As night fell on the nation’s Capitol, a nearly 80-foot-tall Engelmann spruce picked from Montana’s Kootenai National Forest and adorned with 3,500 hand-made ornaments stole the spotlight from the Washington Monument.
Ridley Brandmayr, an 11-year-old from Bozeman chosen by Montana’s senior Sen. Jon Tester to light the tree, looked on in anticipation as the state’s delegation and other speakers kicked off the event. Brandmayr, wearing a black suit and white pressed buttoned-down shirt, said he was a little nervous “because I was in front of America.”
The sixth grader from Sacajewa Middle School said his social studies instructor told him he was very excited for him. He said his instructor advised him, “just don’t mess up,” which added to the nerves moments before the momentous lighting.
Brandmayr looked on as the state’s delegation made comments on behalf of the tree and Montana. All three wished America a Merry Christmas and had a chance to speak a little bit about the tree and the Big Sky state.
Tester said the tree was a symbol of the state’s great natural resources and of the hard-working Montanans.
Then he turned his attention to Brandmayr and a recent kitchen accident that claimed some of the fingers on the sixth-grader’s right hand. Despite his adversity, Tester said, he’s continued to show incredible strength and determination, pursuing his passions in hunting and fishing. He noted he heard Brandmayr was a “mean cello player.”
“Look, Ridley, who knows,” said Tester, as he raised his left hand with missing fingers, “You may even be a senator.”
Republican Sen. Steve Daines said Washington, D.C., felt more like Montana because of the presence of the Christmas tree, its ornaments and the Bitterroot star, made in Belgrade, that topped the tree. He thanked everyone who helped get the tree to the nation’s capitol and said, “it’s always good to have more Montana here in Washington, D.C.”
“This gift from Montana will light up the capitol grounds for this Christmas season and for our entire nation to enjoy,” Daines said.
Congressman Greg Gianforte thanked all who helped bring the tree to the nation’s capitol. He gave a shout out to Split Mountain Meadows for constructing the Bitterroot star that sat on top of the tree this year, and said he hopes it shines bright for a long time.
The nearly 80-foot tree, Gianforte said, was a small piece of Montana that reflects the beauty and wonder of the state. May the tree be a sign of good cheer, he said.
“May it and the star adorning it serve as a beacon of hope that brings us together,” Gianforte said.
Then came Republican Congressman and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, who introduced Brandmayr to light the tree. He said a moment like this, when you get to show off some of the best your state has to offer, is a fantastic one.
Ryan said it was clear this year’s tree represented the full heart and spirit of the Big Sky state. Amid our cares and troubles, he said, we gather to see for ourselves that the light overcomes the darkness.
“These gifts never dim our hearts,” Ryan said. “They’re always there, all we need is a little bit of light, of course. A little Christmas to guide our past.”
On that note, Ryan invited Brandmayr on stage and started the count down to light the tree and illuminate the National Mall. Brandmayr said he “felt really excited and crazy that I got to light the national Christmas tree.”
“I was very grateful for the opportunity, and I think it will be an experience that I’ll remember forever,” Brandmayr told the Chronicle moments after the ceremony concluded.