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Image: Obamas lighting National Christmas Tree
Haraz N. Ghanbari  /  AP
President Barack Obama, first lady Michelle Obama and daughters Sasha and Malia joined forces to light the National Christmas Tree on Thursday in Washington, D.C.
TODAY staff and wire
updated 12/3/2009 9:34:49 PM ET 2009-12-04T02:34:49

Surrounded by celebrity performers and characters from the North Pole, the Obama family on Thursday led a countdown and lighted the National Christmas Tree.

First lady Michelle Obama and daughters Malia and Sasha helped President Barack Obama press a button to light the tree, an annual tradition since the 1920s. "I'm technologically challenged and I might not get this right," the president joked. "Everybody has got to help me out here."

The Obamas and the spectators counted down from five, and the red and yellow lights came alive on the 40-foot Colorado blue spruce growing on the Ellipse, just south of the White House. "It worked," Obama shouted.

Performers including singer Sheryl Crow, hip hop artist Common and "American Idol" winner Jordin Sparks dazzled the crowd, bundled in coats and scarves.

"I told Sasha we're not on 'American Idol,'" the president said at one point. The Obama family and Vice President Joe Biden and his grandchildren watched from seats beside the stage, behind a clear protective shielding.

Mrs. Obama sat on stage and read "The Night Before Christmas" as children in knit hats and mittens surrounded her.

'A season of brotherhood and generosity'
The characters Santa Claus and Mrs. Claus also joined the celebration, saying it was their "date night."

"You know what I'm talking about," Mrs. Claus told the Obamas, referring to the couple's nights out on the town together. The president later met Santa Claus on stage and briefly danced with him.

Before the tree was lit, Obama said its story might be Christian but its lesson is universal.

"It represents a tradition that we celebrate as a country — a tradition that has come to represent more than any one holiday or religion, but a season of brotherhood and generosity to our fellow citizens," he said.

He said it's important to remember those who have lost their jobs and homes in this season as well as military service members and their families who are apart during the holidays. "We will be thinking of you and praying for you during this holiday season," he said.

Every president has presided over the tree lighting since Calvin Coolidge in 1923. The current National Christmas Tree was planted on the Ellipse in 1978.

The tree lighting begins several weeks of holiday celebration in the nation's capital. Musical entertainment such as choirs, bands and dancers will be held nightly on the Ellipse stage during December, according to the National Park Service.

Energy-efficient tree, recycled ornaments
This year's tree is being hailed as the most energy-efficient National Christmas Tree ever, consuming about 6,000 watts compared with last year’s 18,000 watts. The tree is outfitted entirely in LED, or light-emitting diode, lighting, which has about 10 times the life of traditional incandescent lighting.

Image: National Christmas Tree
Jewel Samad  /  AFP - Getty Images
This year's National Christmas Tree is said to be the most energy-efficient in the tree-lighting ceremony's history.
The topper and many of the ornaments on the National Christmas Tree have been recycled from the tree's recent history. Its gold stars were used in 2008, its white stars were used in 2004 and its red and gold starbursts were used in 1998.

"Bringing out ornaments from storage was just the right thing to do," said Mary Beth Gotti, manager of GE's Lighting Institute, which designed the lighting for the tree. "They are sturdy enough to be used multiple times."

The waste-not, want-not approach extends to the Christmas decorations inside the White House this year. Many of the ornaments on display in the White House are recycled as well.

"We took about 800 ornaments left over from previous administrations," Mrs. Obama said. "We sent them to 60 local community groups throughout the country, and asked them to decorate them to pay tribute to a favorite local landmark and then send them back to us for display here at the White House."

This story includes information from The Associated Press.

© 2013 MSNBC Interactive

Video: National Christmas Tree shines bright

  1. Closed captioning of: National Christmas Tree shines bright

    >>> four, three, two, one!

    >> there it is. national christmas tree all lit up tonight on the ellipse between the national hall and white house first family doing the family as their first time as residents of the white house that. included a reading of "the first chace" by the

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