BY LASHON BLAND — The National Christmas Tree is rich with history dating back to 1923 when President Calvin Coolidge lit the first one. This year, fifth grade students from Rosa Parks Elementary School had the honor to be a part of that history.

The group of students was selected to represent the state of Maryland in the “America Celebrates: Ornaments from Across the USA” display. The display features 56 trees, representing every U.S. state, territory and the District of Columbia, that surround the National Christmas Tree in President’s Park. The state trees showcase original, handcrafted ornaments designed by artists from around the country.

The opportunity came by way of Suzanne Herbert-Forton, a teaching artist with the Maryland State Arts Council, who asked to work with Rosa Parks Elementary School and art teacher Eileen Cave.

The students were tasked with creating 12 one-of-a-kind ornaments featuring Maryland’s indigenous species.


Cave, the Art Integration Lead Teacher at Rosa Parks Elementary School, and her fifth grade art class, along with Herbert-Forton, began work on this project in early fall. They had to complete the ornaments within a short period of time.

“We had 4 sessions to get it done,” said Herbert-Forton.

The students started with research. They looked at photos of nature and researched ecosystems. Cave said one student loved sharks, so he researched sharks in Maryland and discovered some interesting facts.

After conducting their research, the students worked on their sketches during the next session. Cave told the fifth graders that since it was the holiday time, they could jazz it up a little. The crabs can have glitter on them, she added.

Once the students finished the artwork for the ornaments, each was encased in a clear globe. Cave said the students “thought it was cool” to place the artwork in a globe. Herbert-Forton assembled the ornaments in her Baltimore studio in time for them to be shipped off for the National Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony.

The program from the 2016 National Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony, showing Rosa Parks Elementary School. Photo courtesy of Eileen Cave
The program from the 2016 National Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony, showing Rosa Parks Elementary School. Photo courtesy of Eileen Cave

The National Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony took place on Dec. 1, and Cave and Herbert-Forton were invited to attend the event. Both Cave and Herbert-Forton shared the same sentiments about how special it was to attend the event, especially during President Barack Obama’s final days in office.

“For me to be in his presence was an incredible honor and experience for me,” said Cave.

Herbert-Forton agreed. “It meant a lot for both of us to be there. It was quite an honor.”

Cave admitted she didn’t realize Rosa Parks was the only school to represent the state of Maryland. “To open up that program and see the names and the school, it really hit me. Really an incredible thing to see,” she said.

Herbert-Forton shared how the students felt about representing their state at the National Christmas Tree. While working on the project, the students asked Herbert-Forton if anyone else in Maryland was working on the project. When she replied that the students were the only group involved, she says, “they got really excited!”

“It’s meaningful for the kids to show what they can do on a national level,” said Herbert-Forton.

Cave also noted how supportive the principal of Rosa Parks Elementary School, Dr. Tara A. Lobin, has been of this project. “She made sure the students knew what they achieved.”

Lobin went to see the tree, and shared her experience with the staff of Rosa Parks. When asked what her reaction was to the display, she said, “Visiting the National Christmas Tree is a family tradition for me, so when I finally saw the display, immediately my heart skipped a beat! Serving as principal in such a dynamic community has truly been an honor, so seeing the hard work of our students and staff displayed for the world to see was a treat.”

Lobin spoke about how participating in this project has impacted the students. “Our students were so excited to participate in this program,” she said. “This project has taught our students that with hard work and dedication, the impossible is possible!”

The National Christmas Tree is lit every day from approximately 4:30-10 p.m. at President’s Park (White House). The display is free to visit and open to the public from 10 a.m.-10 p.m. through Jan. 1.