees on Claybrooke Farms in Mineral, Virginia. John, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:06:22

    JOHN CARROLLKojo, it's a pleasure to be with you this afternoon.

  • 12:06:25

    NNAMDIJohn, as I said you grow Christmas trees on your family farm and you sell them to the public. What should people think about before they pick out their Christmas tree?

  • 12:06:34

    CARROLLWell, I think first of all they've got to decide where they're going to buy their tree. And I think it's a family decision usually where they're going to go to a farm and pick out their tree. That's a gaining popular family tradition or go to a tree lot and pick out their tree or go to a box store. It's usually a decision that's made by the family where to go. And then they've got to decide what kind of tree that they want.

  • 12:07:04

    NNAMDIHow about if they decide to go to the family -- to your family farm?

  • 12:07:10

    CARROLLWell, I think that's the business I'm in and that's what we really like to see families coming out building that tradition. We see families that have come for a number of years and 20 years or more. And then when their children are in college on college break, Thanksgiving, they come back to get a tree. So they come out to the farm. They decide what kind of tree that they want and the great thing about a Christmas tree farm is every tree is not perfect. We have big ones, short ones, fat ones, tall ones. Maybe one that a deer has rubbed on one side and it's recovered. I would say every tree is unique. And then the family has to decide the species that they want. A lot of times they go by the tradition that their family has had. Usually if they're from the south they like a pine, it's got long needles. If they've lived in New England or in the northern states, they usually like a spruce or a fur with shorter needles.

  • 12:08:11

    CARROLLSo it's usually a decision based on that tradition that they've experienced in the past.

  • 12:08:17

    NNAMDISo, okay. Once you find a tree that you like how do you tell if you've got a healthy one?

  • 12:08:23

    CARROLLWell, the first thing that I would look for is to make sure that the needles on the outside of the tree that are covering the tree, this year's growth, are fresh to touch. If you bend a needle that it doesn't break. That it will bend. The tree will have some interior needles that may fall off. And just like any tree they lose their interior needles. So that's really not anything to be concerned about. Of course, if they go to a Christmas tree farm and the tree is planted and growing then it is guaranteed to be fresh. If they're on a tree lot they'll want to look for those things that I just mentioned. As well as when they dropped the tree up and down on maybe the sidewalk or the pavement that it doesn't lose its needles.

  • 12:09:16

    NNAMDIJoining us in studio is Tony Falwell. Tony is the D.C. Fire Marshall and Deputy Fire Chief. Tony Falwell, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:09:24

    TONY FALWELLRight. Thank you for having me, sir.

  • 12:09:25

    NNAMDIAs D.C.'s Fire Marshall, dry Christmas trees are your nemesis. What do people need to know so their live Christmas trees do not become fire hazards?

  • 12:09:34

    FALWELLWell, the biggest thing is that you want to make sure -- the gentleman on the phone said you want to make sure you have a fresh tree. And you want to make sure that the tree -- before you place it in your home, you want to make sure you at least cutoff about two inches from the trunk of the tree. And place it in a stand. You know, I like to come from a code perspective on things. The fire code does require that you place the tree in a stand that's capable of holding it upright. And that is capable of holding at least two days of water minimum. So the key is you have to make sure that that tree is watered daily and has plenty of water, because dry trees, as you know, they start fires. And I just want to say that each year, you know, fire departments run about 200 fires involving Christmas trees, and about 1 in every 32 of those fires result in a death, a fire death.

  • 12:10:25

    NNAMDIAnd people need to know that they can't simply go away for days and days leaving their trees unwatered.

  • 12:10:31

    FALWELLThat is correct. You know, if know you're going to be away probably have someone, a home sitter, or someone check on your tree and water it. Another thing with the trees in the home, you want to make sure when you're placing them that you're not placing them too close to any heat sources that can burn. You know, the rule of thumb is about three feet away from any heat source. And the lighting ...

  • 12:10:56

    NNAMDIHow about lights? How do you make sure they're not going to ignite your tree?

  • 12:10:59

    FALWELLYeah, you want to check your lighting before you put them on the tree. You want to make sure you don't have any frayed or crimped wire lighting. You want to check, make sure you don't have any loose bulbs. And also you want to make sure -- some lights are meant for outdoor use only. You want to make sure you're using the correct lighting. And another thing, you know, you can daisy chain lights, you know. And we recommend no more than three strings of lights to be, you know, plugged together at any one time.

  • 12:11:28

    NNAMDIYou remind people that a few years ago one of the most deadly fires in Maryland in decades in Annapolis started with a dry Christmas tree. What happened?

  • 12:11:37

    FALWELLYes. It was a dry tree. A gentleman lost his whole -- he and his family perished in the fire as a result of a Christmas tree. Unfortunately the home or the mansion if you would was not sprinklered. And the tree went up so fast and the fire spread so fast they weren't able to get out. And they perished in the fire.

  • 12:12:00

    NNAMDIAnd this happened like the day before the tree was supposed to be picked up or something.

  • 12:12:04

    FALWELLWell, it was in there. The tree was dry. It was already in place and it was just a dry tree.

  • 12:12:08

    NNAMDIMany people don't realize that there are a lot of places where live Christmas trees are simply not permitted. What are some of those places?

  • 12:12:14

    FALWELLYes. You know, the code does say you can't have live Christmas trees in schools. You can't have live Christmas trees in places of public assembly such as restaurants, theaters and places of that nature, hospitals, nursing homes. Mercantile stores are not supposed to have live trees. Also hotels are not supposed to have live trees. And places like that. They are allowed to be in apartment buildings in the individual units. But the hallway areas and the common areas of apartment buildings are not supposed to have live trees.

  • 12:12:49

    NNAMDIHere now is Todd in Falls Church, Virginia. Todd, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:12:53

    TODDHi, Kojo. I would like to urge a rethinking of how they light the Capitol Christmas tree at night. They start out with this glorious majestic tree and then typically they just shroud it with a complete industrial blanket of electricity. You can barely look at it as you drive by without getting blinded. So I just think with a more restrained and elegant treatment of how they light it, it would pay more respect to the beautiful tree that gave its life for us.

  • 12:13:23

    NNAMDISo you're suggesting that it shouldn't be lit at all?

  • 12:13:26

    TODDNo, no, no. Light it, but more elegantly. It's this uniform covering of electrical curtain of lighting. It's just too hard to look at. It's not even pretty. It doesn't even look like a tree at night.

  • 12:13:39

    NNAMDIJim Kaufmann, how is that decision made about how to light the tree?

  • 12:13:42

    KAUFMANNSo the way how we light the tree is we have both our decorators and our electricians. We use thousands of LED lights and they're multicolor. And we are able to reuse the same light strands each year. So that saves us some resources in that manner. Then it's a fairly simple setup that we do. So we actually run a pole up the middle of the tree that has a ring that allows us to run the wires in a set pattern right down to the ground. So they actually don't get intertwined within the tree itself. It's actually just on a cable that kind of goes down on the outside in a triangle type shape there. And certainly we can consider other ways to decorate it.

  • 12:14:39

    NNAMDIOr, Todd, you may want to volunteer to offer suggestions on how to light the Capitol tree. But thank you very much for your call. Also joining us in studio is Sonya Brown. Sonya Brown is an amateur decorator, who has nine Christmas trees in her Baltimore home. Sonya Brown, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:14:57

    SONYA BROWNThank you for having me.

  • 12:14:59


  • 12:15:00


  • 12:15:01

    NNAMDIHow did you get into Christmas trees? It's my understanding that each one of those nine has a theme. How you get so deep into Christmas trees?

  • 12:15:08

    BROWNAs a child we would rotate between our family's homes for Christmas. And the year that we would go to my great aunt's house in Lanham was my favorite because she would decorate her house so elaborately. It was magical. And it sparked a joy and love of Christmas when I was very young girl. And 40 years later that's what I'm doing.

  • 12:15:30

    NNAMDILooking to get that joy every year. Let's talk about some of your trees this year. You created what you call the wedding dress tree.

  • 12:15:38


  • 12:15:39

    NNAMDIWhat does it look like and what inspired it?

  • 12:15:40

    BROWNSo it was inspired by a trip to New York. We went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to see the costume exhibit display. And there was a tree that just sparked joy in me. And it was beige or champagne color. It had a lot of bling on it. And I looked at it and I told my husband this is going to be our Christmas tree this year. So I took ample pictures, came home, studied it, and proceeded to get ornaments and décor that would evoke the feel of a wedding dress.

  • 12:16:11

    NNAMDITell us about your candy tree.

  • 12:16:14

    BROWNThe candy coated Christmas tree is all red and white. It's on a green tree. And it has ornaments that are all candy. So you have lollipops and candied apples and gumball machines and spearmints. And it also has one of my favorite things, our pictures of the children in my life, my two children and then my four godchildren, who are my sweeties. So they make it into a little red round frame on the tree.

  • 12:16:43

    NNAMDIYou also have personalized a tree for your husband and your grown sons.

  • 12:16:47

    BROWNI did.

  • 12:16:48

    NNAMDIWhat's on that tree?

  • 12:16:50

    BROWNSo that is a new tree this year. It's a gold tree. It's this beautiful gold with copper undertones, seven and a half foot tree. And when you have a gold tree you have to be really particular about what you're putting on it because everything won't show. So I decided to do shades of navy blue, which feels more masculine and was an homage to my sons and my husband. So it has all these beautiful blue ornaments on it. But to personalize it I put ornaments that are representative of each one of them. So my older son just moved from Los Angeles back home to Baltimore. He decided to drive cross country 2600 miles. And I found an ornament as luck would have it that was the shape of the United States. It's an aluminum ornament. And I had a friend take it and put each mark for every city that he stopped in along the way and entitled it Marcus's Journey Home. So that evokes him. I have a little passport ornament, because my younger son spent a semester abroad in Hong Kong two years ago.

  • 12:17:49

    BROWNAnd that was his first time getting his passport. And then consequently my husband got his to go visit. And so that just represented the two of them. For my husband, who is a lover of Bourbon I have little miniature Bourbon bottles that are on the tree.

  • 12:18:08

    NNAMDIMake sure he spends a lot of time around that tree.

  • 12:18:09

    BROWNCorrect. There is a long standing feud in my home about whether Sasquatch is really real. So I was able to find a little Sasquatch ornament that my son claims is really real. So it's on the tree. So there's all kinds of personal items on there that represent my two sons and my husband. It's fun.

  • 12:18:28

    NNAMDISo if now you're really curious about what Sonya's trees look like, you can go to our tweeter feed @kojoshow and you can see photos of those trees. So just go to our tweeter site @kojoshow and you can see photos of those trees. Jim, tell us about the Capitol Christmas tree's decorations. We've talked about the lights.

  • 12:18:46

    KAUFMANNWell, piggybacking on that conversation there that reminds me of last year's Christmas tree from the Willamette National Forest in Oregon. And because the children in the community make the ornaments Sasquatch is very big and alive out in Oregon at the Willamette National Forest. And there were quite a few Sasquatch ornaments on there. So this year being from New Mexico everybody puts their personal touches on there. And it really brings out the theme of the people of that area. So there's handmade little pueblo houses and little villages and then the star of New Mexico, and the flag of New Mexico, and then, of course, there's a touch of Roswell in there, so there's a lot of little UFOs around our tree this year. So it's really kind of neat.

  • 12:19:41

    NNAMDISonya, for the record you are not a professional decorator.

  • 12:19:44

    BROWNI am not.

  • 12:19:45

    NNAMDIWhat's your day job?

  • 12:19:46

    BROWNBy day I'm Vice President of Marketing and Business Development for Grunley Construction Company in Rockville, Maryland.

  • 12:19:51

    NNAMDIAnd every year in December you just go bananas.

  • 12:19:54

    BROWNOh no. It starts in September.

  • 12:19:57

    NNAMDIIt starts in September.

  • 12:19:58

    BROWNIt starts in September. There's no way to do that many trees if you start in December.

  • 12:20:02

    NNAMDIWhat's your advice to people who want to make their Christmas tree special and personal? Where should they start?

  • 12:20:07

    BROWNThey should start with a theme whether it's a color theme or it's a theme that representative of something special to them. It could be a favorite song, a movie. One year I did a Great Gatsby tree themed after the movie came out. So whatever your theme is that's where you should begin. Then after that collecting your ornaments and staying true to that theme I think gives you the best results. I would encourage different shape ornaments that really makes it feel customized. Often people will put all the same size round balls, which is nice, but it's not as diverse. So starting with larger balls, medium balls, small balls. Do different shapes, onion shaped, finials, diamond shapes, tear drops and just staying true to the theme, and spreading out the ornaments so they all have a chance to shine.

  • 12:20:58

    NNAMDIIn addition to your day job, you're doing this. When do you sleep? In January I presume.

  • 12:21:03

    BROWNPretty much. January 2nd is the day of rest.

  • 12:21:08

    NNAMDITony Falwell, Sonya's trees are artificial. Does that make them necessarily safer than live trees?

  • 12:21:14

    FALWELLI would say yes, because I think they require less maintenance. Most artificial trees have flame rating status on them. So they're a little safer. Less maintenance, you don't have to water them, of course. So I would choose an artificial tree over a live tree. But I guess it's on individual preference.

  • 12:21:37

    NNAMDIBut it they're close to heat sources they could still ...

  • 12:21:41

    FALWELLYes. Yes. Anything close to a heat source, you got to remember can burn. And that just makes it more important to say, "Hey, look." Remember while we're talking about these trees and fire period, working smoke detectors in the home, very very key.

  • 12:21:55

    NNAMDIJohn Carroll, you say you understand why a person might buy a tree close to home rather drive out to a farm. But what do farms offer that a big box store or a Christmas tree lot doesn't?

  • 12:22:07

    CARROLLWell, farms offer a lot of things like Santa, hayrides through the fields. Some of them have play areas for children and children's story time, hot cider and bonfires and things like that. A lot the tree lots and box stores don't offer that just because of time and space. So children get a chance to run as much as they want to. People get to bring their pets. And they get to spend time with them and they may not be able to do that in a store setting. So there's a lot to do on the farm. We have a lot of people that come out and spend almost the entire day looking for their tree, taking a hayride, enjoying a picnic and some time with Santa.

  • 12:22:58

    NNAMDIIt's a whole family excursion. Lisa in Taverna Park has some advice. Lisa, you're on the air. Go ahead, please. We don't have a lot of time left.

  • 12:23:05

    LISAHi. I just want to say I'm a big fan of going to cut down a tree. That's been a tradition in my family. And I make plea to all of the tree growers out there not to cut the sides of the tree up in a conical shape because to me the beauty of buying your tree out in a field is when you have the natural shape of the tree and the branches stick out and it provides so much more depth to be able to have the spaces between the branches so the ornaments can go in and out of the tree. It's so much more beautiful. And then my second comment is when you get a fresh tree it's very easy to setup a siphon for the water so you can see the level of the water. And that the tree is drinking water. And we have a clear plastic container and a plastic tube feeding into the tree stands.

  • 12:24:06


  • 12:24:07

    LISAAnd then, you know, I mark it the maximum and the minimum of where the water levels should be and so our tree never runs out of water. We keep it up till February.

  • 12:24:15

    NNAMDIAnd our Fire Marshall and Deputy Fire Chief, Tony Falwell, is nodding, yes, yes. Good advice. Thank you very much. Before we go, Jim, have you picked out your Christmas tree this year?

  • 12:24:26

    KAUFMANNI have.

  • 12:24:27

    NNAMDIYou've got it already?

  • 12:24:28

    KAUFMANNWe have it picked out.

  • 12:24:30

    NNAMDIHow about you, Tony Falwell?

  • 12:24:31

    FALWELLOh, yes. My wife, she was doing it last night.

  • 12:24:34

    NNAMDIJohn Carroll, have you picked out your Christmas tree yet?

  • 12:24:37

    CARROLLOh, absolutely. It will probably be one that's left at the end of the season. It needs a home. So that's what we usually do. That's a great way to end the season.

  • 12:24:49

    NNAMDIAnd once again, if you want to see photos of Sonya Brown's trees you can go to our Tweeter feed @kojoshow and find them there. Now that you know how to buy, decorate and fire proof a Christmas tree you should also know how to recycle it. Go to and click on this segment to find out how you can recycle your live tree based on where you live. And if you need even more of a Christmas tree fix, the National Christmas tree lighting ceremony kicks off on The Ellipse at 4:30 this afternoon. So Sonya Brown, Jim Kaufmann, Tony Falwell and John Carroll thank you all for joining us.

  • 12:25:21

    BROWNThank you.

  • 12:25:22

    KAUFMANNThank you.

  • 12:25:22

    FALWELLThank you.

  • 12:25:23

    NNAMDIGoing to take a short break, when we come back, the future of local breweries, cideries and distilleries. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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