Rites of Spring in the Nation’s Capital

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/5/56/Washington_C_D.C._Tidal_Basin_cherry_trees.jpg/309px-Washington_C_D.C._Tidal_Basin_cherry_trees.jpg 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)

Touring the Capital

Planning to visit the U.S. Capital in person this spring? If so, there's a new official National Park Service app for the National Mall and memorial parks that 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.

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. The National Park Service’s resources include Icons of the Nation’s Capital with details about visiting the National Mall and memorial parks including the A Gift of Beauty and Friendship and History and Culture. A map of the National Mall and memorial parks can be found on the NPS teachers’ page. An EDSITEment Tour of the National Mall provides additional background for armchair travelers.

The Architect of the Capitol building offers an interactive through the Architect’s Virtual Capitol where students can Discover, Explore, and Learn. A Landmark Lesson: The United States Capitol Building asks what makes the U.S. Capitol "symbolically important" and has students investigate the Capitol's story using primary sources presented as “mysteries,” with a challenge to tie together the information through research.

While the White House in-person tours have been suspended this spring due to sequestration, students can still enjoy an interactive experience and explore Inside the White House. As part of President and Mrs. Obama’s commitment to open the White House to as many Americans as possible, they have partnered with the Google Art Project and allowed 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.” 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. This lesson has students gather clues about America's original first families and their lives and periods in American history. The Women in the White House lesson contains activities to learn about the contributions to American society made by recent first ladies.

 In From the White House of Yesterday to the White House of Today (three lessons), students take a close look at the design of the White House and some of the changes it has undergone. They also reflect on how the “president's house” has been and continues to be used.

What Happens in the White House? (three lessons). Students take a close look at the White House in recent times and throughout our history.

Viewing 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 Japanese springtime tradition of viewing cherry blossoms (“sakura”) has been a cultural event for over a thousand years. Wonderopolis provides a helpful resource “Did you know?” What are Sakura? explaining that sakura is the Japanese term for flowering cherry trees … an icon of cultural identity for Japan. The Japanese celebrate the cherry blossoms for both their innate beauty and the symbolism they contain. In the Buddhist tradition, the breathtaking beauty and brevity of the blossoms symbolizes the transient nature of life. The form and color of the blossoms reflect the cultural values of simplicity and purity. Happily the Japanese annual tradition of hanami (picnicking under the cherry trees once they come into bloom) has been adopted in America. Each year in early spring thousands converge on the nation’s capital for the National Cherry Blossom Festival. This event is a spectacle providing cultural experience of the cherry blossoms for the 1.5 million visitors who make the pilgrimage to view them.

This ritual was initiated one hundred years ago with the gift of 3,020 cherry blossom trees to the United States from Japan in celebration of the nations' then-growing friendship. The National Park Service provides a 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. The others were 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 trees to the United States. On that occasion again the First Lady and wife of the Japanese ambassador (”Lady Bird” Johnson and Mrs. Ryuji Takeuchi) presided over the planting ceremony and placed the trees on the grounds of the Washington Monument.

The Library of Congress offers Selected Internet Resources — Cherry Blossoms including STEM resources along with The Cherry Blossom Festival: Sakura Celebration Webcast by Ann McClellan. Chronicling America: American Historic Newspapers takes up the topic "cherry trees" with sample articles including one published one-hundred years ago, "Japanese Cherries Adorn Park Drive" from The Washington Times, April 6, 1913. The story describes the cherry trees along the tidal basin as “[f]ragrantly beautiful and riotous with spring!” The same description could be penned today and reflects the timeless quality of the 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… In appearance 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.”

Egg-rolling on the White House Lawn

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 capitol is the annual White House Easter Egg Roll. This public event is now held every year on the South Lawn of the White House on the Monday following Easter. The origins of this event are murky: some note that Dolley Madison originated the idea of holding a public egg roll, but there is very little 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 to celebrate on the day after Easter with picnics and children rolling dyed hard-boiled eggs down the slope. A concern for the landscape being torn up by the children's games soon led Congress to enact the “Turf Protection Law,” a bill that banned the practice. As the story goes, in 1878 the rollers who were ejected by Capitol Hill police headed up Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House in the hope that their egg-rolling games would be permitted there. President Hayes instructed his guards to let the youngsters through the gates and thus the official egg roll 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.”

Learn more about the history of this holiday event, which continues to evolve with every administration. Over the years, the first ladies as well as the White House children and pets (including "Rebecca, First-Racoon" pictured above) have participated and left their unique stamp on the event. On occasion over the years the egg roll has had to be suspended due to wartime or relocated due to renovations. This year, the White House is again playing host to the 136th annual Easter Egg Roll with the theme "Be Healthy, Be Active, Be You!" The National Park Service provides an overview of the history of the White House Egg Roll and the White House hosts a photo gallery illustrating “An American Tradition since 1878.”



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