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WASHINGTON (AP) - President Barack Obama threw the switch, bathing the National Christmas Tree in lights and giving an otherwise dreary day in the nation's capital a festive and seasonal spirit. He later singled out Nelson Mandela, the beloved South African anti-apartheid leader who died Thursday, for special gratitude.

"He blessed us with tremendous grace and unbelievable courage," Obama said. "We are all privileged to live in a world touched by his goodness."

Before lighting the tree, Obama acknowledged the cold and rainy weather and proposed an abbreviated countdown before flipping on the lights. "We're going to start at 5; since it's little wet we shouldn't start at 10," he said.

As soon as the tree burst into color, singing diva Aretha Franklin took to the stage for a spirited version of "Joy to the World."

Joining Obama for the 91st annual tree-lighting ceremony were first lady Michelle Obama, daughters Sasha and Malia, and mother-in-law Marian Robinson.

The first lady read "'Twas the Night Before Christmas," taking turns with a Sesame Street Muppet named Abby.

After performances by Franklin, the tenor trio Forte, Janelle Monae, Joshua Bell, Mariah Carey and Prince Royce, Obama joined the performers on stage to show off a few dance steps and close out the program.


(Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)
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