(Gerald Herbert ~ Associated Press)
"Many of those who have answered the call of duty will spend this Christmas season far from home and separated from family," Bush said to a crowd gathered just south of the White House on a frigid night.
"We honor their sacrifice," the president said. "We are proud of their service and that of their families. We will keep them close to our hearts and in our prayers."
With that, Bush led a short countdown as thousands of people rose to their feet on the Ellipse. The crowd roared when the 42-foot blue spruce came alive in color -- reds, blues, greens, and a golden star on top.
The president and first lady Laura Bush then joined Santa Claus, a children's choir and other entertainers for a rendition of "Jingle Bells" as the hourlong program came to end. The scene drew members of the Cabinet and Congress, along with invited guests of the White House and plenty of school-age children with parents.
Every president has presided over the tree lighting since Calvin Coolidge in 1923.
The ceremony starts the "Christmas Pageant of Peace." Each night through Jan. 1, the national Christmas tree will be lit from dusk until 11 p.m, with musical entertainment Saturday through Dec. 23.
There is no shortage of Christmas pageantry inside the White House, either.
In the Blue Room, the White House Christmas tree is an 18-foot Douglas fir, adorned with glass ornaments, red satin bows and cotton snow.
Ten-foot-tall Nutcrackers stand at the entrance to the East Wing. Ribbons, garland and wreaths are everywhere. At the end of the ground floor corridor, there are even ivy topiaries shaped like the pets of the president and the first lady -- Scottish terriers Barney and Miss Beazley, and the first cat, Willie.
Roughly 45,000 people will tour the White House during the holidays.
For those invited to a series of private parties hosted by the Bushes, the catering demands add up. The White House expects to go through 2,100 pounds of sweet potatoes, 4,000 pounds of shrimp, 4,000 pounds of crab claws, plus 100 cases of asparagus, 15,000 chocolate truffles and 20,000 cookies.