When Christy LeGros saw her students’ artwork adorning the ornaments on the Alabama Christmas Tree in Washington, D.C., she said it left her “awestruck.”
Students from Barton Academy for Advanced World Studies in Mobile designed one-of-a-kind ornaments featuring art celebrating the places and things that make their home state unique. Barton Academy was the only Alabama school chosen to create art for the America Celebrates ornament program, sponsored annually by the National Park Service, the U.S. Department of Education and the National Park Foundation.
The Alabama tree stands among 58 7-foot Fraser firs that surround the much taller National Christmas Tree.
LeGros and Amanda Jones, Barton Academy principal, represented the school at the annual National Christmas Tree Lighting ceremony in Washington on Nov. 30. They got to watch as millions of colorful Christmas lights blinked on, illuminating the huge tree display that is the centerpiece of President’s Park on the Ellipse, across from the South Lawn of the White House. The celebration marked the 100th lighting of the National Christmas Tree.
“It is still surreal,” said LeGros, Barton Academy art teacher. “It was such a great opportunity and a big thing for our students’ artwork to be chosen to go to D.C., where everybody gets to see it.”
LeGros said the experience was “especially cool” because Alabama’s tree stood first among the line of 58 live firs, which represent states, territories and schools managed by the Bureau of Indian Education and the Department of Defense Education Activity.
LeGros said Barton Academy, which includes students in grades 6-9, was nominated by the Mobile County Public School System to submit artwork for the America Celebrates ornament display. When she learned that the school had been selected to represent Alabama, LeGros rallied the students in all her classes. They were charged with drawing a picture that answers the question: “What makes your state beautiful?”
“We started by making lots of lists on the board of all the places the kids had been in Alabama,” LeGros said. “Then, I told each kid to find photographs of five of the places they had named, and we narrowed it down from there.”
LeGros made videos demonstrating various art media. After watching the videos, the students colored or painted pictures of their chosen subject.
Judges from the community picked 18 drawings from the 113 pictures submitted by the students. Among the drawings are a black bear, balloons from the Decatur and Foley balloon festivals, an Alabama river, a camellia (the state flower), a space shuttle representing the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, the skyline of downtown Mobile, a lighthouse, University of Alabama and Auburn University football players and even the Barton Dome, the signature feature that tops the students’ school.
“Every single child did just an amazing job,” LeGros said. “I’ve never had kids to put this much effort into anything. I think knowing they had this opportunity drove them to do what they needed to do.”
LeGros scanned the drawings and sent them to Washington, where they were affixed to large disc-shaped ornaments that now decorate Alabama’s tree.
From the beginning, schoolchildren have played a vital role in the National Christmas Tree lighting festivities. In 1923, the District of Columbia Public Schools sent a letter to the White House proposing that a decorated Christmas tree be placed on the mansion’s South Lawn. In response, on Christmas Eve, President Calvin Coolidge walked from the Oval Office across the street to the Ellipse and flipped the switch that lit the first National Christmas Tree.
During World War II, new ornaments could not be purchased for the National Christmas Tree due to wartime restrictions. In 1942, students in Washington, D.C., took matters into their own hands by donating ornaments for the tree, which were used in addition to those from previous years.
More than 2,600 students, ages 4-19, took part in the America Celebrates ornament program this year. This huge display has become a highlight in Washington during the holiday season.
Although the students’ ornaments are hanging on Alabama’s tree in the nation’s capital, Condé Systems of Mobile has created duplicates, LeGros said. The students will each receive an ornament featuring their own design. The school will also receive a set of ornaments, which LeGros said will hang from the ceiling in her classroom year-round.
“It is an honor and privilege for our school and students to represent the great state of Alabama in President’s Park. Barton Academy was Alabama’s first public school, built in 1836, and thanks to a unique private/public partnership, our historic school was renovated and able to reopen in August of 2021,” said Jones. “I am proud of our amazing art teacher, Mrs. LeGros, and her talented students as they represent the beauty and diversity of our state through their ornament display.”
Visitors to President’s Park can get a look at the National Christmas Tree and the 58 trees through Jan. 1, 2023. For those who can’t make the trip, the Barton Academy ornaments, along with the thousands of others on display, can be seen by visiting the President’s Park Facebook page.
For more information about this festive holiday tradition, click the National Christmas Tree Lighting Website, or visit President’s Park on Facebook and Twitter.