Rites of Spring in the Nation's Capital

Cherry Blossoms around the Tidal Basin with Washington Monument in background
Cherry Blossoms around the Tidal Basin with Washington Monument in background, April 2012.

Look at the cherry blossoms!
Their color and scent fall with them,
Are gone forever,
Yet mindless
The spring comes again.

— Japanese poet Ikkyū (休宗純1394–1481)


Tour the Capital

Planning to visit the U.S. Capital in person this spring? If so, the official National Park Service app for the National Mall and memorial parks can be used to explore many of the most cherished cultural and historical sites in the United States—from the Lincoln Memorial to the White House. The app includes a total of 70 sites. The National Park Service also offers several maps to help you navigate your way around the monuments and memorials in Washington D.C.

Not traveling this year, but interested in taking your students on a virtual tour of the capital's sites from home? Here are a few digital resources to help. Icons of the Nation’s Capital Photos and Multimedia and History and Culture with images and background relating to the National Mall and memorial parks. The Architect of the Capitol website offers interactive media through the Architect’s Virtual Capitol where students can discover, explore, and learn about the features and history within the 274 acres of Capitol grounds that provide the setting for the U.S. Capitol Building. A Landmark Lesson: The United States Capitol Building challenges students to investigate the Capitol's story using primary sources presented as "mysteries".

Explore the White House

White House in-person tours are available to visiting groups and must be arranged ahead of time through a member of Congress. Students may also enjoy an interactive experience exploring Inside the White House as the President and Mrs. Obama's commitment to providing access to as many Americans as possible. Google Art Project partnered with the administration to offer 360-degree street-view cameras to capture the rooms that are featured on the public tour. Take the virtual tour to discover the history and view the art in The People’s House.

Lesson plan Picturing First Families offers students a ticket to the National Portrait Gallery, the White House, and the Library of Congress, with a side trip to the University of Virginia, as they gather clues about America's original first families and their lives and periods in American history. The Women in the White House contains activities to learn about the valuable contributions recent first ladies have made to American society. From the White House of Yesterday to the White House of Today takes a close look at the design of the White House and some of the changes it has undergone. What Happens in the White House considers how our presidential residence has functioned in recent times and throughout our nation's history.

View the cherry blossoms

digital file from original[Cherry trees along the Tidal Basin with Japanese lantern (placed in the park in 1954). Washington, D.C. Photo: Carol Highsmith, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C.]

The springtime tradition of viewing cherry blossoms has been an annual ritual for over a thousand years in Japan. The National Center for Families Learning website, Wonderopolis, poses the question: “Did you know?” What are Sakura? to introduce students to the Japanese term for flowering cherry trees. As an iconic reflection of their cultural values, the Japanese prize cherry blossoms for their innate beauty, simplicity, and purity. In the Buddhist tradition, the fragility and brevity of the blossoms symbolize the transient nature of life. The Japanese annual practice of hanami (picnicking under the cherry trees once they come into bloom) has been adopted in America: each year in early spring, 1.5 million visitors make the pilgrimage to Washington D.C. for the National Cherry Blossom Festival to view the spectacle and particpate in this national cultural event.

The history of the cherry trees

This national ritual began over one hundred years ago when the United States was the recipient of the gift of 3,020 cherry blossom trees from Japan in celebration of the nations' then-growing friendship. The National Park Service provides a detailed timeline, where students can trace the fascinating history of this cultural exchange. On March 27, 1912, the two original trees were planted by First Lady Helen Taft and Viscountess Chinda, wife of the Japanese ambassador, on the bank of the Potomac River's Tidal Basin. Additional cherry trees were then placed along the shoreline near the site of the future Jefferson Memorial and on the grounds of the White House. Many of these same trees have survived and may be viewed today! In 1965, the Japanese government contributed an additional 3,800 cherry trees to the United States. On that occasion First Lady ”Lady Bird” Johnson and the Japanese ambassador's wife, Mrs. Ryuji Takeuchi, presided over a ceremonial renactment planting the new trees on the grounds of the Washington Monument.

Chronicling America: American Historic Newspapers picks up the topic cherry trees with a sampling of historical articles such as "Japanese Cherries Adorn Park Drive" (The Washington Times, April 6, 1913), which describes the cherry trees along the Tidal Basin as “[f]ragrantly beautiful and riotous with spring!” The same article could be penned today: a reflection of the timeless quality of sakura: “The blossoms, however, are as beautiful now as they will be in years to come and make the observer forget the shape of the tree…the blooms are a delicate pink shading almost to white in some instances, Each cluster is made up of dozens of individual blossoms which are formed somewhat like the wild rose."

Easter Egg Roll at the White House

b&w film copy neg. [Mrs. Coolidge exhibits her pet raccoon (Rebecca) to crowds of children gathered for Easter egg-rolling April 18, 1927. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.]

Another spring ritual unique to the nation’s capital is the annual White House Easter Egg Roll. This public event takes place every year on the South Lawn of the White House on Easter Monday. The origins of this event are murky. There is a legend that First Lady Dolley Madison originated the practice of holding a public egg roll, but there is essentially no evidence to support that claim. What is known is that by the early 1870s, Washingtonians began to congregate on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol on the day after Easter to celebrate with picnics. When their children began to roll dyed hard-boiled eggs down the slope, a concern for the landscape soon led Congress to enact the “Turf Protection Law,” a bill that banned the practice. As the story goes, in 1878, when the egg rollers were ejected by Capitol Hill police, they headed up Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House in the hope that their games would be permitted there. President Hayes instructed his guards to let the youngsters through the gates and thus the tradition of egg rolling at the White House was established. By 1880, an article in the Evening Star reported that eager egg-rollers had taken “absolute possession of the grounds south of the White House.”

Then and Now

The White House Egg Roll is a special holiday event that continues to evolve with every administration. Over the years, many first ladies as well as the White House children and pets (including "Rebecca, First-Raccoon" pictured above) have left their unique stamp on the event. The National First Ladies Library offers a five part series of articles on First Ladies and the White House Easter Egg-Roll with back stories on how the first family has participated or opted out of attending the event over the years. On occasion, the annual egg roll tradition has had to be suspended due to wartime or relocated due to renovation. The White House provides a photo gallery with images of “An American Tradition since 1878” and PBS NewsHour offers a photo essay of the White House Easter Egg Roll throughout history. This year the White House will again play host to the more than 35,000 people who are expected to take part in the 138th White House Easter Egg Roll festivities using the theme “Let’s Celebrate!”

 

 

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