"This is a very proud holiday tradition," the president told an audience on the Ellipse in chilly Washington, just before lighting the 42-foot Colorado blue spruce. "Snow or shine, in good times and in periods of hardship, folks like you have gathered with presidents to light our national tree.
"Often, the ceremony itself has reflected the pain and sacrifice of the times," he said. "There were years during the second world war when no lights were hung, in order to save electricity.
"But without fail, each year, we have gathered here," he said. "Each year we've come together to celebrate a story that has endured for two millennia. 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."
The president said the message of Christmas "says no matter who we are or where we are from, no matter the pain we endure or the wrongs we face, we are called to love one another as brothers and as sisters."
Earlier Thursday the president met with his Export Council, received daily briefings with Vice President Joe Biden and met with senior advisers and with Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.